It sometimes happens that those who find my father appealing find me appealing too. John was one of those people as well. He took all the courses he could get with Dad and then began taking my courses. I think he must have taken every single class the two of us offered except for women's history. I never could get him to give that a shot. He did take African American history and Religions in America. The last turned out to be more important than I could guess.
I can never remember how old John was. He looked very old. His eyes were old man blue behind the thick lenses of his glasses. His white hair, slicked back from his forehead, was thin and his skin was deeply furrowed. That may have been the smoking. He gave it up in the end, but until he did, every paper he ever turned in smelled so strongly of cigarettes that I had to keep his papers separate and wash my hands after I touched them. If his papers chanced to make it into my bag with the other books and documents, I had to air everything out --sometimes outside on the laundry line. He was always coughing and smoking and smoking and coughing. I remember him leaning into my father's car and talking to us about this and that. The smell was revolting, but somehow John was not. He was just John.
I'm sure he didn't have a lot of money and I always figured he was a bit lonely. One semester, I planned a party for him and brought cupcakes and snacks and drinks into the classroom to celebrate his birthday. He was all gruff and embarrassed (as I would have been had he done the same for me), but I was glad I did it because he had been telling us how how old he was going to be for weeks, and I wanted him to know that I cared and that he was worth celebrating.
In other semesters he teased me about my love of candy and brought me a huge box of chocolate for Valentine's Day with a note about making my husband jealous. He'd stop class to tell a joke or a story and I always let him. He was old, you see, and funny and charming too. I played the appreciative and indulgent young woman to his appreciative and witty old man. It suited us and somehow made the entire class a more entertaining and friendly place. At the beginning of each semester, he would give a little lecture to the other students about what a good professor I was. He'd tell them that I was tough, but that I cared. "She'll make you redo your work!" he warned them. I would too. I made him redo his work if I thought he wasn't giving me his best attenpt. I'd mock lecture him about following instructions. Not that it mattered. There was no way I would ever give him anything less than an A. He wasn't there for the education; he was there for the company.
I teach conversation-based courses so people talk. They tell stories. And boy, could John tell stories! There were funny stories and jokes, sure, but there were also painful stories. He told us stories about racism and poverty, hard work and disappointment, and then how "Two guys walked into a bar..." He was from an Irish Catholic family in a blue collar town. His upbringing, so different from my own, was harsh, impoverished, and violent. His marriage had failed, and though I never knew his whole story, my father hinted that there was more to him, something darker and sadder, than the charming man who sat in the front row of my classroom cracking jokes and teasing the professor. It occurs to me that though I knew him for years, I did not really know him. But I loved him.
Religions in America was the last class he took with me. He had already graduated from our college, the oldest person to do so, but he came back for more classes. He needed to be among the young folks. He was also very proud of himself because he had learned to use a computer. Even more impressively, he had stopped smoking, but his breathing had become so labored that it made the rest of us in the room worried and uncomfortable. One day he came in late to class because he had fallen trying to enter the building. He was getting weak. I fussed and worried over him, and lectured him about taking care of himself. When Dad pulled up to the college to drop me off, we could see him struggling to get up the steps to come to class. We knew he was dying, but he brushed it off. Always joking, John was.
But the joking had become a kind of dischordant note. Like his labored breathing, his humor was forced and painful. That semester, John's grandson committed suicide. The boy had called John just before taking his own life, and John was haunted by it. It finished him. Eventually he had to stop coming to class. He was hospitalized and called me from his hospital bed. We chatted and I told him that of course, he had earned an A for the class. He let me know that I had been a friend. I let him know that I cared about him. And that was it. That was all.
I don't remember how I learned that he had died. Perhaps my father told me. Maybe it came in a message in campus email. I do remember that I wept. I was angry with myself for failing to visit him in the hospital. I was angry with myself for being surprised. I reread his papers. Even there he was a character. He never took my assignments very seriously. He wrote in pen when I asked him to use a computer. He told his own stories when I asked him to cite sources. No matter. He said what he needed to say and what I wanted to hear from him. His own life taught him everything I wanted my students to learn in History. Life is funny and hard and fierce. You aren't better than the next guy. Be kind. Be fair. Don't judge.
It has been a couple years since he died. Last week I found one of the last papers he wrote for me. It was about God. He believed deeply. I'm glad of that. It makes it easier for me. "Oh, John..." I muttered to myself as I sometimes do when he comes into my memory, and then I put his papers away to save forever. They belong with the poems I wrote as a girl, letters from beloved family, and stories I wrote as a child. His papers (and his memory) belong with the stuff that made me who I am. It seems I can't be rid of him. He isn't done with me. A few days later, the local newspaper printed an article about our college's financial woes and labor disputes. Incongruously and illogically, they printed a picture of him in his cap and gown, fists raised high in celebration. I cried when I saw his face again. Had he really been so frail and skeletal? I hadn't remembered that.
Some weeks ago I went to see a Spiritualist medium. I was curious and really wanted to see what it was like so I laid down my money and gave it a go expecting to hear from great-grandparents, aunts, and uncles. The woman told me about a man who wanted to let me know he was there. "He was skinny," she told me, "like a skeleton." She told me that people weren't sure about him, that they never knew what to think about him, but he was okay. They didn't need to worry about him. "He had a lot of respect for your family," she told me. We were important to him.
It had to be John. There was a connection there though I never quite figured out why. I was his "teacher" though he was several decades my senior. We flirted with each other the way only an old man and a much younger woman can. I fussed over him as if he were my grandfather, or my child, and he praised me in front of other people as if I was his mentor...or his grandchild. And all the while I had no idea just who he was. I never knew his whole story or half of the pain and the mistakes that haunted him. But I know that whatever haunted him, he's haunting me now, and it will be a long time before he and I go our different ways. I close my eyes and I can imagine a big box of chocolates. I can imagine his corny jokes. I can imagine the smell of cigarettes. I don't know why John decided to love us or why we decided to love him. I guess it was just one of those things. Sometimes that's all there is to it.