I returned from a legal ethics teaching tour to the horrible news that a friend of mine had died in a freak accident at his home. I had just seen him for the first time in many months when he showed up unexpectedly on the final weekend of my theater company, and the production I directed for it as a final bow. When I spotted him in the theater lobby that day two months ago, I shouted his name and gave him a long hug. He was one of those amazing people who just made you feel better about the world knowing that people like him were still in it.
Now, just like that, he’s gone. An e-mail from him that arrived right before my trip sits unanswered in my in-box. I didn’t rush to return it—what was the rush? Life, of course, is the rush, and this has happened to me before. Why don’t I learn?
I have been prolific on Facebook as I join his many friends in reminding each other what a kind, generous, selfless, dignified and talented individual he was, as a teacher, archivist, singer, actor and all-around mensch. It turns out that dozens of people had the same kinds of experiences with him that I had: spontaneous gestures of caring and kindness, comfort and sympathy in times of crisis, and the ability to be a role model, reminding everyone that the Golden Rule really does work, and that it really is possible to think of others first. And yet none of us, as far as I can tell, ever expressed the depth of our love and admiration for this wonderful man to his face. I would not say that these outpourings are valueless now, but it is upsetting to think that such a good man may have never known how much he was appreciated.
Maybe it didn’t make any difference to him. I don’t know about that: nobody I have ever known accepted compliments better. He starred in a play I directed, and was marvelous, as well as joy to direct; he also waived most of his fee as a union actor, contributing it as a gift to the theater, because he wanted the production to be a success and not strangled by budget issues. After we closed, I told him what a marvelous job he had done in the role, and his eyes lit up, he grasped my hand, he lowered his vice and said, showing sincere emotion,”Thank you—I can’t express how much that means to me.” His humility choked me up on the spot. It will haunt me to think that he may not have known how much he meant to so many people. Is it really possible that nobody told him before it was too late?
I really didn’t know that much about this man. I never socialized with him or even shared a meal with him. He and I would be involved in periodic projects together; he had spent some time with my father, and was an admirer. We checked in on each other by phone or e-mail from time to time after he left the area for a series of new enterprises and career turns. I think he lived alone; I never met any “significant other”. Was he lonely? Did his always optimistic and pleasant attitude mask some deep pain or dark secret? I don’t know. All I know is that he was a benign and welcome presence in my life every time he entered it.
He was a Mormon; in fact, he had sung in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. He was also gay. He didn’t make a big deal about it, like so many in the theater community; he didn’t hide it either. He evidently felt that his sexuality was not relevant to most of his relationships. and behaved accordingly, expecting his privacy to be respected, and assuming that he would be treated with the same respect and fairness as he granted everyone else.
As a gay man, he is exactly the kind of person who makes me scratch my head in wonder when I think about the supposedly godly and spiritual people who condemn gays as a blight on civilization, and who want to withhold basic human rights from them based on whom they choose to love. These misguided souls should have met my friend, and then been asked how they could not want anything but the best for such an exemplary individual. The next question would be how they would explain why their god would create a man who embodied every virtue, and who appeared to live to make the world a a better place, and then direct that that same man be denied the rights and pleasures of far less admirable people. The following query would ask how such a man could not be judged not only a qualified parent, but probably a gifted one. The last question, I suppose, would be this: “What the hell is the matter with you? This man is a role model, an exemplar, and you have the arrogance and gall to proclaim yourself superior to him? How can you stand yourself?”
Mostly, however, as I ponder this loss over the last few days, I find myself wondering if we should acknowledge an obligation to let the really good people in our lives know how much we appreciate them, not through plaques or honors or the impersonal applause of crowds and audiences, but by a direct and personal expression of thanks, and words that express reciprocal love for their kindness, inspiration and ethical leadership. My father was one of those people, and he hated direct compliments, receiving them or giving them. I never told him that he was my hero, or how much I loved him.
And my noble, loving, special friend still has his unanswered e-mail in my in-box.