Many of you here could be in the place of Clara and I, and talk for an hour or two about John, telling stories about his life, how he affected you and others around him. But while the stories might vary, some common themes, some lessons that John taught us would emerge. We’re privileged to share our thoughts on a few of them today.
John showed us how to adapt and grow. He didn’t arrive at Daybreak as the accomplished, confident man that we knew in later years. He came as a quiet, shy farm boy, grieving for the loss of his mother and the home he’d known all of his life, overwhelmed to be thrust into this large, new community. He soon found a friend in Len Lomas, Daybreak’s farm manager, who was delighted to have a hard worker with farm experience – a nice change from green, young assistants who thought they knew everything.John became part of the Lomas family, popping in to their home every night after his dinner at the New House to visit and score a second dessert.
This formative connection was one of those mutually transforming relationships that are at the heart and soul of L’Arche. More relationships developed, bringing joy but also at times, great heartache. He sobbed inconsolably when his dear friend and assistant, Pat Gillick, left Daybreak. Many other assistants he loved also left, core members that he knew and lived with died. It’s hard to imagine his feelings of loss when Daybreak closed its farm, auctioned off the equipment and the Lomas’s moved away. Yet John learned that relationships can survive change and new ones can develop. For many years he travelled to Mikwaukee, with the help of new friends Trish and Steve, to spend Christmas with the Gillicks and their growing family. He volunteered with Len Lomas at the Humane Society and found room in his heart to welcome new core members and new assistants. He worked at a horse farm and became Daybreak’s reliable mail carrier. And John’s world further expanded with his weekend walks down Yonge Street.
We didn’t see much of John on the weekends back in the day. He would be gone most of Saturday and Sunday. After a day of walking into town he would often be seen in the fields behind the New House at about 4pm, often giving speeches in the direction of the trees interspersed with gestures and bows when he was done. John would spend a little time in his room before supper and then join us when the cook called us to the table. I remember one Saturday when John didn’t turn up as he usually did. It started to get late and we started to worry. I jumped in the van and began driving south on Yonge street, watching for signs of John walking. I stopped in on some of the merchants that John routinely visited and they said he had been by earlier that day. As I continued south on Yonge I noticed a crowd gathered on a side street off of Dunlop. After parking the van and walking towards the crowd, I spotted a man in a florescent vest directing traffic. It was John, of course. There was a huge flatbed truck parked on the street. One of the heritage homes lining this side road was being excavated and moved intact. The whole neighbourhood was out to watch this historical event. I witnessed John taking it upon himself, out of care for his community, and as an active citizen, to offer what he could to help. And who was going to stop him! John was no bystander in this life. He gave all he could with what he had.
John lived his life to the fullest, but but of course it wasn’t without stress and anxiety.For reasons we can’t be sure of, John had a strong fear of hospitals, doctors and dentists. Perhaps some of this came about from his father’s and mother’s relatively early deaths. It’s possible that this connects to John’s habit of carrying around his clipboard in his early days at Daybreak. As the story goes, he would tell people that he was a doctor and ask about their health, giving a check mark following the response. Sometimes he would give a diagnosis too, usually “you’re ok” but occasionally it was “you’re sick, you die”! Fortunately he himself had good health but when he did need to see a doctor, deceit, bribery and lots of valium were needed to get him in the door. The medical professionals did their best. When John refused to lie down for a CT scan once, the technicians suggested that Ann Pavalonis, who was accompanying him, lie under the machine to show him how easy it was. Ann willingly did this, and when she came out, John said “That’s it”! But when told it was his turn, he characteristically replied, “I don’t think so” and her efforts were for nothing. He avoided dentists at all costs. For a time his dentist was located at Hillcrest Mall and he not only refused to go into her office, he wouldn’t even pick up her business card. This dentist went so far as to come out into the mall for a quick look in his mouth but eventually, despite attempts like this, he had to have all of his teeth pulled due to their deterioration. His only comment after he recovered from the procedure was “No cavities”! Another lesson – no point dwelling on the past for John; what was done, was done.
John’s intolerance of the medical profession underwent a severe test in his later years as he suffered major health issues requiring surgeries and lengthy stays in hospital. With a feisty inner fortitude and the support of countless friends and community members, he not only endured these times, he also continued to capture the hearts of all he met. Nowhere was this more evident than John’s final year, living in long-term care at Newmarket Health Centre. The people there embraced John, providing not just wonderful care but also the deep relationships that he so naturally created wherever he went.
A friend of mine was playing at a club downtown. I picked John up and we headed to Queen St. West. Parking was hard to find, but I managed to spot a sketchy looking lot that looked like it was needing repair – no one was in the booth to collect a parking fare and I didn’t spot a parking meter, so decided this was the best we could do. The music ended late. We needed to head all the way back up to Richmond Hill. Both John and I were tired and then became distressed – when we discovered the car was not where we had left it. After some investigating using the payphone we had finally found, we discovered my car had indeed been towed. I was not happy. I needed to get John home, then to head home myself. We had to find a cab to take us to a lot on Lakeshore where I would have to pay a $250 towing fee to get my car back. I was crabby, impatient with John and kicking myself for taking the risk to park where I did. We arrived in the cab (another $25) at a lot surrounded by a chain link fence in the middle of an industrial wasteland by the lake. Near the entrance was trailer with a dog chained to it – barking obnoxiously. My irritation with the intimidating atmosphere of this place only got worse. John, a lover of animals, approached the dog cautiously, gently calling to it in affectionate tones. His capacity to connect with this creature began to ease something in me as he bent down and patted the dog who had clearly found a non-threatening friend in John. As we approached the trailer I could feel my Italian feistiness starting to surface again, ready for a fight, ready to stand my ground. Inside the trailer we found two burly men with thick necks behind a counter clearly there to subdue any trouble that would come through the door. Before I had a chance to launch into my attack, John enthusiastically reached out to offer his hand and proudly announced, “Hi! My name is John”. Followed with “Where are you from?” Clearly, these men were taken aback. They probably weren’t used to such hospitable visitors. I could almost tangibly see their shoulders come down – as did mine. These two men doing their job, found it in themselves to express regret at our circumstances and perhaps even feel a little empathy. John often reached across barriers – softening hard edges – reminding people of their humanity and the humanity of others.
By most worldly standards, John was quite limited – he could not learn to read or write, or even to speak clearly, he simply lived. But John was a powerful and influential man, who achieved his full potential. Sure he was physically strong, self-disciplined and a gifted musician, but his power lay in his gift of relationship. He was the only person who could walk into a place like Dynes Jewelers, shout from the door “where’s the old guy” and bring business to a halt while Vern Sr. came out to greet John and have a little chat. Even the most demanding customers were willing to wait the few minutes it took for John to complete his regular visit. Waiting in line at banks, the grocery store etc. was the perfect opportunity to meet new people, with his disarming “Hi, I’m John, what’s your name?” His good manners included introducing me to these startled strangers as well. Then, “How’s your mom” and “How does your car run” were usually followed by “Where are you from”? Many people in this area are born in other countries and they would look a bit taken aback by the question, but seldom offended, sensing John’s genuine interest. And he didn’t see any cultural differences, he was after where they lived now, where they would be going home that night. Driving down Yonge St. by myself was mundane but with John it was filled with meaning as he pointed to the various businesses and yelled the names people there that he knew from his weekly visits. His relationships in Daybreak ran deep, especially at the New House. He showed new assistants and house leaders how to be with his housemates, both in practical ways – helping Adam to eat, helping to lift Michael in and out of bed, and in social interactions. He could be boisterous with Roy or tender with Rosie. Once when Arliss was sitting cross-legged on the couch, silent and sad, John came and sat beside her for a while, head cocked, patting her foot, not saying anything, just being present.
One thing I discovered about John soon after meeting him, was that he was tight with his wallet. Whenever any of his many friends took him out for coffee (including his 30 year almost weekly gig with Steve Mosher), he somehow managed to clearly remember that it was their turn to pay. John’s tendency to hold his money close became most acutely apparent when I did my first grocery run for the New House with John and our housemate Bill VanBuren. I think this was the first time as a 24 year old, that I ever had to shop for a household of 10 people. I had a list, but those who know me, know that I tend to deviate from lists – of any kind. We were at the old Fortinos on Yonge St. As we went up and down the aisles, it became apparent that Bill and John knew all the stock boys and cashiers in the store. John shook hands, it seemed, with anyone who had a red Fortino’s shirt on and names were exchanged if there was someone new. We proceeded to line up to pay after filling 2 carts with our goods for the week. It was a busy night. There was long line of people behind us waiting patiently as each item got entered manually into the cash register. When I reached into the pencil case holding our weekly wad of cash carefully budgeted for the week, a great sense panic came over me as I realized we were $40 short. I reached into my own wallet to find only a $10 bill. Looking at the line up of people behind us, I didn’t’ have time to start pulling items out of the bags already packed neatly into the cart. I looked at Bill and John in desperation and asked if they had any money on them and that I would pay it back when we got home. Disgruntled and complaining, Bill handed the cashier the last 10 in his wallet. Now, I knew for a fact that John had four $5 bills that we had withdrawn from the bank that Friday in his wallet. He looked me, shook his head, shrugged his shoulders and announced, “Nope. I don’t have any”. With layers of Italian, Catholic shame rising up in me, I began to almost beg John, to reach into his pockets. At that point John began to look past me across the store where he spotted the store manager. He suddenly yelled out in his authoritative, boisterous voice, “Hey Joe, Come over here!” drawing more attention to my already humiliating situation. In the exchange with the manager, it was his trust in that long standing relationship with Joe, that John found it in him to reach into his wallet that day, and a testament to me of the trust yet to be earned from my dignified friend.
Clara mentioned John’s love of music. Nothing delighted him more than playing his spoons, at home to recordings, or better yet, with a group of fellow musicians. “Music tonight” he’d exclaim, before heading out to play with Lou Moore or Sandy McIntyre. John loved a crowd, acknowledging the applause and introducing other band members. Thanks to his friend Deiren, John had even played with the likes of Natalie McMaster and The Chieftans. But big names weren’t necessary for him to get pleasure from making music. John went to the Green House for dinner Wednesday nights, where I was an assistant for a few years. As a reward for doing the cooking that night, I would generally get a quarter from John and he would announce, “you’re off” at the end of the meal, since in L’Arche tradition the cook doesn’t have to do dishes. This meant I was free to play the piano with him. He’d get out his spoons, I’d get out my music and off we’d go. I’m a classically trained musician myself, most comfortable with a piece of music to read off of, but John broadened my horizons and gave me the confidence to go “off the page”. His joy in making music, like his joy in making friends, was life giving. Didn’t matter if you were Natalie McMaster or Anne Todd, there was a place in John’s world for you.
When our youngest and fourth child came into the world, my husband Tim and I were quite clear that we wanted to ask John to be her Godfather. We wanted to create an opportunity for Tessa to know more intentionally, John’s beautiful way of being in the world. However, we knew there were complications in going forward with this desire – for one, John never came into the Dayspring Chapel until later in his life. On Friday nights when our community gathered to pray, John would surely be there – hardly ever missing a week. He took his place in the front foyer, clip board in hand, greeting every person enthusiastically as they entered the building and meticulously took notes on who was attending that night. He waited in the Pond Room until the service was over then made sure the building was locked and the lights were out before he went to the pub for his Blue Light. When anyone ventured to ask if John would like to join us in the Chapel he would politely decline with a, “No, it’s okay. You go ahead!” So Tim and I knew that maybe our desire would never come to pass. 3 weeks ahead of the Baptism date, I approached John with the question. I explained that it would involve coming into the chapel, and holding a candle at the front for Tessa. John tilted his head, as he did, patted me on the head and said, “We’ll see”, then moved on. My attempts to get a definite answer out of John the next two times I broached him, resulted in similar polite deferrals. In spite of my urge for resolution, it was clear to Tim and I that we would not ask anyone else to fill those shoes – but for good measure chose two Godmothers, our dear friends Rita and Sue, just in case. On the day of the baptism, we were all settling into the chapel to begin. I had resolved in my head that John”s being there was not meant to be. I remember so vividly the moment I spotted John walking in the front doors of the Dayspring that morning. He was wearing his blue suit and blue tie, wearing a big wide grin on his face, holding up his spoons and proudly announcing, “Music!”. John made his way into the chapel and sat with Joe and Nathan who were leading music. He later stood up to witness the welcome of Tessa, candle in hand, into our community of faith and stayed faithful to her over these last 11 years. John’s capacity to step outside of his comfort zone that day for a friend, yet to do so on his own terms, through music, touched me deeply that day. Isn’t that something we all strive for? To stand in the truth of who we are, with dignity and integrity, and to be able to meet the other – where they are. John’s ability to make each and everyone of us feel special and worthy of attention whether you were the president of Starbucks, the floor cleaner at the hospital, the city bus driver or a new Assistant walking through the door at the New House – was indeed his greatest gift. John’s ritual of naming each person present, around the dinner table, around the circle at student retreats or down bustling Yonge St was John’s way of telling us that each of us matters.
Our friend, John Thomas Smeltzer
~ Clara and Anne