Thoughts For My Friend Almost a Year Gone

Eleanor and I with John and his daughter, Tolly, around new year 2015
Eleanor and I with John and his daughter, Tolly, around New Year 2015

[At the end of my tenure at Westminster as Head of Upper School last May, I spoke at the final communion service of the school year for faculty and staff. I had been asked to speak many weeks before, and I had already been thinking about what I might say. On April 26, 2015  whatever nascent plans I may have had crumbled when my childhood friend John Maloney died without warning. This school year I have thought of him often–he has sort of been riding shotgun with me–as I have adjusted to a new place and to a new school.

In the reflection that follows–my comments from that Communion service–I said, “I am not wiser for this pain. I have no lesson to share.” I still am not and I still don’t. However, I have recognized the remarkable strength of his nuclear family.  I admire them and am in awe of how the strength of family carries people forward after such loss.]

It wasn’t my street but it might as well have been—Oak Lane, Richmond, VA—the Howells’, the Moores’, the Ginns’, the Hills’, the Ackerlys’, the Tottens, the Raineys’, the Guvernators’…and often center of all action–the Maloneys’ where my friend John Maloney lived. We knew everyone’s back yard–every hedge, fence and tree, and we knew everyone’s bike by the sound it made coming down the street.

There were back yard forts, bb guns, bike wrecks, corrections from neighbors hearing foul language over a stupidly intense pick up basketball game in the Maloney’s driveway. We let John’s older brother, Frank, get under our skin sometimes, and we marveled that Wallace Dietz could ride to all the way to St. Christopher’s School on his bike, never touching the handlebars and dribbling a basketball the whole way. It was an understandable world worth remembering over the last couple of weeks when so much has passed elusively beyond my understanding. It was a world where John–whom we called “MudToad”, “Toad” for short—was always at or near the center, laughing, challenging, planning, competing.

No one I knew was better at being 14 than John. John had those moments of youth cornered. Both then and as an adult, he was my closest friend. Being a grownup is harder than being not yet grown on Oak Lane without doubt, and in the face of real challenges, John grew up to be the sort of father and friend I wish to be. John more than anyone I know demonstrated the willingness to go all in for those he loved. He was fiercely devoted to friends even after long absences; he was thick-skinned, and when he got up too much steam, he could be thick-headed. But always, always John loved his children, his family, and his friends. He loved Jack, his severely autistic son, and Tolly, his fantastically strong High School sophomore daughter, fully and uncompromisingly. There was something primal and elemental in his love for them—it was unshakeable, and he was a force of nature in his expression of devotion to them.

It is close to a three-mile walk from our house in Highlands, NC to the Church of the Incarnation, the Episcopal Church on the main street there. Very early last Sunday, I awakened early, giving up on a restless night. It was two weeks to the day after John, at only 50 years of age, suffered a massive and immediately fatal heart attack.

I had wanted to work out my talk for this morning on Sunday, and while waiting for first light, I tried and tried to arrive at something worth sharing for our communion this Tuesday morning. Around 7:15, after having had no luck, I left out for my walk, certain that exercise would clear my brain and allow me to land on something relevant to share today. I was so lost in thought I barely noticed where I was headed—up the Franklin Road to Cullasaja, up Raoul to a different Oak Lane and then up and around a corner or two to town. I barely noticed when I turned down Main Street and passed all the storefronts. I only regained a semblance of focus when I saw a small number of folks entering the church for 8:00 communion. I stopped and watched for a couple of minutes, a spy of sorts, far enough away that no one would have taken notice of me.

I actually saw Bill and Lucile Clarkson enter the church—yet I resisted the urge to call out to them. Now there wasn’t a chance I was headed in—I was wearing the sort of clothes more appropriate for the crawlspace under a house than a church. Yet as I looked on I found that I envied them all. Part of me wanted to be a part of the congregation. Part of me wanted connection with others. Another part, the stronger part, wanted to be right where I was: alone.

When I was I was a pallbearer for John, carrying his body to its gravesite in Hollywood Cemetery, and when I sat right behind his family in overfull St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond right off Capitol Square, I somehow wasn’t present in my sadness. I was not part of the group mourning—I think I may have been saving it, so I might address it alone. Later. As I watched the small group gather for communion in Highlands this weekend, I realized that I had been inconsolable because I have not allowed myself any consolation—it has been a rough couple of weeks. It is, I believe, going to be rough for awhile.

You see… I have no idea how to mourn. I have no idea how to help myself through this.

I know how to worry about and support others: Tolly, his daughter/my godchild, Jack his son, Jennifer his ex-wife. I do not know what to do about me. I feel lost and broken. I am hurt and confused. I haven’t cried. I miss my friend and don’t know whom I’ll call when the life events that come for us all come calling next. I’d always call John. John would always call me.

Strangely enough, I have been thinking about this moment, this service, since John’s death. I knew that there was no avoiding speaking about him here. I know it is good for me to speak about John even though I cannot yet see though to the time when it will be easy to speak about him. There is something significant about the fact that I ended up standing by myself outside of a church on Sunday when I had not planned on ending up there, and once there, that I couldn’t go in. I recognize that I am not yet at a moment of clarity. I am not wiser for this pain. I have no lesson to share. I am not ready to make meaning from it, but here is the thing… I think I need to go in now, to go into church, this morning, with this group, and I think we need to share this familiar meal together.

For now, it is the only step I know to take.

8 thoughts on “Thoughts For My Friend Almost a Year Gone

  1. Frank Maloney March 19, 2016 / 9:07 am

    Ross, Thank you for thinking of my brother. As you might expect, I have had a difficult time trying to make sense of his death. It may take years to properly mourn his untimely passing. Your beautifully written remembrance has helped me and the family. Frank

    • J Ross Peters March 19, 2016 / 9:55 am

      Thanks for this, Frank. As I was looking at what I had said about John as a father, I couldn’t help thinking of your father, too (“There was something primal and elemental in his love for them—it was unshakeable, and he was a force of nature in his expression of devotion to them.”) All best to all Maloney’s, take care–Ross

  2. Virginia Maliney March 19, 2016 / 9:34 pm

    Ross. Thank you for what you wrote about John. I think back to the many fun times you all had at this house. You have been a great friend to John through good & not so good times.
    I thank you for being such a best friend.
    Your parents were always so good to John and Frank and me and still are to me.

    I have just begun to be able to grieve for my son. Felt like I had to be strong for the rest of my family, especially Tolly. I am very proud of Tolly

    With love to you and your family, Virginia

    • J Ross Peters March 19, 2016 / 10:25 pm

      Thank you so much for this.

      I can only begin to imagine the difficult year you have had. Know that I have thought of you all often. As I am certain you are aware, I am a huge Tolly fan–she is a such a strong kid–resilient, funny, strong-willed. I am excited to see what happens next for her.

      Take care, Virginia-Love, Ross

  3. Libby Allen March 19, 2016 / 9:40 pm

    This was beautiful. Thank you.

  4. Vinnie March 21, 2016 / 11:07 am

    Thank you for this, Ross. I had not heard about John’s death, and I am really sorry for his family and for your having lost him at such a young age and so suddenly. His name, and those of most of Oak Lane, brought back memories. In fact the youngest of the Hill boys, Tommy’s sons, recently finished his last year as a counsellor; Peyton McElroy, Anne Howell’s son, is currently a counsellor; and Mary Hoge’s sons, Jack and Edward, are a current camper and a future counsellor, respectively. But you also got me thinking about good friendship, feeling gratitude for the close friends I have, something that I talk about every summer, and having people we can turn to, the way you and John did to each other. I am sorry you do not have that any longer, though it sounds as though you are still speaking with John and will continue to do so.

    Vinnie

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