This Memorial Day weekend, I had the pleasure of attending John L’Heureux‘s funeral.
That is not a typo or mistake; John’s funeral was a true pleasure, and I left with a smile on my face, as did many of the other attendees.
I should probably explain.
John was my faculty advisor, and oversaw my Creative Writing degree. This wasn’t because I was especially talented; he was simply doing what he had done for hundreds of other students–generously taking time away from his own award-winning work to encourage young writers who had little chance of matching his talent, but who yearned for his guidance.
I got to spend more time than most with John, mainly because I was one of those weird students who would hang out in the Creative Writing department office, chatting with the faculty and staff. I may be imagining this, but I can recall him greeting me with a hearty, “Oh, it’s you again.” He would often invite me into his office for a quick chat. These visits were an incredible opportunity for me to catch glimpses of what it was like to be a working writer.
One time, John asked me, “What’s the name of the sleeping pill that George Bush took, the one that caused him to vomit on the Japanese Prime Minister.” I didn’t actually know, but fortunately, John did. “Ambien! That’s it.” He then jotted down the fact in his notebook. When I asked him what he kept there, he told me that he stored up interesting snippets for use in future books. I was curious what else he had squirreled away, so I leaned over and read, “Even Hitler loved his dog.”
One of the things that drew me to John was that he was incredibly funny, a trait which won him many teaching awards. His wit was swift and sharp, which served him well as a satirist. But I never knew him to turn that wit on his students (though I suspect he had occasion to use it during intra-departmental scuffles).
I saw John a number of times over the decades since graduation; a few times when I visited the campus for Lane Lectures by famous writers, and most recently in 2014, when we attended the funeral of our mutual friend, the great Ron Rebholz. It’s hard to believe it’s been over five years since that day, but that is the nature of life. Times are busy, and we always think that there will be more time. I did not know it then, but John was already starting to suffer the effects of Parkinson’s Disease.
(If you’d like to read some of my thoughts about attending Ron’s funeral, you can find them here.)
Amazingly, through it all, John kept writing. He published his most recent novel, The Medici Boy, just last year, and he even has a collection of short stories, The Heart is a Full-Wild Beast, coming out later this year. I have said to many people that one of the reasons that I became an author is that it is my escape plan from the harshly ageist reality of Silicon Valley; writers can write until, as in John’s case, their hands can no longer strike the keys, and even then, there’s always voice recognition. He was my advisor and mentor; now he is my role model for aging as an artist.
I expected John’s funeral to be sad. I should have known better. While it was a traditional Catholic ceremony, it became apparent that John had carefully crafted this last part of his own story as well. The priest told us, “When John and I discussed my homily, he gave me two conditions. First, be brief, because priests always talk too much. Second, don’t talk about me, talk about her.” John knew the priesthood quite well, having been a Jesuit priest for 15 years, before leaving the priesthood to marry her, his beloved wife Joan.
The readings were also of exceptional quality; everyone should have famous writers and professors as readers at their funerals.
But John saved the best for last, when his dear friend Arnold Rampersad gave John’s eulogy. Arnold and John met as young professors, and became fast friends, snickering in the back during departmental meetings. Sadly, I never had the pleasure of meeting Arnold; during the time I was at Stanford studying under John, Arnold was at Rutgers; he returned to the Farm in 1998.
Arnold made it clear from the start that this wasn’t going to be a typical eulogy. He began by reading an email that John had sent him. “Dear Arnold,” he read, “I have a favor to ask. Would you be willing to say some words at my funeral?” Arnold then described visiting John at his hospice, which John, with his typical wit, had dubbed “the departure lounge.” As Arnold told stories about their time together at Stanford, the entire audience was practically rolling in the aisles with laughter, just as John had wanted and planned. It was difficult to decide whether our tears were from sorrow or amusement. I’m sure John would have preferred the latter.
Even in death, John was teaching us all, showing that even death couldn’t stop him from living his best life.
I hope that I have a long time to live. I’m going to need it to plan my own funeral. I’ll probably write the ideas down online, rather than in a notebook, but I think he’ll understand.