“And thus my suicide began,” John L’Heureux wrote, almost as an aside, partway into a final essay published online this week by The New Yorker magazine.
In his lifetime, he wrote more than 20 books — novels, short stories, poetry. Some of his writing drew poignantly on his years in Massachusetts, when he had been a Jesuit priest, and one early short story drew painful inspiration from his father’s Parkinson’s disease diagnosis — struggles that presaged Mr. L’Heureux’s own final illness.
When Mr. L’Heureux died April 22 at age 84, his family announced that the cause was complications of Parkinson’s. But in his New Yorker essay “On Death and Dignity,” he wrote of discussing with his wife, Joan, and his physicians a decision to end his life April 22 under the death with dignity law in California, where he had been a longtime Stanford University humanities professor.
In the essay, Mr. L’Heureux wrote about the legalities, emotions, and odd details of the process, such as what he would drink to bring on his death: “The concoction would be prepared by a pharmacy licensed to do so, called — can you believe it? — Feel Good Compounders.”
He also, perhaps inevitably, wrote about God.
“He is the God of charity and justice,” Mr. L’Heureux wrote. “He is the God of compassion and mercy. If I find in myself the need for compassion, to allay suffering and to comfort the living, I feel sure that God has at least as much compassion as I do.”
Mr. L’Heureux established his reputation with novels including “A Woman Run Mad” (1988), “The Shrine at Altamira” (1992), and “The Medici Boy” (2014), along with short story collections such as “Comedians” (1990), in which appears the story “Father.”
The narrator began by describing his father setting up an easel in the basement to paint. “At the beginning of the end he painted things nobody except himself had ever seen before,” Mr. L’Heureux wrote, adding: “But long before we understood what he was doing, our father had begun to escape from us. He was in the process of disappearing.”
When Parkinson’s disease weakened the title character, his family decided to place him in specialized care, but when they went to tell him, they found a “door stood open to a silver light. He had disappeared. He had escaped, leaving us with all our business incomplete, our goodness, understanding. In the end our father painted clear untroubled air and, quicker than our love, he entered it.”
The writer Tobias Wolff, who had studied with Mr. L’Heureux at Stanford, wrote in a tribute posted online by America Magazine, The Jesuit Review, that “in reading his work, one can see, feel, the demands he makes on himself for exactitude, essence, emotional honesty, aesthetic freshness, digging deep for the truths of our thoughts and desires and presenting his findings without flinching, even — no, especially — when they challenge our self-conceptions and certainties, and trouble the heart.”
In his 2002 novel “The Miracle,” partly set in South Boston, Mr. L’Heureux reminds readers that “people are imperfect, lacking in willpower, infirm in their beliefs, their lives cluttered and unfocused, their character traits largely impervious to change,” Bruce Bawer wrote in a New York Times review.
On the opening page, Mr. L’Heureux’s protagonist, a parish priest named Father Paul LeBlanc, takes readers on a tour of Southie:
“This is a neighborhood of spruced-up three-deckers — gray and white and tan — with some wood and brick two-deckers, and a few single-family houses with driveways. No matter the color of the houses, they all seem gray when you stand at the corner and look down the street. It is a gray parish. There are a lot of Irish bars — McGillicuddy’s, Ahern’s, Matt Doherty’s — and even the 7-Eleven is run by a guy they call Mahoney. Actually he is Italian, and his name is Meloni, but it sounds Irish when you say it.”
John Clarke L’Heureux was born in South Hadley in 1934, a son of Wilfred L’Heureux, an engineer, and Mildred Clarke, a secretary. His father would later die of Parkinson’s, his mother of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — ALS.
Mr. L’Heureux would later write for a publisher’s website that he also had “an older brother, a civil engineer employed as a lumberjack.”
After high school, Mr. L’Heureux attended the College of the Holy Cross and considered becoming an actor. In his essay, Wolff wrote that he gained insight into his teacher’s life through the 2010 book “Conversations with John L’Heureux.”
In those interviews, Mr. L’Heureux recalled that he was “derailed by Jesus” during his second year at college: “I remember talking with one of my roommates about being an actor, and out of nowhere he said, ‘Why don’t you become a priest. You’re smart enough.’ . . . I dismissed what he said as ridiculous, but at the moment he said it, I knew it was going to change my life.”
Mr. L’Heureux entered the Jesuit novitiate at Shadowbrook, in the Berkshires. He subsequently graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Weston College, according to Stanford, and received master’s degrees in philosophy and English from Boston College.
In 1971, after 17 years as a Jesuit, he left the order. “Being a priest was too hard for me,” he later said. “I didn’t leave because I was disappointed in the Jesuits or in the Church or because I had doctrinal issues. I left because it was too hard to be the kind of priest I wanted to be and it was too important to do any other way.”
After leaving the priesthood, he married Joan Polston, a teacher and writer who is his only immediate survivor.
A memorial Mass will be said at 10 a.m. May 25 in St. Albert the Great Church in Palo Alto, Calif.
Before joining Stanford’s faculty in 1973, Mr. L’Heureux taught at Georgetown, Tufts, and Harvard universities. He also formerly was editor of the Boston Review.
While still a Jesuit, he began publishing poetry, including one The Atlantic published after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy that ends:
… for the world, darkness.
God sees, allows, and loves
in ways we do not ripely understand.
Let mankind hobble home now on its knees.
Mr. L’Heureux once said of his writing: “I try to explore the shape of mystery that lies behind the few things I know.”
The narrator of his story “Three Short Moments in a Long Life,” which The New Yorker published in 2016, is in his 80s and has Parkinson’s. Near the end, he speaks to his wife:
“I say, ‘I’ll miss you when I’m dead.’ And in a while there comes the final moment: the earth stops turning and a luminous silence descends. And then, as we draw one last breath together, I snatch your hand. And hold it. Holding it, and holding it, and still holding it, I breathe out.”
In his essay “Death and Dignity,” Mr. L’Heureux called that story “a kind of love letter” to his wife, Joan. Given what he faced with his illness, he said, “death sooner was better than death delayed.”
“In the service for the dead, the Catholic Church asks God to grant us all eternal rest,” he wrote, and added that “after all the words squandered on right and wrong, failure and desire, love and the tragic failure to love, I am ready for eternal rest. Eternal rest. Even the sound is soothing.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.