My dear old friend, John Dolan passed away unexpectedly this week. He was 58, and had a quick onset of complications from Parkinson’s disease that overwhelmed his body, and now he is gone.
I had not seen John for a long time, because he moved to Costa Rico fifteen years ago. He started out going there even longer ago, for a few weeks, and then a few months at a time, to surf, and because he had psoriasis, and he said the sun was good for his skin. He kept going back for longer and longer, going back to his hometown of Darien, Connecticut, in between visits. Eventually John just stayed and made Costa Rica his permanent home. Not too many people do that–uproot and move to another country to live. But John was anything but regular. He dared to live a life that was outside the go to school, get a career, get a wife, have kids blueprint. John worked hard though. He created his own path. Started his own tree cutting service when he hadn’t really had a whole lot of experience with it. He used to scare the heck out of me when he’d share stories about nearly falling out of trees when a job stretched beyond his capabilities, and what his equipment could handle. He was a self-taught carpenter who took great pride in the work he did for homes in southern Connecticut. These skills would come in handy when John took on the biggest endeavor in his life: building a compound of homes in Santa Maria, Costa Rica. John was taken in and welcomed and looked after by the local residents, and with many hands working together, year after year, John’s vision of Casa Verde, which includes three casitas available for stays, all nestled in the lush green hills overlooking the ocean, became a reality.
I met John when I was in my early 20’s because he was great friends with an old boyfriend of mine, Jeff. We became fast friends, and even though Jeff and I didn’t last as a couple, John and my friendship endured. While he described himself as a wild and reckless partier during his college years, John had the maturity to become sober at an early age, and stopped drinking I think by the time we met, or not long after. He didn’t need substances. He was brilliant, quick-witted, full of energy, and when he was on a roll, he riffed like Robin Williams, and I ended up with my sides hurting from laughter. John also was honest as hell. He sought out meaning and substance in his life. He wanted to live a worthy life, and though John wasn’t one to judge, he demanded it of those around him, too. While I often wished to live in a bubble of happiness and an “everything’s great” kind of world, John spoke out about what bothered him during our conversations together. Whether it was something about the government not doing the right thing, the conservation of natural resources, or me not being thoughtful at times about our friendship, John let me know. Sometimes his talks annoyed me. But that was because I wanted to avoid having to deal with the real, with the fact that there are negative things in our lives that we need to think about, care about, act on. John stretched me, helped me grow. And we had so much fun along the way.
John was the first one to tell me about filling a big pot with water to wash dishes instead of running water the whole time. I am guilty of not following this method. My handsome friend with the strong Dolan jaw, and shining blue eyes and I used to go dancing together often in Boston. John encouraged me to be open to dancing to the house music played in some clubs, to learn how to move my body in different ways, and to not think I needed to be stuck in my mold of only being able to move to the funk music I was used to dancing to. He wanted people to be open to all kinds of experiences that veered from their normal way of seeing and doing things.
When I moved to New York City, John visited often. We danced alongside a colorful cast of edgy characters at The Pyramid Club on Avenue A. He helped me set up my table and sell wearable art at the Christopher Street Fair one year, and was always so encouraging of my work. When I was moving from an uptown apartment to the East Village John slept over my last night there to help me move. The landlord came barging into the apartment the next morning, yelling, “get up, it’s time to get out!” rousing us up out of bed. It was bizarre and a bit scary, as we were prepared to move, just not that early in the morning. It was fall, and it was cold out. John and I moved all of my belongings down to the sidewalk, and we sat atop boxes for four hours on the corner of 93rd Street and 1st Avenue, waiting for my movers to come. It sounds miserable, but John made it an adventure. Joke after joke came spilling out of John’s mouth, while we cradled our coffee cups to keep our hands warm. Songs about tyrant landlords followed. John did not complain once. He was always generous, always there to help.
John and I were able to keep in touch through Facebook. He’d message me and tell me how beautiful my daughters were, and how wonderful a job I was doing as a mother, which really helped on those days I felt I failed. He believed in young people, and lavished love on his nephews and nieces. John befriended and became like an “uncle” to Josue, the son of a friend in Costa Rica. John knew Josue since he was an infant, and he talked about him with such love, and spent tons of time with him, reading, playing–boy, could John play–and having Josue help him with his work. From photos I’ve seen of the two of them, I know the feeling was mutual, that Josue loved John, too. John also praised me on my work, my writing. John lifted me up, and made me feel good. He downplayed and kindly brushed off the compliments and awe I felt at not just the physical accomplishment of building Casa Verde over so many years, but of his bravery and courage in living the life he chose for himself. I know that everyone who met John left feeling a bit better about themselves and the world around them because he was always so present when he was with you. You knew that he cared about you, and that moment in time with you. If only I could ditch my phone and spend a few hours with John at Casa Verde, I might be able to relocate that awe for living and appreciating each day, each human connection made.
Today, at my job as an Activities Therapist at a psychiatric hospital, I sat in on our weekly Prayer group that the hospital chaplain leads for patients. I needed to pray, to grieve, and had to work hard to keep my tears in check, to maintain my professional composure. During the session, she read a little story about a man who needed help building a garden, but either was worried about asking people to help, or didn’t get any help when he asked. So, the man went about his business anyway, and the people in the town, saw what he was doing, and thought it was wonderful, and were interested in the man and his project, and started pitching in, and before you know it, the whole village was working together to create this beautiful garden. This story made me think of John and how I imagine his graciousness, and his wanting to truly know and connect with people, drew people into his circle, and allowed him to make his vision a reality.
I am going to miss the physical presence of John, but I spoke to his dear sister, Marianne, today, and she reminded me that John will be sending signs, and that in fact, he already has to her, that he is still here, and will always be with us, that his spirit is too magnificent to not stay. I send love and wishes for comfort to Marianne, and John’s other siblings, Peter, Meg, and Chris, and to John’s mother, and all of John’s family and friends. Marianne told me my daughters and I must go to Costa Rica, to Casa Verde, that John would have wanted that. We will go. I will miss the friend that had me and my former husband swim in the local reservoir with him in Darien, CT, right after telling us he’d been caught several times by the police there, and I will remember how lovely it was to swim in that reservoir, and I will remember how John, in his typical fashion, found something to praise me for, which on this day, was my ability to spot the tick crawling up my thigh before it burrowed in, and I will do my best to live like John, with courage, and humor, and love, and truth, so that I might honor him.
Pura vida. Rest in peace, dear friend.