Happy Birthday, John the Elder

John Cawthorne
John Cawthorne

On August 14, 2012, I lost a friend and mentor to complications from cancer. John E. Cawthorne not only saw me safely through my late teens and all of my twenties, but he also understood me well and encouraged me to be who I am. I didn’t always know who I am. I was shaped throughout college by my various run-ins with the establishment, the Black Student Forum in particular. I always said what I thought, and when I got in trouble for it, John would stand by me and help me feel rooted in my own perspective. I am deeply thankful for his influence. I would not have had the courage to be me in those days without his loving and active presence.

I also benefited in numerous material ways from John’s guidance. He told me to wait before declaring my advanced standing in college so I would not lose out on valuable scholarship dollars. He let me overload my schedule without charge so I could graduate early, and helped me secure a valuable and scarce residential on campus parking permit by letting me pick up a practicum ‘course.’ He even told me that the best place to park during home football games, when there was no student parking allowed, was a little side street called Chestnut Hill Rd. off Beacon St.

And oh the books. Over the years during and after college, he sent me a small stockpile of good books, both fiction and non. Among my favorites is the very first book John presented me after reading and grading my class journal for a seminar he taught: Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris. I also benefited from John’s longtime subscription to the Boston Symphony. I saw Seiji Ozawa conduct many times from John’s orchestra seats, and was enthralled to see one night that the soloist was none other than the great and now late cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. It was an unforgettable night. John used to say that someone would have to die before he would have a shot at a more central pair of subscription seats (his were off to the far left). Now, someone else will have a shot at his.

Ever since John passed away, there’s been a recurring memory I have had. In 2002, I had a fleeting summer romance with a young fellow across the river at another college, mostly long distance as I was in Boston and he in Atlanta. One day as I went about my business at the research center where I was interning (a center founded by John), my young lover sent me an email declaring that he no longer deemed it appropriate to speak to me. He would devote himself to God, he wrote, and eliminate my affections as they presented a distraction.

I was stung and yet delayed in my reaction. In a trance-like state, I managed to forward the email to John, perhaps with a romantic quip about the end of an affair. And after casting about for a minute or two, I made my way down from the third floor of Campion Hall to his office suite on the first floor. I had scarcely set foot into his lobby when I saw him rushing out of his private office, hurriedly putting on his signature tweed blazer with elbow patches. Seeing me, he gave me a look of utter compassion, gripped me tightly in his arms, and led me into his office as the tears started to flow.

I didn’t know I needed to cry until John’s reaction showed me it was ok. I didn’t know I wanted anyone’s support until I saw him already coming to get me and was touched by his pressing concern. I didn’t know how I would get past it all but he would always say “It’s ok” — with a certain intonation on the oh-Kay — and an emphasis on one’s darker emotions being perfectly admissible in the conscious world. The world wasn’t what was ok, and the people around us were often less than ok, but what we felt and thought, however inappropriate and unformed for public consumption — those were always oh-Kay to John. And they thus became oh-Kay to me. Later, it turned out that my young boyfriend’s jealous mother had conducted the hurtful email charade and not him, but we broke up just the same and all was, indeed, oh-Kay.

I couldn’t stop thinking about that tight hug in the two weeks since John died. When I closed my eyes, I could feel it. I remember everything about that moment in such sharp relief. I feel small and helpless, and abandoned — just as I felt when I went wandering down to John’s office that hot and fateful day in August 2002. It hurts me deeply to know that he will not, this time, come rushing out en route to find and comfort me. This one is for me alone. And I owe it to John to, at last, be oh-Kay.

Happy Birthday, John. I love you, and I miss you. I hope you are free from pain, and shooting the shit and chain smoking with your black, female God. Bottoms up.

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