I met John Desiderio a couple years ago when he answered one of my Craig's List lunch ads. We saw each other regular as clockwork every week for a long time. A Jersey boy, he was the only guy I ever knew personally who talked like people on The Sopranos. He died in early March of this year.
John had a hard life. As he told the story, his parents died unpeaceful deaths when he was very young; he ended up in a home for wayward boys because nobody knew what to do with him. He ran away, washed dishes (in a town he selected by closing his eyes and putting a pin in a map), joined the armed forces way too young, drank way too much, became an excavator, married three times (the third marriage lasted only three months), discovered life was better when he stopped drinking, became an IT professional.
His computer job took him around the world. When he was about to be posted to some remote, hospital-poor country, his boss suggested he get a full physical work-up. It turned out he had metastasized liver cancer and would by rights die within half a year, even though at the time he had no symptoms and felt perfectly well.
Years later, he was still "lunching" and even kayaking; doctors could only attribute this unexpected survival to his body's stubborn ability to take the punishment of continual, highly toxic chemotherapy. This addendum to a life which was supposed to have ended left him completely perplexed; three weeks out of four he felt well enough to do almost anything, but the fourth week was spent in a darkness of pain and exhaustion. His illness prevented him from committing to a job, but his mind was lively and restless and needed problems and projects to gnaw on. He had never been a guy for hobbies, he wanted to work.
It's lucky he had fixed upon kayaking as something he could do for as long as he felt able, it was his most enduring joy and the center of his social life.
John and my son hit it off, both being members of the mysterious, dark Cancer Club. (Those of us who have not felt the near miss of death's scythe don't get to join.) It was John who took pictures of Tucker the unexpected visitor one night when Zed and I invited him (John, not Tucker) to dinner. How tickled I was that he brought "perfect presents - safety goggles (so juicy bits of poison ivy don't fly into my eyes when I'm weedwhacking), work gloves, and chocolate. This is a friend who understands me."
John was a bit vain (when we first met he apologized again and again for an angry rash visited on him by chemo - he intimated he was usually a handsome devil). Therefore, as he finally started to fail in earnest, toward the middle of last year, he withdrew from his friends - he didn't want to be seen showing the effects of his illness.
The last time I saw John Desiderio was August; the next week Zed and I were supposed to have lunch with him but he called and cancelled. He stopped answering my emails and phone calls. This had happened once before and when I'd intruded I'd ended up feeling like a moron, so I was too hesitant to barge into his life and insist that he let me help him, or even just sit with him, or bring him treats, or read to him...
He texted me a happy birthday wish this past December and I called him back a minute later. It turned out to be our last conversation, because though he promised to call again soon, he never did.
I got, instead, a sad call from his long-time friend Barb. Barb had taken care of John through the years, sharing her home with him, bailing him out of various disasters. He'd had no children of his own, but for good long stretches of time he'd been like a father to hers. They'd been one of those created families, a family with a salty, down-to-earth New Jersey gusto.
So anyway, Barb told me John had surprised her and her daughters by eating a hearty lunch - after he'd complained about the wretched hospital food, she'd fetched something more to his liking - and then dying quite suddenly. She knew it wasn't, actually, sudden, but he'd fooled her into thinking he'd be living for years to come.
This past Sunday, Barb and the kayakers put on a memorial service for John at Jordan Lake. It was breezy and cold, but a brilliantly sunny day. Barb had taken the last turkey out of his freezer and it was fried in his honor (she said, "he was always the one who fried our turkeys"). His ashes were there, in a box, and his paddle was propped up in the pavilion, and a print of the cheerful picture you see at the top of this post was scotch-taped to a 4x4. After the pot-luck dinner a bunch of kayakers put their boats in the lake and took the ashes with them for a final expedition.
I offended a sweetheart once when I said "If I ever get really sick I'm not going to let you come visit me in the hospital." Now I see that was vanity talking; I hope when the time comes I'll have the courage - or humility - to Be Here Now for the people I love even when pieces of me are flaking and falling off.
Thanks to Karen for sending me these pictures.