Thursday, August 2, 2012

Elegy for Mr. B

This is an essay I never wanted to write. My dear friend, John Bogert, succumbed to cancer on July 29, 2012. He was 63, a longtime newspaper columnist, Pasadena resident, and devoted dad to his three darlings, Caitlin, Rachael, and Ian. I was a latecomer to his life, having met him in 2010.

Just prior, a longer-time friend, Frankie Stearns, had recommended I buy the book, GROUNDED, by John Bogert. Duly I went to Vroman's and ordered a copy. It's a collection of columns--humorous, musing, ruminative, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. One day my daughter Eliza came home and said, "Whose book is that?" "Mine," I replied. "Mrs. Stearns told me to get it." "But that's Rachael's dad's book!" "Rachael who?" (Come now! I have four kids and I'll wager each has had a friend named Rachael.) "MY RACHAEL FROM SCHOOL!" she corrected. Then the dots began to connect. This was the Rachael whom Eliza had met at University of Edinburgh when they were comedic Improverts together, another local girl who had ventured to Scotland for college. The Bogerts were as colorful a family as ours, I deduced from John's book and Eliza's anecdotes. I just had yet to meet them.

I did meet John at a St. Patrick's party. He was both a late arrival and the raconteur who said all the funny lines first. Usually I like to be the one to toss the bon mots, so I was amused to be displaced. We chatted, discovering we had many mutual acquaintances, parenting similarities, and East Coast origins. We parted ways. But I did start to read his Daily Breeze columns online. His writing became a compass for me sometimes, his prose elevating the prosaic, his distillations of events becoming droplets of significance. Through the written word did my affection for him grow.

Eight months after we met, John was hospitalized with acute gut pain. Appendix? Maybe. But it was much worse. I remember the rainy afternoon Eliza phoned me. I was on the way home from school and I pulled over near the Langham Hotel. She informed me of the cancer diagnosis, and I crumpled in the car, crushed. Everyone who knows cancer understands that its diabolical reach must be countered as craftily as possible. John enlisted a top-notch doctor at Keck. Our erudite Everyman kept springing back from every bodily insult. Surgeries. Chemotherapy. Nausea. Weight loss. During 2011 he was able to resume work on a limited basis. He saw one daughter marry, another daughter move into television work, his son enter senior year of high school. Life ambled on.

But as 2012 progressed, so did the illness. If I ventured to say maybe we'd all see each other when we were stardust, John would tersely text:CUT THE CLICHES. I visited a few times; we'd just sit and reminisce, or not. "How are the cactus?" he would ask. We remembered the July day he had brought a load of cuttings to my Altadena backyard and dug them all in. "Now once in awhile, ya gotta flood them," he advised. "Flood them."

In my experience, when one is dying of cancer, the circle tightens to family. It's serious work to die, and all energy is concentrated on the process. I never saw him again after April. I'd text. Once or twice a week, I made my backyard bouquet stealth drops on their front steps. Eliza saw John in May at Ian's graduation party, and she conveyed my love to him. John's final newspaper column was published on June 24, coincidentally my birthday. Despite all pain, he wrote heroically, capsulizing a life of language and love, exactly as great journalists strive to do. How I miss him. He was my wonderful cranky friend.