[A note to readers: this is the original version of the piece called “A touching gesture.” I wrote it. It disappeared in an internet fluke. I rewrote it from memory and published it last week. Today it inexplicably resurfaced in my WordPress drafts so I have replaced the old version with this one. There will also be a new Johnny and Sharyn story tonight 9-18-22.]

Today, in the aftermath of a multi-day heat wave, I was sitting in our upstairs library with my mother. We had just finished lunch. She had been talking about various issues with the house (roof, floors, etc.) when she said, “You have a personal letter.”

Personal letters are rare these days. I carry on much of my correspondence by email and Facebook message. She handed me a large envelope.

I did not recognize the name or the writing on the envelope. The address was in Berkeley, headed The ____ Family. “The writing looks like a child’s,” I commented, looking at the outsize letters, sprawling “r”s in “Sharyn” and “Oberlin,” the uneven spacing and the way the “i” and “a” of “California” went almost to the edge of the paper.

Slipping my fingers under the flap I tore through the bottom petals of a yellow and white rose to reach a large gold-bordered print of the same rose above the dark green inscription “With Deepest Sympathy.”

Before I became a busker in the Berkeley BART station, before I became a writing practice teacher on Zoom, I worked for eleven years in the City of Berkeley’s Inclusion Program in the Department of Recreation. The inclusion program was an after school and vacation program for able-bodied neurotypical children and children with various disabilities to learn and play together.

Two of my favorite children in the program were a Filipino brother and sister. Both were smart, lively, engaging, curious. The boy became a special pal of mine — I often took him swimming, worked with him in the garden or the kitchen at James Kenney Recreation Center, had conversations with him. I watched him pass from elementary school into middle school and, after I left the program, I would see him traveling on BART with groups of kids or going to appointments by himself after he graduated from Berkeley High.

When I began busking in the fall of 2012 this boy began to stop by to have brief conversations with me. We talked about his grandparents and I asked after his sister. He came from a close, loving family. One day I told him I would be moving to San Leandro.

“Why?” he asked.

I explained that I had met a man named Johnny Harper who lived there and was moving there to live with him.

My pal asked how I got there and I said I took BART to Bay Fair station and walked, took a bus, or took a cab. Thereafter, he asked me when he saw me if I was going to San Leandro to see Johnny Harper, always using his full name.

When I opened the card, turquoise ink spelled out “Dear Sharyn” above the printed message “May you find comfort in the knowledge that the memory of your loved one will live forever in your heart.” My old friend had written below this “I’m so sorry to hear about Johnny Harper. May he rest in peace Amen With Much Love from ___ (He signed his name).

The left side of the card informed me that “my departed loved one” and my family had been enrolled in the Seraphic Mass Association and will share perpetually in Special Novenas and also be remembered in the prayers, Masses, and good works of Capuchin Friars throughout the world. And, on the back, the card displayed The Blessing of St. Francis of Assisi:

May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord show His face to you and have mercy on you.
May the Lord smile upon you
and give you His peace.

I have had no contact with my old James Kenney pal since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic when I stopped busking in March 2020. I did not have his address and wouldn’t have thought to notify him of Johnny’s death. But my old friend is a whiz with the internet on his cell phone and, for all I know, has tracked me and Johnny quietly through the years. He is a sweet and shy young man and I feel protective of his privacy and that of his family, which is why I do not name him here, but I am touched beyond words that he has followed the story of Johnny Harper and was thoughtful enough to send me a condolence card and to make a donation for friars to say masses. Johnny, although he was not Catholic, or even Christian, would be touched that his memory and our love for each other rippled out into the world in this unexpected way. I thank my old friend and the friars who keep Johnny in remembrance and I write this to remind us all that you never know the effects of a kind word or a sympathy between people. In case he is reading this some day I tell my old friend I have never forgotten him or his family, that I was blessed to know him, that I wish for him the happiness he bestows on others and that he is always welcome to keep up with me online here at The Kale Chronicles or elsewhere.