And another regrettable thing about death
is the ceasing of your own brand of magic, which took a whole life to develop and market —
the quips, the witticisms, the slant
adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest
the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched
in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,
their tears confused with their diamond earrings,
their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,
their response and your performance twinned.
The jokes over the phone. The memories packed
in the rapid-access file. The whole act.
Who will do it again? That’s it: no one;
imitators and descendants aren’t the same.
Yesterday, my friend John Jennings passed on from this world. His leaving was not without warning. Since cancer had shown up in his body, there had been conversations with loved ones, philosophizing with everyone, medical victories and setbacks. Last year there was a benefit for him. I played at it with my band, Eddie From Ohio. John, ever the Virginia gentleman, danced on stage with his love, Tamara, during our song.
I wonder sometimes if those that leave us gradually are, in part, offering us the grace of time to adjust to a world without them in it. To soften the blow a bit. There had been time. And despite all that, John’s passing was still a sucker punch.
He had cheated death before. Thirteen years ago he and Tamara had been driving home from the movies when an enormous 100-foot tree fell on their car. The car caught fire and against all reason, the two of them survived, John with a cracked second vertebrae, and Tamara with a broken tibia. For years afterward he would tell the story and mention, with a whimsical smile on his face, but an acre of awe behind his eyes, that he really wasn’t supposed to be here.
John first made his name as a guitar slinger and he was a damn good one. He would become a producer and sideman for Mary-Chapin Carpenter, the Indigo Girls and so many more. In 2008 he produced an album of mine. We recorded it at his home studio just south of Charlottesville, VA. The house was nestled in the woods on top of a hill. It was quiet, which John liked, and he would take frequent smoke breaks during which we would sit on the back porch and talk spirituality, music, politics, relationships. The breaks became at least as frequent as the recording, and truth be told, I got a little anxious about deadlines and productivity. John seemed unconcerned with such arbitrary constructs. An album, Strange and Lovely World, eventually emerged out of those two weeks, just as John seemed to know it would, but I’m no longer sure that was the point. The point was living. Exploring what it means to Be. John just happened to be producing an album in the process. Although I’d love to think my experience with him was unique, I know better.
One story he told me during that time was of him sitting at his kitchen table with Tamara and a friend. They were talking—about something or nothing—when all of a sudden he had the visceral experience of the top of his head opening up and liquid light being poured into him. This was not some metaphysical story to him. It was not a spiritual moment in which all the inner workings of the Universe were revealed to him. It was far more mundane than that. It was simply something that had happened. He said that in that instant, he knew with absolute certainty that God exists. It was a realization that, in the moment, prompted this response: “Oh”. Like someone for whom it has just been confirmed that 1 plus 1 does indeed equal 2. From then on, he said, that’s all he knew and all he needed to know about such matters. His curiosity had been satiated.
This morning I received word that my dear friend, Jake , and his wife, Jennifer, have been blessed with their first child. A boy named Jude. His middle name is Avel, which in Hebrew means “breath”, and I like that. It is elemental in a way that appeals to me deeply right now. There is both aliveness and silence in it.
That said, there will be no spiritually tidy ending to this essay. Jake and Jennifer did not decide to name Jude after John. Jude did not enter this world just moments before or after John left it. Nope, no matter how hard I look, there is nothing in this that makes the world feel more orderly or less vulnerable. There is just life, beginning and ending, as it does. The becoming and unbecoming of being.
I keep picturing John with the epilogue he offered to so many of our conversations. Getting up from the chair on the porch he’d remark, “Well, you know what I always say . . . ”, and then with a shrug and his palms facing toward the sky, he would cock his head to one side, raise his eyebrows, and smile a little half-smile.
I’ll miss you my friend.