Saturday, April 08, 2006

An anniversary, and a remembrance

A disclaimer - this is not a fun or comfortable posting. If you're offended by hearing (even indirectly) about men having sex, this posting is not for you. Those few parts are not particularly graphic, but they are fairly central to the story.

If you're still with me, read on...

From the time that I moved to Ohio in 1973, Skip was my best friend. We were two semi-outcasts - he because of his lack of height, me because of my weight and my transfer-student status. Yet somehow we found each other, and we found our niche in high school together first in theatre, then in marching band and choir. We were what Dan Fogleberg would later call "twin sons of different mothers."

Skip and I double-dated a lot - he was always much more successful with women than I ever was - and we became best drinking buddies as well. After high-school, I started off to school (on what turned out to be an eight-year bachelor's degree) and he went off on an abortive career as a vacuum-sweeper salesman and various other kinds of scams. He married his high-school sweetheart in 1977, while I tried and failed a number of times to have successful relationships with females.

In late 1982, after an evening of highly-successful drinking, we ended up together at the home of friend where I was "house-sitting." Our inhibitions were already down, and we ended up in the same king-sized bed in the one heated bedroom in the house. One thing led to another, and we ended up exchanging oral sex. Neither of us were black-out drinkers - so the next morning, we both knew what had happened, but we tiptoed around the subject as if a rhinoceros was in the bedroom with us. We had breakfast, and he went back to his soon-to-be-ex-wife in Columbus.

Over the next year, we had maybe half-a-dozen more oral encounters, all under the influence of alcohol. Either one of us would initiate sex, so it was not one-sided in any way. And we both clearly enjoyed it - although it seemed that Skip was increasingly more uncomfortable about it when we were sober. When I met my soon-to-be wife, I'm pretty sure that our playtimes stopped (there might have been one more encounter before I got married, but I honestly can't remember for sure).

After all, I was intent on being a faithful husband - because that's what I believed "normal" men were supposed to do. I can't say that I stopped fantasizing about sex with Skip, and there were times when I wished we had just had the guts to speak the truth about how we felt about each other. Then, in my fantasy, we'd ditch our respective relationships, take things "all the way" to intercourse (which Skip had hinted at wanting to do) and just choose to be together with each other. By that time, he was divorced - but I was still married (and a coward), and that was that.

Flash forward six years. Both our lives were in the throes of end-stage alcoholism, though neither of us really believed that. Skip, I later found out, was also involved with cocaine and new age "spirit channeling," which was taking him down darker and darker roads. Both of us were in desperate financial straits, spending way more than we were earning, and trying to look "normal" while doing it.

Two weeks before Easter 1990, Skip showed up at my house with a bottle of Drambuie (a long-standing birthday tradition for us) and a really heavy heart. As we sat on the front steps of my recently-acquired house in West Toledo, he poured out his troubles - how his finances were falling apart, how he was having trouble performing at work, how his new girlfriend (another childhood sweetheart) was souring on him, and how his parents and grand-parents had completely rejected him (the girlfriend was black, and Skip's family was pure redneck).

Unfortunately, I had no experience, strength or hope to share with him. I told him, "Skip, I've got no answers for you. I'm probably about 8 months away from bankruptcy myself; my marriage is completely on the rocks; I've got a four-inch hole in my leg from a lesion that was at least partly caused by my drinking; and my family really doesn't care whether I live or die, right now."

I was so wrapped up in my own struggles and shame that I couldn't hear his desperation, couldn't see his despair. We sat on the front steps, side-by-side, and commiserated a while longer. Out of the blue, Skip said, "Yeah, things are so bad between [the girlfriend] and I that nothin's happenin' between us. Hell, she won't even give me a blowjob any more." (Not surprisingly, my own sexual activity had fallen off in similar fashion.)

So I poured a little more Drambuie into his glass, smiled at him, and said (at least half-jokingly), "Well, at least THAT'S something I could help you out with..."

The rest I remember in slow-motion - Skip leaping up off the step, turning and facing me with this look of horrified shame, his expression and body-language almost shouting, "How the fuck could you possibly have said that out loud?"

He stared at me a moment longer, then set his glass down on the step in silence, turned and walked to his van, got in and drove away without another word. As I watched his van roll down the street, I remember distinctly two sentiments: one, that I was so terribly sorry he had been offended by what I had said; and two, that part of me really wished he had taken me up on my offer.

I had no idea that he had gone home that night, packed up a dozen things he had of value, and spent a week traveling around Ohio, handing his treasures over to friends and family members. I had no idea how mentioning our shared sexual history was the absolute final straw for Skip, coming hours after his grandfather (whom he adored) told him that so long as he had "that niggah girlfriend," he would never be welcomed in their house again.

But a week later, he drove back into Toledo very, very drunk. And shortly before dawn on April 8, 1990 - Palm Sunday - he knelt down next to a tree beside a jogging path at the Wildwood Metropark in Toledo, pressed a .38 caliber pistol to his chest, and pulled the trigger.

The bullet did not pierce his heart, as several of his suicide notes said he planned to do. It severed his aorta, and (according to the police report) he spent several minutes thrashing around on the ground, drowning in his own blood, alone.

He was 33.

I had been up all night chaperoning a youth-group overnighter in South Toledo. I hadn't even known Skip had left town, and as I remember it, the first hint of trouble I got was when his girlfriend called my house to ask if I knew where Skip was. About an hour later, she called back, and asked me if I could drive her downtown. It seemed a jogger had discovered Skip, and they needed her to come down and identify the body. All the way downtown, we both hoped and prayed it was a case of mistaken identity.

It was no mistake.

It was even more devastating when I found out that his girlfriend, several of his friends, his ex-wife and each of his family members had received suicide letters, postmarked the day before he died. Because of everyone he knew closely, the only person who didn't get a letter was me.

I remember thinking at the time, "Well, evidently Skip believed I had all the information I would need about why he killed himself."

It took me several years before I could forgive him for that. But in fact, when my own life self-destructed in December 1990, the only reason I couldn't kill myself was because I knew that while it would take me out of any hope of a solution, it wouldn't clear up any of my problems. That simple knowledge, as painful as it was, was also a saving grace for me.

The first time I could find even a smidgeon of peace about Skip's death was at two years sober, being asked to be an AA sponsor by a 19-year-young man - and having him admit to me how often he felt shame over his own "close encounters with the same sex." And as he sat there, dejected, waiting for my judgement on him, I could share with him what happened as a result of my own same-sex encounters - and what they cost me. And out of our shared pain and shame came healing. A few months later, a fellow still in high-school and newly sober did the same thing - and a little more of the pain and shame went away.

It took several more years to admit how angry I had been at Skip for cutting off the chance for us to live together in sobriety. And it has only been in the last two years that I have been willing to admit how much I wished I'd had the chance to be honest with him about how I felt about him, emotionally and physically.

A little over a week ago was my first out "belly-button birthday." I've had the opportunity to tell this story several times in the last six months, and each time I've told it, I've found new strength and new healing.

So on this anniverary date, it seems appropriate to put this story out - if for no other reason than to tell anyone else who might have similar shame or pain about their sexuality this important truth:

No matter how far your life may seem to have disintegrated, no matter how many friends and family have rejected you because of your homosexuality, believe this: your life, your love and your story are valuable - both to God, to those who love you, and to others who need to hear your story.

The God of my misunderstanding was waiting for me with arms open wide, when I finally was willing to admit the truth about myself. And I trust that the same God will be there for you, as well.
If even one person hears that message, and chooses to go on living as a result, the pain of sharing this story will have been worth it.

So, all these years later, I need to say these things:

I love you, Skip....still. And I miss you, still. A lot of the hurt, and the anger, is gone - and I have to admit that there are sometimes multiple weeks that can go by without a thought of you. But I still wish you were here.

I'd loved you far more that a brother - even back then.

And I really,
really wish I'd had the balls to get honest with myself and with you, and tell you that out loud, before you died.

I wish you could have held on long enough to find out that there was hope, and sobriety, and healing, for the two of us - regardles whether we were together or apart. You'll never believe all the times that I'll hear a song, or have some experience and say, "Damn, I wish you were here for this..."

I still believe those hopes are valid and true for me, today. And I trust that there will be another man - or men - with whom I can share my heart and my body the way I wish I could have with you.


  1. Steve

    I have no words to say how much empathy I feel for you....why, why, WHY would a loving caring God allow things to turn out that way? It only proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we little inconsequential humans will never know, or comprehend, his plans.

    God spared you, friend, and he has lifted you up, and is giving you the courage and strength, inch by inch, day by day, to triumph over these monumentous obstacles. I hope I am there to see the golden sun shine when he is finished with you. You are his child and he is always with you.

    As corny and sappy as I think that "footprints in the sand" deal is, it applies to you. It must.

    Keep walking, keep sharing. You need to put it out there and we need to hear it.


  2. Pete, I really don't believe that God "allowed" this to happen. I have to agree with CS Lewis, who said, "There are two groups of people - those who say to God, 'Your will be done', and those to whom God must say, 'YOUR will be done.'" That was definitely the two of us, back then. We thought we had done away with the need for God. But both our lives proved otherwise

    I believe that God, as the ultimate "lemons-to-lemonade" specialist, has used this tragedy to help a lot of people - which is part of the reason I shared it.

    And I also freely admit that Skip's suicide saved my own life. It's part of my affirmation of my own life, and my own story, to share this chapter of it as well.

    Your support, and your affirmation, means more than I can say. Thank you, brother.

  3. Much love to you --

    love, and healing, and joy -- all that stuff that comes with a second chance.

    So much of this can only get done one day at a time. And sometimes one hour at a time.

    So I send you love and pray for your joy.

  4. Steve, My closest friend in life, a man from college, with whom I now know I was falling in love, and I think he with me. He shot himself, and I still miss him terribly. If only we'd had the courage. . . .

    All we can do is ask God to redeem our failures and bless our successes. Forgive us our sins and strngthen our sorrows.

    Thank you for sharing this part of your journey.

    Cheers, Joe.

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  6. Steve:
    I just lost a LONG comment to some ham-fisted move on my computer, so I will just say: hang in there, don't let the bastards grind you down, and ...
    the gist of my many lost words: don't let your anger do the work FOR them.

    "We are not as black [or white] as we are painted ---
    Let us forgive, and so become acquainted."


    Yr Skip, Joe's Steve, my Jane. Different stories, same story.
    Hang in there.