My friend is dead.
I last saw him at least five years ago — John Henderson and I had met sometime in high school, at the youth group of our church in Maryland. He was a loveable goofball with a 80-kilowatt smile and the power to befriend everyone in a 50-foot radius; I was a straitlaced upperclassman and would-be youth leader who believed that book smarts could somehow make up for minimally-developed social skills. No matter.
I played guitar, so I remember him best as a percussionist. More than a few times I led singing at some youth service or another with him backing me up on drums. Every year, John — the son of our church’s music director — would get to play the timpani that were carted out for Christmas and Easter, so we continued to say hi once or twice a year well after I left for college. Strangely, my sharpest memory of him is from a conversation just before a Christmas Eve service, when he half-teased, half-complimented me about wearing a fuzzy sweater to the Mass.
John is dead. Killed, actually — shot at least three times at close range early Wednesday by robbers who burst into the Atlanta bar where he worked.
I learned this late Thursday, but I slipped too quickly into a numbing shell, reading the horrific news accounts of his death with the same kind of grim detachment I used to bring to my job as a police reporter.
The grief came a day later, as I nearly began crying into the dishwater as I cleaned up the kitchen.
Part of me knows John would be proud to see that he’s bringing people together even now. A Facebook group mourning his death is reuniting many of us high school youth group alums. On a broader scale, his killing has brought together hundreds of people at prayer vigils in Atlanta, as the community grieves and vows to replace this kind of violence with the friendship John embodied.
I never knew John after he left our home state; I never even knew he had landed in Atlanta. There’s a tiny bit of comfort in recognizing my old friend in the postmortem media profiles of the gregarious bartender from Maryland, knowing he managed to preserve the best parts of himself from when I knew him.
But the truth, John, is in words another wise friend wrote in this space many years ago: “I would rather wonder about you all my life than know for certain that yours had ended.”
(Photo courtesy of the Facebook group “We will miss you John Henderson”)