Getting older sucks. Like, really sucks. For a multitude of reasons. But the worst reason is that the older you get, the more people you lose. And I’ve never been good with saying goodbye.
Yes, it’s been months since I’ve posted. Probably nobody even reads this stuff anymore, which I guess isn’t really the point, is it? It’s supposed to be more of a place to rant and vent and let my thoughts run and maybe, occasionally, someone will see them and they’ll resonate. If not, at least they aren’t in my head anymore.
There’s this friend, you see. Someone I’ve known since 1982. We met, as many of my friendships began, on the stage. He missed the first show of our freshman year – not sure why. But he was there for the musical. Which, if you knew him, would be kind of ironic as he didn’t sing at all. But he found theatre (I think it found him earlier, but I digress) and grabbed a hold of him like it did me.
In high school, Jeff was as close to an enigma as a high school boy can be. There was nothing typical about him in any way – he looked like a California boy (which he ended up becoming), he was wicked smart, sarcastic and incredible fluent with language. But he was also … something else. I could never put my finger on it. It was a smoothness that bordered on slickness, with just a little bit of smarm mixed in. I could never read him. Of course, in high school, I couldn’t read ANYBODY. Seriously, ask those who knew me. I was shockingly naive and utterly missed any cues anyone sent my way. But Jeff was even above and beyond that. He was an enigma wrapped in a riddle covered in tan pants and a button-down oxford. I knew he wasn’t averse to my existence, as he talked to me and included me in things. However, he had a manner that confused a simple-minded high school girl a lot. Is he just being nice? Is he flirting? Is he just creepy? It was hard to tell.
Jeff and I shared the stage for almost all the productions in high school. We didn’t have any classes together, except for speech our senior year, I think, because he ran with the super smart kids. Honor classes, math team, scholastic bowl – all that stuff. I …. wasn’t. But we had the theatre.
For some reason, Mr. C cast Jeff and I as a couple in more than one production. We were Mr. & Mrs. Kirby in You Can’t Take it With You and a couple whose name I can’t remember in George Washington Slept Here. But the funniest and most memorable for me was in Annie Get Your Gun. I was Dolly Tate and he was Pawnee Bill. It was the two of us plus the guy playing Frank singing “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and it was choreographed so that we three would walk down some stairs and he’d kneel and I’d put my foot on his knee. For some unknown reason, he thought it would be funny to start rubbing my leg like Pawnee had never seen a woman’s leg before and I died laughing. So every rehearsal and performance after that, it got bigger and bigger and broader and broader until, by the end, he was like Fred Flinstone with a brontosaurus leg. It became a running gag between us and when we did George Washington the following year, I followed it up by having him sit in front of the chair I was in and throwing my leg over his shoulder. I know. It sounds stupid and immature, but we thought we were HYSTERICAL. Or I thought so and he humored me. Not sure which.
Jeff, in his own way, was really always there for me in a way I didn’t appreciate enough. Our senior year, near the end of the year when students do REALLY STUPID things because they’re almost graduated, I decided to hang before school one day with some people and we were all drinking. So by the time the first bell rang, I was pretty plowed. Thankfully, I had Film Studies first period (I’m sorry, Mr. Strong), so I could sit in the dark and just be drunk without anyone knowing. I was a little more sober after first period. So what did we all do? We went back at lunch and threw back a few more. So now it’s the middle of the afternoon and I’m in speech class. Jeff is sitting in front of me. I must have smelled like a distillery. I started feeling queasy, but was holding it together. Jeff turned around to ask if I was okay – I’m sure I wasn’t making eye contact and was getting green around the gills. Of course, speeches are being given. Suddenly, I leap to my feet and run out of the room, down the hall to the art wing where there was a small bathroom. But there was also a 3-stair staircase. And I fell up it. In front of an open classroom door full of Consumer Ed students who thought that was hilarious. But I made it to the bathroom just. in. time.
But he noticed something was wrong and was concerned about me. I’m sure he figured out what was going on, but he never judged me for it.
Late that spring, upon the urging of my mother’s friend Bobbie, I ran for Milk Day Queen (I KNOW). Small towns are ripe with strange festivals for girls to run for queen of. Most of the local high schools had a girl that joined up and ran alongside me. I thought I’d do pretty well, but I’d never done anything like this. Then they told us we had to bring an escort for the pageant night. Oh SHEESH. I didn’t have an escort. I didn’t have a boyfriend and I didn’t think anyone I knew would be interested in doing something like that. I asked one guy who was my best friend, but he had plans already. Then I thought, hey, Jeff knows how to comport himself, he’s a nice guy, he’s good-looking, maybe he’d help me out.
Now maybe he conveyed more of an eagerness than he actually felt, but his “YES!” to me felt like he really wanted to do this – to help me and have a fun evening. And honestly, it was one of the most memorable evenings of my young life. He behaved like he was escorting a debutante ball on the East Coast – utterly polished and professional and very, very classy. I felt confident and assured and he made me feel great! Then there was the dancing portion of the evening. And here’s where I believe I lost the pageant. We let LOOSE. We danced like monsters – Jeff tied his tie around his head, I took my shoes off. We threw each other to the floor occasionally. He would step on my big skirt and then I’d slip and fall. It was a freaking BLAST. Ooh! Here’s pictures.
As you can see, we had FUN. But, obviously, this was not the image they had in mind for the 1986 Harvard Milk Day Queen, so I went home empty handed. Except for the memory of an incredibly fun night that I wouldn’t have had without Jeff.
After graduation, he still kept track of me. At that time, my drinking & drug use was quite out of control. I spent part of my first summer staying at Millikin for summer stock. But was also looking forward to coming back to be in the summer theatre production of Wizard of Oz as … THE CYCLONE. Jeff played the Wizard, which couldn’t have been more perfect casting. At some point while I was still in Decatur, I invited him down to visit me and meet my college friends. Yes, there was also an indication that we might finally hook up, but that didn’t happen because Jeff is a gentleman. By the time he made the 4 hour drive down, I had already become a drunken mess. And while that wouldn’t have stopped me, it stopped HIM. That wasn’t even an option for him, which was almost unheard of in 1986. So while he got the benefit of my scintillating drunken asshole persona after his 4 hour journey, he never once ever mentioned his irritation with me or his disappointment that I couldn’t wait for him to get there. It just was a non-issue. The window had been closed by me and he never made me feel guilty about it. And he didn’t just roll with it, either. I’m forever grateful.
After I finally got sober and got back into college – this time at University of Illinois. I had had an idea of getting a degree in veterinary medicine and opening a chain of pet stores with on-site veterinary care. This was before that became a thing. Jeff had called me there at school just to catch up. This was still the time of LONG DISTANCE PHONE CALLS OMG, and he called from southern California to talk with me for over an hour. He listened to my idea and encouraged me. He thought it was really good and told me so. He made me feel smart and capable. He made me feel interesting and able to accomplish things. Nobody else did that for me. Of course, I would wonder what the “catch” was – what Jeff wanted from me in return for treating me like an equal human being. But the answer was always: nothing.
There are other stories, of course. I’m sure we all could go on forever talking about all the different times we had together.
Four years ago, Jeff was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. The most unfair, unreasonable diagnosis that could be given to someone who never smoked. Because we all think that if we just “do it right,” these things will never touch us. But cancer is a mean, nasty, hateful, vicious, monstrous bitch who doesn’t give a ripe fig about any of that. In fact, she probably chose Jeff just to show that even the best aren’t safe from her.
Jeff faced his diagnosis with an attitude unlike anything I’ve ever seen. From the beginning, Jeff decided that we was going to stay future-focused. He was going to fight and fight positively. Almost immediately, he began a blog, not just to chronicle his own journey, but to speak to others fighting his fight. To offer a place of encouragement and support and understanding and fact-finding and, always most importantly to Jeff, critical thinking. He talks about the good, the bad, and the horrifically ugly. And I think it always gave him solace to know he could share and that by sharing he was helping others instead of just focusing on himself.
I didn’t learn about his cancer right away. Somehow, I missed that post or that message. But when I did get the news, I was of two minds about it. The first was quick emotion. It couldn’t be real and the idea of Jeff dying of this was UNTHINKABLE. The second was a reaction to the Jeff I’ve always known. While it was a terrifying diagnosis, part of me was sure he’d beat it. This is JEFF we’re talking about. Jeff doesn’t lie down for anything. He’ll beat this out of sheer stubborn willpower and a little bit of smarm. But the only thing I did know is that I would be there with him as he chronicled his journey. Offering support where I could. Encouragement all the time. Making sure he knows how important and loved he is by SO MANY. But he’s in Los Angeles. I’m in Chicago. I have a family and kids with special needs. I can’t get out there to see him. But God, how I wanted to. I wanted to live near him so I could take him to lunch and sit and chat in the afternoons and drive him to chemo if he needed a ride. I wanted to reminisce and make new memories and have it cemented into my head for all eternity just how “Jeff” he is and how that has always made him special. To make sure he always knows that his care and concern about me – his wanting me to understand that I deserve better than how I treated myself – made an impact. That because I have a Jeff in my life, I am growing stronger and better and more confident. We all need people like that in our lives – who see our best selves, our highest potential – and encourage us to get there.
I was lucky. I got to go out there and visit him last summer (2017) while visiting my brother’s family. It was the best thing. I wasn’t in a good place then, and he just listened to me. Listened to me whine and complain and recount the struggles and issues I was having. Listened to me cry. He reiterated a lot of the sentiments that he’s always given me – that I can do anything. That I have strength I’m not even aware of. That I don’t deserve to settle for less than what I need. He was patient with me when I was overwrought. He forgave me when I apologized for things I’d done wrong.
But I was so selfish. So wrapped in my own storyline. I didn’t focus on his fight or his issues or what was impeding him that day. Yes, we talked about him, most definitely. I loved hearing about his writing (which has always been amazing) and his family and his daughter (who he adores). But I didn’t ask much about his cancer. Maybe that was good? I don’t know.
I wish it had been more. I wish I’d had more to give him. More to tell him.
In these last years, Jeff’s presence in my life has been mostly online. I could always count on Jeff’s “like” or “love” or response on a blog post. No one has ever been more supportive of my writing than Jeff. In fact, one post I made back when Caitlyn Jenner came out went viral I believe primarily because of Jeff. He tells you if he likes what you wrote, he tells you if there’s a problem with it. If he disagrees or thinks you haven’t thought it out properly, he’ll tell you. But, most importantly, he’s THERE. Reading it, making sure you know he’s read it, giving you feedback. Telling you he’s glad for whatever breakthrough you’ve made or a positive step you’re taking. I’m sure I’m not the only one who can say these things. They’re a small drop in an ocean of impact that Jeff has had over his 50 years.
It’s the next sentence that’s like cement shoes.
On October 21st, we lost Jeff.
It’s beyond unfair. It’s like a bandsaw to my guts to say it, even now. If Timmy was joy in life, then Jeff was solidity. Jeff was strength and wisdom and learning and practicality. Jeff was giving love through encouragement. When Tim died, it was like a light went out in the world. Colors weren’t as bright and joy seemed limited. With Jeff, it’s like the earth is off its axis. Nothing makes sense anymore. I am gutted. I want to be okay and find joy and love and light. And I hope I will get there. But still today, my anger is raging. I’m furious and I’m hurt and I’m angry and I’m on my knees with the unfairness of it all. When the world is as cocked up as it is right now, we NEED, desperately need, hearts and minds like Jeff’s. We need critical thinking and practical forward-focus and encouragement and LOVE, MY GOD, LOVE. And while I know I WILL go on, of course, I feel like it’s going to be a slog.
It’s only been 28 days. I still expect him to comment on my posts. I still look forward to seeing his pictures. Hearing his stories. Seeing how his mind has processed the latest news. The world is wrong now. But I will do my best to move forward as positively as I can, because that would be honoring to him. Not to give up or lie down, but to keep fighting, but fight with light and with positive focus on the end goal.
Jeff, I will always love you. I literally don’t know how to describe HOW I love you, which is difficult for me. But there’s always been a place deep in my heart for you. And that place, that’s especially yours, was NEVER disappointed. You are profoundly missed and the gash left in the world is painful beyond measure. Keep watch over us. Keep us honest and critical. And keep us focused on love.Tweet