Celebrating a Life

Yesterday I flew to New York for the wake and funeral of my friend John Palenberg, who died last week. The funeral Mass was held this morning. Several of us, including John’s daughter, delivered remarks at the funeral. Here are the words I shared about my dear friend:

John and I were in the same class at Cleary, although he started a year after I did. We met soon after he began working at the firm. He walked into my office one day with a big smile on his face, saying “Hi, I’m John Palenberg. I understand you’re the firm’s expert on the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.” For any non-Cleary folks: “expert” just meant I had done enough research on the act for a more senior associate to feel justified dumping on me the firm’s files on the subject, declaring that I was now the firm FSIA person.

Despite the fact that I used John’s arrival as a way to anoint someone else as the FSIA person (him), he and I became fast friends, and our relationship spanned multiple decades, cities, continents, and changes in life circumstances.

It is impossible in a few minutes to talk about all of the ways John has enriched my life or to even convey meaningfully all of the qualities that made him so special. (Most of us have a list of adjectives a mile long to describe John, none of which are anything less than complimentary.) So let me speak only of the three qualities that mean the most to me.

I think that the quality of John’s I most loved was his capacity for delight. By “delight” I mean something more than simply enjoying things; we all enjoy lots of things. But John experienced the kind of enjoyment that, I think, requires the retention of a childlike sense of wonder, something that for so many people gets buried under the weight of sophistication, seriousness of purpose and wordly achievement. John never lost his childlike wonder and it allowed him to experience an incredible delight in so many things.

The things John took delight in were varied – feeding raw horsemeat and natto to Steve Thomas, Peter Hunt, Rebecca Hoe and me when we went to Japan for his wedding to Chieko, his role in deciding we should celebrate Rebecca Hoe Appreciation Day or St. Paulinus day at the firm (who besides John had ever heard of St. Paulinus?), helping us belt out the theme song to Green Acres on the way home from baseball games, his officially becoming a subject of Her Majesty the Queen in 2007, learning of the release on DVD of the complete first season of The Patty Duke Show, our children meeting each other, the prospect that my move to Minnesota might turn me into someone who would eat hotdish and walleye, taking people for their first ride on the Cyclone in Coney Island.

Whatever the prompt, John’s delight was always pure, unfeigned and expansive. And part of his gift was that it was impossible to be with him and not share in his delight. Impossible not to feel lighter, younger, freer.

The second quality of John’s I loved was that his consideration and kindness extended to everyone. His friends certainly all experienced his thoughtfulness. To give only one example from recent times: I’ve been living in Minnesota for the last six and a half years (“Minnesooota” as John teasingly pronounced it), which means I miss a lot of what goes on here in New York. But my e-mail files are full of pictures sent to me by John after events involving our friends: pictures from things like a visit to NY by Herb Lingl, Brick’s good-by party, Sam Sessions visiting the Cleary tax folk, a Coney Island outing with Steve Thomas and Rebecca Hoe (the last captioned “Where’s S.J.”). He unfailingly took time to remind me: You may be far away geographically, but you are still with us.

And his consideration extended beyond close friends. In the last week I’ve gotten e-mails from several ex-staff of the firm, exemplified by this one: “We all feel terrible. At CGSH, class really told in how people treated the support staff, and he was unfailingly courteous to us all.”

As I stand here today the other quality of John’s that I hold close to my heart was his faith. When I heard about his surgery while I was on pilgrimage in Spain, walking the Camino de Santiago in October (as we all know, Cleary news gets spread no matter where you are), I immediately e-mailed him to tell him I was praying for him. He wrote back that he could not think of a better locale from which to say powerful healing prayers for an ailing pal. And when we last spoke on the phone several weeks ago, he said to me, “You know, S.J., you and I both know that death is not anything to be afraid of. I’m going to be just fine, more than fine – great in fact.”

That matters. As John’s coffin was brought into the church, we sang “I know that my Redeemer lives, that I shall rise again.”

Do we believe that? Do you believe that even if you die you will live again? That is the fundamental question of the Christian faith. And John’s answer to that question was a resounding Yes.

And at this time when the pain of John’s loss is so raw and consuming, when no small part of me just wants to crawl into a forest and howl in agony, my solace comes from being able to answer Yes to that question right along with him.

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3 thoughts on “Celebrating a Life

  1. What a beautiful tribute. I knew John in North Dakota. I remember him walking through the snow from the university to my house for dinner, reading a book in Latin! So many memories. I wish I had been a better friend. He always held my heart, though.

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