Nine years ago, one of my closest friends disappeared.
It was All Saints' Day, November 1st. My wife was teaching at a Polish school, and I was waiting for her at Chick-fil-A. Right after I sat down with my coffee, ready to read a philosophy book, I received a text message from another friend: “Did you see the news? John is missing. There’s a search for him around our old neighborhood.” I immediately looked at the news, and indeed my friend was right: John was missing.
Only a couple of weeks earlier I was supposed to meet John in downtown Chicago. We had been living in different states for a couple of years, and we kept planning to meet up. I had invited him to a luncheon talk that I had organized for Mundelein Seminary at the University Club. However, the concierge did not let him in and he never showed up. I forgot to tell him about the dress code. He was in jeans.
After I saw the news, I jumped into my car and drove across Chicago to our hometown. A helicopter was circling above the woods. A search team was out. Upon seeing the team, I decided to go talk to them and see what’s going on. I introduced myself as one of John’s closest friends and told them that John and I used to hike these woods. They wanted me to show them where we used to go. As I led them around, I recalled our long walks and talks about everything from Socrates to South Park.
John and I met at the beginning of our Junior Year in high school, shortly after John and his parents moved back to Chicago from Los Angeles. I had just returned to my former high school after spending a tumultuous year in a minor seminary in New Hampshire. My classmates already knew me from Freshman Year as the religious guy who left to discern the priesthood. While some classmates perhaps avoided me because of this, John was interested. Our lockers were next to each other, and we spent a lot of time talking.
John and I were interested in the life of the mind. Although we would have never articulated it this way, we were searching for a way of life fuller than what was on offer in American suburbia. We desired something more. And we discovered that “something more” in the philosophy class we took together during that year, and this experience later inspired us both to become philosophy majors in college.
During college, we would often meet at a Barnes and Noble to browse the new titles and continue our long conversations about politics, culture, and the faith. John was Catholic, yet he was drawn to the esoteric and gnostic. We would often walk and talk on the forest preserve trails about how our perspectives agreed and diverged, and it would be on these same grounds where I led the search team. But there was no trace of him.
I delayed going to John’s parents’ house, nervous that I would be overwhelmed with emotion upon seeing them. When I eventually knocked on the door, John’s dad answered. It was as if an older John stood before me. His mom rushed to the door perhaps hoping it was her lost son. I had no words for them. John’s dad’s face quickly became helpless, and he invited me in.
They explained to me how John was going through a rough time. Although he lived on his own in Chicago, John’s parents encouraged him to spend a couple of days with them. Early in morning on Halloween, John walked out of the house barefoot in nothing but a t-shirt and shorts, after what sounded like him quitting his job over the phone. John told me that his job was very stressful. He worked for an agency headquartered in New York City, and his boss would often make ridiculous demands, requiring full nights of work. John had had enough.
Based on this and what John’s dad was telling me, I tried to convince myself that John was having a genuine religious awakening, so I told John’s dad about the Poor Clare Monastery down the road. Perhaps John was seeking retreat there.
We drove to the monastery. But before the sister who answered the door began to talk, I already knew that John was not there. In one of the most heartfelt cries to God I have ever heard in my life, John’s dad asked the nuns to pray for his son. It was already night, and there was nothing more we could do but pray and wait.
The search for John continued over the next couple of months. News reports and flyers went out to locate him. A community of prayer formed around this effort. Eventually, his parents even hired a private detective. Finally, John’s remains were found in a retention pond by teenagers playing hockey.
John’s death is still shrouded in mystery for me. I often think about him. He even shows up in my dreams. In one of these dreams, he asks me to pray for him. And although I’m inclined to be suspicious of dreams, I take his request seriously. I bring this petition with me to Mass each All-Souls’ Day, that by means of the Blood of Christ, the faithful departed may be washed clean and purified to fully partake in the hope of the Resurrection and gaze eternally on the Fullness that is eternal life.
I hope to see John again…but not yet. Not yet.