The Profoundness of Grace
Doug types too much...
July 31, 2023
Recently I drove Judy to the UVA medical center for her final colonoscopy. We’ve both had the same gastroenterologist for decades. She’s good at what she does. As a matter of fact, when I scheduled with her the first time many moons ago, my primary physician asked who I was going to see. When I told him, he nodded. “She wrote the book on colonoscopies. Well, correction. Books plural.”
When they wheeled Judy back into the prep room after her 20-minute procedure, she was out, head listing to her left. It took her about 25 minutes to rise to the surface and open her eyes. During the time when we were alone, I leaned forward in my chair by her gurney and gently moved part of her bangs out of her eyes. I kissed her on the head. Told her I loved her.
She remembers none of that. And that’s okay. Maybe the gestures were more for me.
While I was sitting there, I felt myself getting emotionally overwhelmed. It had only been a week since I’d returned from upstate New York where I had the privilege of sitting bedside for part of July 4th weekend, holding the hand of my earliest mentor, Ben Matlock. Ben is dying. In hospice. Being cared for by his loving husband Ted and Ben’s son Adam who is the same age as my son Ivan.
Ben has an undifferentiated tumor of his right sinus. He’s been in severe pain off and on, but mostly, it’s been managed. Chemo and radiation had been initially successful, but then the tumor grew back aggressively. Immunotherapy was attempted and the results were catastrophic. In Ben’s mind, it was clear that more treatment didn’t make any sense. He and Ted made the active decision to go the hospice route. Their immediate response to making that decision was relief. Ben would go out with love in his heart and no regrets. At peace.
Judy and I knew he’d been sick because Ted got in touch and filled us in. When it became obvious that Ben’s time was ending, Judy turned to me one night and said, “I think you should go see him.”
By my count, and it varies, it had been 38 years since we’d last seen each other in person. We did have some sporadic contact over those years. An occasional letter or postcard. A phone call. A like on FaceBook. There were also times when we weren’t in contact for a while. Not because we were mad at each other. We were just living separate lives and that can be distracting.
I called Ben and told him I wanted to come see him.
His reply? “Oh, I would love that.”
A couple of visits were scheduled with Ted and subsequently cancelled last minute because of Ben’s roller-coaster health issues. One of those visits was to coincide with Ben’s 76th birthday. A couple of weeks before my travel, I looked over at Judy and wondered out loud, “What should I take him as a gift?”
Judy didn’t hesitate. “Write him a letter.”
So I wrote about the times we had at the American Theatre in Wiesbaden when I was in my 20s and Ben was dipping a toe into his 30s.
When the birthday trip was cancelled, I’d finished the letter. Since I couldn’t give it to him in person, I mailed it. When it arrived, Ted read it to Ben because he could no longer read for himself. Ted reported back that Ben had wept as it was being read to him.
This is the letter I wrote:
I am going to cheat you because I don’t have the words.
I have the emotions. That’s for sure. I find myself bursting unexpectedly into tears over things I never used to. As time grows shorter for all of us, I guess I don’t feel the need to be as guarded as I’ve been.
Your situation rolls over me in unexpected ways so I weep a lot lately. I have empathy for your pain even though I don’t know what you’re feeling. I have empathy for the see-sawing of feelings, but I’ve never had to actually make a life choice for a loved one.
I’ve had a lot of mentors course through my life. Too many to count. But you were the first that took more than a passing glance at my inadequacies and insecurities. Who would have known that I would meet the most significant mentor as early as I did? You set the bar for everyone that came after you, but none of them came close to eclipsing you.
Over the years, Judy and I have done hundreds of shows. So many of the smart things you taught me about being an artist and how to deal with artists have parlayed. People have told me I’m a wonderful director. Well, I learned it from you. You continue to live through me.
I’m trying to remember where we first met. I’m not sure I can recall. It seems like all of a sudden, you were just there.
You encouraged me with humor and kindness when I wanted to be the bull in the china shop. But tongue lashings would be had. Well deserved ones.
I was a bag of hammers to deal with sometimes. I get it. We were going through a tiff once and you admonished me. “You know I can live without you very well. Believe me, I can. But I would prefer to have you in my life.”
You had a way of putting things in jarring perspective when the chips were down.
One of your better moments of life instruction was when you reigned me in after an opening night went slightly awry. We’d done a co-feature of The People at Work and Closing Time. I’d cast Mike Puskas in the lead role of Closing Time. He wasn’t a seasoned actor, but we’d gotten to a great place where he was carrying his own. But on opening night, he dropped a crucial line at the end of the play and it was the punch line of the show. I walked out of the room. Livid. Stormed out to the ATIW parking lot.
You followed me outside and took me to task. “That was not a good way to handle that. But it’s nothing that can’t be fixed.”
You forced me to fix things when others couldn’t.
We had a couple of moments where audience reactions to intense scenes in our plays were not what I expected. And I showed my ass about it. War Heroes and Mother & Son come to mind, but the War Heroes experience is the most burned into my brain. During a heightened scene, a soldier in the audience was laughing. I was furious – refusing to acknowledge or show any basic understanding that that soldier might have been in war scenarios. Plus it was probably the first theater experience of his life. You followed my pissed self downstairs to the dressing room where you accosted me.
“You know, to expect an audience member to react the way you want them to is the height of arrogance.”
That was a lesson for me. Again.
I seem to recall you reading the first draft of Mother & Son during the middle of the night. You were good with most of it, but you were also cognizant that I’d gotten lazy at one point and filled pages with the characters sitting around the living room telling jokes.
You wanted that fixed. You told me not to be a lazy writer. So I went back to the typewriter and rewrote that I shouldn’t have written in the first place. It was a true “good writing is rewriting” moment that changed how I’ve written everything since.
You always had style. About everything. You always looked cool.
You taught me how to keep my mouth shut on occasion. At the conclusion of the first reading for Mother & Son, Judy closed her script and declared, “The guy in this is a total asshole.”
You knew my past, but Judy did not.
I felt myself levitating and forming fists. And right before I opened my cakehole to give her the what for, I felt your hand rest gently on my forearm.
You knew I needed to be sensitive to criticism because not all of it is bad. That’s a tough pill to swallow when you’re a young upstart.
When you took me to a high tea in London some 43 years ago, you eye-rolled big-time when I stacked my plate with multiple layers of confections. Now, in my defense to your withering Are you kidding me? stare, I did eat everything on my plate. It’s okay. In retrospect, I deserved the wither.
I like to think I’m better now.
You spent a lot of time smoothing off my rough edges. I apologize for making that difficult from time to time. Judy will tell you that after the hand-off, there was still a lot more sledgehammer work to be done, but you did what you could in the time allotted.
You taught me so much. It wasn’t all about theater. We ate together. We partied together. You got me to dress right occasionally and to lose my Maine pronunciation of garage with a hard G.
I got sick during the Deathtrap run. I jacked myself up on Contac to get to the stage. And just before we went on, you looked over at me and said, “I know you don’t feel well, but I wanted you to know that even though you’re ill, you’re still the best actor I could have asked for in this role.”
You’ve always been a class act all the way – the James Bond of gay guys. Man, it was my good fortune to meet you when I did. You remain a gentleman who inspires. A dashing individual who surfs easily on waves that are everything from the deepest heartfelt tear-inducing connections to a wit most wicked. God, there were so many laughs.
In my mind, we were the Lennon & McCartney of ATIW. In many ways, our partnership followed a Beatlesque trajectory.
We created art together with a sense of urgency. We started out with tightly put together theater – often original work fresh off the typewriter. It was such a thrilling time with hit after hit. We were able to work in an environment where we were free to do whatever we wanted without censorship or interference. Damn, it was a good run that lasted almost a decade. Then we got married and went off to successful solo careers. Drifted apart. And now it’s been 35 years since we’ve seen each other.
Finally, we are re-connected. Tethered with wisdom that is most welcome.
You were always generous with your soul. I remember you telling me that Jeanne Nelson had cornered you once and asked if you and I were lovers. Your answer was brilliantly on the mark.
“Not physically, but emotionally.”
Yeah. I agree.
As I finish this, random images from the mental Rolodex flip past.
Smoking Benson & Hedges.
The party at the American Arms where a completed bowl of salad got knocked off a window sill and made it stories to the ground intact.
Us dancing our soft-shoe, performing in a tiny village for farmer types when a bus carrying the Pippin crew got lost.
The car breaking down in France.
You in a Greek restaurant with a spoon hanging off the end of your nose.
I’m still cheating you on words. The moment I finish this, a thousand more memories will flood in. All good ones because even instructive moments with you matured into good.
I think of you often as you go through this crisis. I’ve said before that if I was God, I would reach inside and rip that cancer right out of you. I don’t consider myself a religious guy, but I do pray a fair amount. Be assured you are in my prayers.
I am so glad you found Ted. You deserved a partner that fit. In spite of everything going on right now, you seem happy. Content. Safe.
Love is a good thing.
And you have a lot of love in your court.
That includes mine.
When it became apparent Ben wasn’t going to get better and might go sooner than later, Ted told me to come up whenever I wanted to. We agreed 4th of July weekend would work.
Judy told me I would have a life-changing experience and she was right. My time was nothing but profound.
Ben and Ted have served for almost 2 decades as staff supporting residents of Camphill Village. Camphill Village is a place for adults with developmental disabilities and service volunteers. Situated on hundreds of acres of rurality, Camphill is a commune of sorts – a collection of homes and facilities that works on a harmonious level. Empathy exists there. And quiet. And lots and lots of love. After my weekend there, I summed it up as idyllic.
Camphill is largely self-sufficient with most of their vegetables, herbs and meats produced on premises. Their herbal garden was a special treat. If I had to guess, I’d say the garden is a couple of acres of real estate – a feast for the eyes. Sitting in their kitchen window, I watched people slowly herd cows and goats past. I’d see the occasional horse.
The whole time I was at Camphill, I noticed the absence of televisions. Ben’s son Adam admitted to me there was one in the house in a guest room. Rarely turned on, it has a shroud draped over it when not in use.
I thought I would lose my shit the moment I walked into Ben’s room and saw him. Instead, there was a sereneness manifesting.
When I first entered the room, he opened his one good eye and brightened at my presence. I went to his bedside and held his hand in mine and smiled. “You know, Ben, in Jamaica, they say there are no problems, only situations.”
He managed a weak smile. Doug was in the room.
White noise caused by a window-mounted air conditioner coupled with the relentless rhythm of a machine pumping oxygen emanated from Ben’s hospice room. I got used to the white noise.
I spent long periods holding Ben’s hand. Sometimes it was just me alone in the room with him, but often I would be holding one of Ben’s hands while a loved one was holding the other. Most of the time, words were not spoken, nor were they necessary.
One of the nights I was holding Ben’s hand while he slumbered, I thought of Bob Denig who was an Episcopal priest we both knew back in Germany. Ben was already a member of Bob’s church in Frankfurt. He invited me to come to a service.
There was a sense of formality. Robes. Clouds of incense. Liturgy. And then Bob spoke. I was wowed. And I am not a religious guy. But I was hooked. The way Bob put words together and the way he delivered them were spot on. His sermons were rife with humor and he had a way of reaching down with his kindness into your soul. Inspiring as hell.
I attended for about a year and a half. I got to like the repetition of the robes and the incense and the liturgy. And then Bob would do his 10 minutes every Sunday.
Bob was a lovely guy who was eventually elevated to Bishop and then died prematurely in his 40s from cancer, leaving behind his beloved wife and children. Ben was invited to keep vigil and was there when Bob took his last breath. And in that moment of passing, Ben thought to himself, “So, that’s death. I can do that.”
Ben told me it was one of his most profound experiences.
In better days, Ben and Ted liked to read poetry to each other before bedtime. I was treated to a small sliver of that one day when Ted walked in and sat to read a poem. Ted’s reading of it was heartfelt and masterful. Their lives had been full of spontaneous moments like that. What a privilege.
Ted and I had a few occasions to talk when Ben was either in deep sleep or being monitored by his son. One of our conversations was about disabilities. He explained to me that when he and Ben came to volunteer at Camphill, they learned the people they care for may have disabilities, but as the process evolves, volunteers recognize disabilities within themselves, making for illuminating discoveries and unexpected personal growth on both sides of the spectrum.
At night, while Ted slept in a cramped bed sandwiched in a corner near Ben’s gurney, I made camp in their bedroom. Slept in their bed. When I could. And when I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t agitated like I get at home. No. I found myself going into long and welcome periods of meditation. One night I even did yoga about 2 AM. Yeah. Surprised me, too.
There was a quiet parade of people who came in person onesy-twosey to pay their last respects. He had more friends come visit in a couple of days than I’ve probably had my entire life.
I spent lots of time watching him breathe while he slept, studying the ravaged right side of his face. I’d stare. And not in a gawkish way. I was more fascinated at how the body can turn on you. There were several moments when he stopped. Where his chest no longer heaved. And no condensation was forming inside his oxygen mask. And in those moments, I was calm. Observing and saying to myself, “Oh, is he gone?”
I was okay if he was. Everyone concerned was okay with him vacating. Still, we find ourselves grasping at any shred of life. Holding on. More for us than them maybe.
Like I said, my emotions did not play out the way I thought they would. Except in two instances. The first time I lost it was when he asked me to read to him. This was not a surprise. When I’d arrived two days earlier, I made mention that I’d brought along a couple of things to read out loud.
“Read to me,” he said, plain as day.
Okay. Will do. I retrieved the small handful of pages. I read my latest mildly humorous piece from my website. The Old Goat Diet. Followed up with a later chapter taken from my still unfinished Santa book.
I suspected I might have trouble maintaining a grip for the book chapter because it was a scene where elderly Santa is debilitated to the extent that his wife Virginia has to help him put on his coat. She then sits him down for a heart-to-heart where she explains why his Santa days have to end.
My suspicions were correct. Fighting back tears, I could barely get through the book chapter. Truth be told, I’d already lost a handle on myself when I started with the Goat Diet which I thought I could get through. No such luck. I found myself choking halfway through.
I apologized out loud more than once. “Man, I told myself I wasn’t going to do this.”
There was no reason to apologize. I knew that. But I was so upset about losing my bearing. I wanted things to be perfect in an imperfect situation. There are times when you just get what you get. If I’d been in a theater situation, Ben might have given me a note to not lose control so much. But sometimes, losing control is all you got left. And when everybody in the room knows that, we’re good.
When it was time to go, I stood beside Ben and held his hand.
“Ben, I’m going to leave you now.”
He squeezed my hand and mustered a weak “Thank you for coming.”
I knew this would be the last time I would see him alive. “So…are you going to be an angel that watches over me?”
That’s when he said his last words to me. Clear as day.
I hovered over him. Gently stroked his hair.
“Ben, I love you so much.”
And then I whispered in his ear.
I saved my second breakdown for Ted as I was leaving. We stood in their kitchen and I told Ted I hoped when the time came, I would have as much grace as them. Ted and I cried and hugged. A welcome release.
I drove the 8-hour trek back from Camphill in a state of calm contemplation. I was so tunnel-visioned by the time I got home that I failed to notice right away that Judy had changed out the shower curtain in the master bath. And if I had taken stock of that then instead of the next day, I might have also picked up on her having sanded/painted the entire back bathroom. Like, how did I not see that right away?
Because my mind was in another zone. And part of me is still there. Grief comes upon us when it wants to.
Ben died on a Tuesday. July 18th at about 8 AM.
His funeral was held a few days later on Friday the 21st at Christ Church Episcopal in Hudson, New York.
I did not go to Ben’s funeral, but Judy and I watched it via live-stream. One of the highlights was Ben’s son Adam singing perfect harmony with his mother DeLayne on a beautiful rendering of Amazing Grace.
During the service, a woman stood at the podium and read a biography of Ben’s life.
“Ben recognized that he had moments of grace – with the clouds parting – around death. He learned that grief has its own timetable – never fully going away, and reappearing when it chooses.”
As soon as I heard her read those words, I thought of his experience watching his friend Bob Denig pass. And then sure enough, the following was included in his bio:
“Ben was a primary care giver for his friend Bob – leading up to and including his death. Conversations with Bob were moving, meaningful, and deep. From Bob, Ben learned that to ask, ‘Why me?’ led you to ask ‘Why not me?’ and neither question was terribly helpful. He watched his friend meet death first with fear, but then without fear, with calm acceptance. Ben recognized that he had just witnessed what many people spend their lives worrying about, and he understood that ‘death is what life is all about.'”
Bob’s acceptance exhibited a grace Ben called on in his final days.
Hopefully not, but I may have to call on Ben’s grace someday to get me through.
When I spoke to Ted on the phone the day after Ben passed, he told me I couldn’t have come at a better time than I did.
Oh, well. Better late than never, right?
I am forever indebted.
Yes, my friend.