2016 was a brutal year. And in its final days, it stole the life of one of my dearest friends. John’s death was tragic, sudden, and wholly unexpected.
I first met John almost 29 years ago, in April of 1988, probably on the first day of my new job at Mercer. He was the kind of person you would notice right away. Three things always stood out: (1) his looks (young, tall, handsome, and always impeccably dressed) (2) his laugh (raucous and infectious), and (3) that mouth (loud and profane).
About a year into the job, when I tried to play match-maker between a single young woman, who worked as my paralegal, and John (who, as previously noted, was drop-dead gorgeous), she politely informed me that John was gay. The fact that I was so astonished shows how naïve I was at the time, and how much I had yet to learn. I had yet to experience the John Canova Tutorial on Life & Style.
I worked closely with the group that John was part of, and as time went by and the number in the group diminished, I found myself working more and more with John. I began to see that, under that brash, flamboyant, irreverent exterior, was one of the most genuine persons I’ve ever known. John gradually crept into and occupied a place in my heart as I slowly and unexpectedly found a generous, caring and loyal friend. In our large, competitive work environment, there were always competing agendas and shifting alliances, and I was forced to always watch my back. John was one of the few (maybe the only) colleague who I never doubted had mine.
I encountered a very rough patch the first year back on the job after giving birth to my son. I was tired, distracted, and trying to find my work-life equilibrium. John was a teammate of mine on two of my largest clients, and he went out of his way to help me, in a variety of ways – whether cutting me slack on deadlines, pitching in where I needed assistance, or even sticking up for me when others in the office complained about my new part-time schedule. When one of my colleagues repeatedly grumbled that I “wasn’t pulling my load,” I heard (after the fact) that John paid a special visit and flatly told that person to “f*@k off.” I was mortified and delighted.
And we had such fun together on business trips! Once we went to a 403(b) conference in Denver. We flew in late at night, took a cab for what seemed like miles (at one point, John asked the driver, “Are we in Wyoming?”) and arrived quite late at our hotel. We met for dinner, and since we were both starving, ordered the huge rib-eye steak special. The next day, we were so dehydrated from the altitude and protein that we could barely stay awake, much less concentrate on the complex details of the tax code being taught. We laughed for years about the time we “ate a side of beef, a mile high, at a 403(b) conference.”
Another time, we flew to Nashville to do a compliance review on a 401(k) plan. We ate chicken-fried foodstuff at the Cracker Barrel (the first and only time I’ve been) and laughed at the Big-Hair ladies, we walked around the Opryland Hotel, and then got horribly lost on the way to our hotel in rural Tennessee. We found ourselves on back country roads, and John remarked that he was expecting men in white robes with burning crosses to appear from behind the trees. Which launched us into hysterics for no good reason. We stopped at a 7-Eleven to ask directions and John re-enacted his conversation with the “snaggle-tooth meth addict” clerk for me. Oh, he was so inappropriate, and all I could do was laugh!
Then there was the time that John and I were on our way to a meeting at Cal State University headquarters in Long Beach and we missed our turnoff and kept going right over a very long bridge. Even though we were late for our client meeting, we laughed uncontrollably all the way over the bridge and back.
Many days, in the office, at around 4:00, a bunch of us would gather in my office, to laugh and gossip, and basically blow off steam from our stressful day. When John was there, he and I would invariably start down some path of discussion (again, usually something wholly inappropriate) that would result in side-splitting fits of laughter, with tears streaming down both of our faces. There are only a handful of people in my lifetime that have consistently made me laugh that hard, and John was the best.
Apart from all the fun, there was a serious, sensitive side to John that I grew to admire. We talked about almost everything in our lives with each other and I valued his opinion because I knew he was always honest in his feedback. Likewise, he trusted me with his struggles, and we discussed everything from his challenges as a gay man to his heartbreak over his mother’s decline due to Alzheimer’s disease. My long friendship with John opened my eyes and informed me, and gave me new perspectives on numerous issues, and for that I am indebted to him.
After 25 years on the job (all of them with John) I took early retirement from Mercer in 2013. I wondered if my work friendships would survive the transition to retirement. I found several lasted a few months, but only a very few endured as lasting friendships. John’s friendship was probably the strongest. He continued to call me regularly (his favorite pet name for me was “Treasure,” along with “Bettina” and “Lamb”), and we enjoyed seeing each other for lunch and museum dates. Once, when my son came home from college and needed a new suit, John met us at the Macy’s in Sherman Oaks and we shopped for a sharp-looking suit. Every Christmas, we made holiday cookies together at my house. And on December 17, 2016, my husband and I had dinner with John and Andy (John’s partner) to celebrate the holiday season. When we hugged and said good night, and he called me Treasure, I had no idea that would be our last time.
For me, a bright light has gone out, forever. Someone who has been in my corner, in my heart, for almost half my life, has left. There will never ever be another John, and I will always cherish the memories of a sweet and beautiful friend.