Letter to a Man I Never Knew

During those endless days of childhood, I often amused myself by reading whatever books I could find on my parents’ shelves. One slim volume was a witty compilation of rough line drawings and ruminations about the relationship between the name one is given at birth and the personality that follows — a rather adult and certainly abbreviated version of What to Name the Baby. Most of the details escape me now, but I did learn that almost any name bestowed upon an infant will invoke a future of ribald drunkenness, illiteracy, or a suspicious predilection for stray cats. Out of the entire book, I remember the succinct destiny for only one name. That name was John. “There’s nothing much wrong with any man named John.” High praise among a litany of very low expectations.

Every time I meet a man named John, I think of those words. I’ve never dated a John, never had a best friend named John, no teachers, no brothers or cousins; in fact, my life has been quite John-deprived. But there have been a few, and I always look at them a little differently than other random strangers who come into my life.

In junior high, back in the days when both morning and afternoon newspapers were the norm, our afternoon edition was dropped off by a cute blond boy named John Rendleman. If I happened to be outside, as I often was in the days when children weren’t allowed to lounge in front of the TV, John would always say hello to me as he passed. Not the hello of sneering girls or frogs-down-your-dress boys, but the kind of hello that made you feel like you were real, and he was real, and you were both going to be okay in the tumultuous world that began at the end of your front walk. There was no sizing me up to see if I was pretty enough, no checking the fickle list of popular kids, no shunning me because I liked school and did well, no rolling of the eyes because I was shy and probably never said a word in return. Just hello, and maybe a few words more — not a conversation, but simply an affirmation, an acceptance. At fourteen, that simple “hello” was a steady hand amid daily upheavals.

I don’t know what happened to John after junior high. Though we were almost neighbors, we attended the same school for only those middle years and never had a class together. Once high school began, I never saw him again. I don’t know who he loved, what he read, what roads he walked, or if he kept the bike with the banana seat. But I remembered his face . . . and his kindness.

About a year ago, an old acquaintance added me to a Facebook group: Myers Park High School 1973. I was flattered and happy to have the opportunity to learn what might be going on with classmates I hadn’t seen in . . . forty years . . .  and I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I didn’t even attend Myers Park, pulling out of public school at 15.

So I tentatively peeked in, still the shy bookwormy-type who never learned the art of small talk, wondering who I might find and if they’d be less scary at 50-ish than they were as a sea of restless 14-year-olds. And of course, who should I find there but John, quick to post about the celebrations, losses, and general welfare of those we’ve known, liking the posts of his fellow path-travelers, and responding readily with grace and the ever-present kindness. It felt good to get that glimpse again, the nod of affirmation, the steady hand. What I didn’t know was that he was taking the time to reach out day after day while being treated much less kindly by cancer.

John’s last post to the group was exactly a month ago. This morning, the same kind soul who invited me into the group let us know that John had died, and I can’t tell you how sad this makes me. Not because I never told him that his kind hellos had made me feel a little less alien at fourteen, because I have no doubt that he did the same for hundreds of others in his life, and I’m certain he knew well the value of kindness and the effect it had. And not even because I never really knew him — not in the I-can-list-the-name-of-your-children-and-pets sort of way — because the measure of a man goes beyond names. But I’m sad because there are only a certain number of people in the world, and that number is way too small, who can rise up beyond their own needs/fears/compulsions/frailties/distractions/insecurities/desires/apathy/navel and simply be kind. Day after day after day, to any person, anywhere, at any time.

In the end, of course, we never really know who we’ve touched, but those brief moments are so often our legacy.

So yes, that funny little book was right about Johns: there’s nothing much wrong with them. And sometimes, there’s a whole lot that’s right. And it doesn’t always take knowing someone to miss them. John Rendleman, I never really knew you, but I’ll never forget you.

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