by Cheryl Ann Smith.
They say he used to be one of the meanest men in Winslow. Some people were afraid of him. Some didn’t want to work with him at the mill. It must be true because even his wife says it was so. Yet I found it hard to believe.
When I met Johnny, he had stopped drinking. Maybe that took away some of his meanness: he was finally living "right" and was proud of it. At least he was able to get to know his family, and a deep reconciliation took place. Now Johnny could love and be loved. Peace began to emanate from him.
The premature death of his mother brought an abrupt end to Johnny’s schooling and childhood, and he never did learn how to read. To support the family, Johnny had been doing hard labor since he was a boy. So towards the end of his life, he could barely walk the fifteen minutes to and from work. How many years can one body do hard labor before it disintegrates?
Johnny didn’t know how not to work. He just always had. He complained about the pain in his rickety body, and sometimes he literally couldn’t move with the spasms of pain and cramping, but still he worked.
In his last couple of months at the mill, his nephew pleaded with him to rest awhile. He would cover for him. But Johnny stubbornly and valiantly carried on until he collapsed.
I first met Johnny at a prayer meeting, not long after I came to town. He looked severe, but his prayer was, "God, thank you for my sobriety. I’m sorry for all my sins. Please help me to stay sober."
A perfect prayer. It was the first time I heard this low, raspy voice that became so familiar and beloved. It took me quite a while to identify the distinct quality of that voice, because believe it or not, it was "sweetness."
That’s not an adjective normally attributed to a macho Mexican who had been a heavy drinker and hard working laborer. But there was a sweetness, a humility, a goodness, and gentleness that shone through his eyes and danced through his words.
Occasionally this old neighbor and friend would come over to visit us—usually on a lazy Sunday afternoon, when he wasn’t camping. But at the end of his life, we would visit him. I loved those times with Johnny: we’d tease a little, share the silence, talk some, simply enjoy each other.
I can’t say that Johnny was never afraid of dying. He had the same fears that everyone has. He had sinned much, and he never pretended otherwise. He believed in the mercy of God, yet sometimes fears would creep in. That is, until he received the sacrament of the sick. From that moment on, only peace remained.
Johnny died just four hours before his Men’s Scripture Group began. We had hoped he could come to the healing Mass offered that night. But by then he didn’t need it.
Johnny’s death was peaceful and holy, and childlike joy twinkled even through his closed eyes.
They say he used to be one of the meanest men in town. But suffering and grace had transformed Johnny into one of the gentlest, most beloved of men. I guess everyone else who packed into the church for his funeral thought so, too.
— From Restoration, July 1989
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