A better angel in heaven: John Vautier

Earlier this month my good friend John Vautier died when he fell clearing snow off his roof. John had survived a National Guard stint in Bosnia and two bouts with cancer, but he was taken from us at his home in New Haven while doing one of the more pedestrian – though clearly dangerous – chores that mark the winter for all of us here in New England. If I know John, from his vantage point in heaven he is shaking his head at the irony, his hands jammed into his front pants pockets, a big stick of gum in his mouth, and a wry grin on his face.

That’s the thing about John. As our mutual friend Andrew Furtsch put it when he called to tell me the devastating news, “John was the kind of guy who made every room a little brighter.” He did. He lit a room with a luminescent smile and an infectious laugh like few people I will ever know.

John, Andrew, Drew Smith, and I worked out together at Bristol Fitness. Some days there would be others. On Wednesdays, Andrew and John would dead-lift: They would crouch and hoist comically large amounts of weight off the floor. It was almost like a Saturday Night Live sketch: I think either of them could have lifted a Mini Cooper.

But the thing about John, and the reason why I will miss him so very, very much, is that underneath that façade of National Guard staff sergeant and weightlifter extraordinaire was an unbelievably nurturing guy. When I recall him in my mind, I see him first as the Sunday school teacher for the United Church of Lincoln preschool class. There is four-year-old Wanda Goodyear leading him by the hand from the sanctuary to their classroom; there is five-year-old Joe Norton sitting beside him – John in a tiny chair meant for 50-pounders, not 200-pounders, his knees practically at his chin – the two of them watching a VeggieTales movie while the adults are discussing the sermon in the next room.

I remember John at the gym, not merely lifting boulders attached to a bar. I see him spotting me as I am bench-pressing. He would make absolutely certain that I didn’t do something stupid.

That was the thing about John: Whether you were five years old or fifty, he was going to do all that he could to keep you safe.

And I see John with a blue bandana on his bald head as he is in the midst of chemotherapy for breast cancer – “chest cancer, in my case, thank you very much,” he sometimes said – smiling and telling me a story about his beloved sons, Braham and Dana, or asking about my daughter, Grace. He called Grace the “Girl Child,” as in, “How’s that beautiful girl child of yours?” We would talk about our wives, feeling a connection because we both had the good sense to marry smart, beautiful women who loved stray cats and dogs and celebrated the animal shelter, and because we shared October 13 as our wedding anniversary.

One of the books John read while he was in the midst of chemotherapy was Michael Shaara’s saga of Gettysburg, “The Killer Angels.” The title comes from a Union colonel’s recollection of how a schoolteacher once suggested to him that man, if he is like an angel, “he’s sure a murderin’ angel.” But the Civil War is also framed by Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, in which Lincoln beseeched his nation to be touched “by the better angels of our nature.” John loved the novel and we discussed it after he read it and then again at the gym. We talked about the killer and the better angels that may reside inside us.

John, however, only had a better angel.

One of my favorite pieces of advice that Theodor Geisel – a.k.a., Dr. Seuss – offered us all is this: “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” This is how I believe John Vautier would want us to view his life: I am going to try not to cry even though John’s life is over. Instead I will try to celebrate that it happened in the first place.

(This column originally ran in the Burlington Free Press on February 20, 2011.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

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