Saturday, March 5, 2011

Remembering a (Gay) Friend: A Eulogy

I’ve been blocked with this blog, when it comes to writing something that really means a great deal to me.  And I know why.  And haven’t wanted to tussle with the reason.

Last year, a close elderly friend of mine of some thirty years died.  But I did not learn of his death until months after the fact.  And that’s part of the story of the blockage I've just mentioned.  But it’s also part of the reason I have difficulty thinking about ways to eulogize him on this blog—and that’s what’s really tugging at my heart to be done.

He had a secret, and I do not want to reveal it in a way that violates his privacy or the privacy of his family, even though he did not have a wife or children, and so there are no direct heirs to be considered if I share part of his story here.  Still, he took his secret to the grave, and I have been concerned not to write anything about my friend that might disclose his identity, out of respect for his privacy even in death.

At the same time, my friend deserves to be remembered—and remembered as he was and not as people wanted to imagine him, so that they could remain comfortable not naming or talking about what everyone who knew this friend has to have known about him.  He was gay, of course.  And he grew up in a world—hyper-Catholic, Polish, aristocratic, pre-modern—in which one did not talk about such matters, and in which one certainly was not gay.  Even when one was gay.  And when everyone knew it.

And because of this, because of how my elderly friend chose to live his life, when he died, no one contacted Steve and me, though he had visited us almost every year for the past thirty years.  Here’s how I learned of his death: as he approached his mid-90s, our friend began to tell us that there might come a year—he reckoned it as his 95th year—in which he could possibly begin to travel with less ease.  And he’d see what happened then, and would let us know about his yearly trip.

Last year, he planned a trip to us.  Our friend had long been a world traveler, making long trips annually to friends around North America and overseas, to see friends and relatives in Europe, to Africa and Japan, places he loved.  He actually began his travels in North America last year, with the intent of visiting us in the spring as he went from place to place.

And then we got an email from him saying he had become ill en route and had decided to return home, and thought he might not be able to travel again to see us.  I emailed him back—talking to him on the phone was not easy, since he had a hearing problem and couldn’t understand what I was saying to him—and then a long silence ensued.  I decided that perhaps emails weren’t reaching him, and I wrote him a letter.  More silence. I didn't know what to do to break the silence, short of trying to arrange a trip to see him, because talking by phone wasn't an option, given his inability to hear, even with a hearing aid.

Then not long before Christmas, I got a call from someone I didn’t know, his executor, telling me my friend had died in the summer.  I’m not sure how the executor got my name and why he chose to call me many months after the friend’s death.  I assume that my letter provoked the phone call—that the letter made my identity as a friend known, and at that point, the executor decided to contact me.

And that was that.  I was then able to go online and find many obituaries.  This friend was a noted scholar in his field, a polymath and Renaissance man of high cultural background who had many friends in important positions, an old-school Polish aristocrat with close ties to bishops and abbots and lords and ladies throughout Europe.  One of the things that tickled him the most about his life experience was that he had met, and was friends with, members of every royal family around the world.  

Or so he told me.  Royalty meant a great deal to him.  And democracy was anathema, an invention of the unlettered masses who had taken power from his sort in revolution after revolution in Europe and the Americas, until his class had been reduced to ghosts of their former selves.

But rich ghosts. Powerful ghosts.  Ghosts for whom every door still opened, as they traveled the globe and expected audiences with popes.  And as they upheld the power of kings, popes, and bishops any place royal institutions, whether secular or churchly, held sway.  And as they invested their still considerable holdings and upheld the ruthless power of corporate leaders drawn from the very unlettered masses they secretly despised.

A strange friend for me to have, you might say.  And yes, we clashed, often and volubly, over religious and political issues.  Because he was Polish and stubborn and I’m Anglo-Celtic and equally stubborn, we were not, either of us, above saying outrageous things to get each other’s goat.  I found it almost impossible to understand how a man who had come to terms with being gay and found being gay morally acceptable for him and his friends could simultaneously defend the most repressive, outrageously unjust structures and practices of a church he loved to excess.

My friend was both gay and comfortable with being gay and strictly closeted.  And he was both gay and comfortable with being gay and an ardent monarchist (a defender of any monarchy, it mattered not which).  And a right-wing Catholic who fasted on Fridays, never missed Mass, actively encouraged crackdowns on and silencing of theologians, wanted all religious women back in cloisters and in traditional habits and under male control.  But he was gay and actively so, and found that an acceptable moral option for him and his kind, as he did prostitution, since men of his class who weren't gay needed women to service them, don't you know, and  had always done so throughout history, and only boorish Puritans (who were, after all, drawn from the middle and lower classes of the British Isles) considered otherwise. 

He also belonged, I discovered from his obituary, to the secretive, powerful, far-right Catholic order (whose membership is reserved exclusively to those with aristocratic status) called the Knights of Malta.

I was not surprised to learn from his obituary that my friend was a Knight of Malta.  Nor was I surprised that in thirty years of friendship, he had withheld that information from me.  Learning it helped me make sense of things that had long puzzled me, like how he obtained the surprising, totally wrong-headed pieces of arcane right-wing information in which he believed devoutly—how he obtained such information when he showily avoided newspapers (too common, too plebian, and they don't tell the truth that only insiders in palaces and places like the Vatican's halls know), the internet, books of any sort except those calculated to correspond with his preconceived judgments about the world, and so forth.

I knew there had to be some kind of network supplying him with information like the following: that talk about global warning was a liberal conspiracy to curtail business (and don’t we need the profits of the rich to make everything work?), or that there cannot possibly be any such thing as gay marriage, since “Dictionary says (like many native speakers of Slavic languages, my friend had trouble with definite and indefinite articles) marriage is between a man and a woman.”  Period.  Case closed.

Can’t change what dictionary says!  And wouldn’t a nuclear war really be better, since most human beings in modern, democratic societies are simply parasites, consuming (pronounced "consumink") units, and weeding out these parasitical consuming units would be good for the continuation of the race?  And who ever heard of a distinguished female chef?  As everyone knows, women cook imitatively, as an obligation and not a creative endeavor.  It’s men who have the creativity to craft stellar dishes.  And the intelligence, which is more to the point.

As I say, my friend was a bundle of contradictions and complexities, and much of the complex contradictoriness seemed to be rooted in a particularly Polish penchant for believing passionately in two opposite ideas at the same time, and defending both with equal ardor against all comers.  Hence the puzzle of his being gay.

And closeted.  And dying in the closet, so that even his closest gay friends (we were, we understood, part of a circuit of gay couples he visited) did not know of his death.  Since we did not exist, for his family or the executors of his estate.  Like his own now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t gayness, we weren’t there.

We were, at best, names in a lengthy address book, to which faces and histories were not attached, and therefore we weren’t worthy of information when a beloved friend died—especially when the address book showed two men living at the same address.

I had always realized my friend handled his being gay and having many gay friends this way—that he treated both his identity and our existence as secrets, when he dealt with his devoutly Catholic Polish family and his many right-wing aristocratic Catholic friends and high-church ties.  In his yearly Christmas letter shared with friends around the world, his urbi et orbi letter as he called it, he would speak of his travels to visit this or that friend each year.  And when he recounted his time with us, he never identified us except to say that we were unnamed “friends” with whom he had visited that spring, and had seen this or that sight.

The sights always included beautiful natural scenes—on trips to us, the mountains north of Little Rock, the wildflowers there, a handsome new garden in Hot Springs.  Our love of nature helped us span the political and religious differences, as did our shared love of story-telling and outrageous narratives often drawn from family history (there are many points of similarity between crazy Southern families and those about which Russian, Czech, and Polish novelists have long written).  

We also shared a love of art and good books (albeit, ones that did not clash with my friend's monarchist and right-wing views, if we were to discuss books safely).  And so his visits to us always included time for libraries and art museums and long meals I cooked for us to enjoy as we talked—or, more correctly, as Steve and I listened to one droll story after another told in a charming Polish-accented English devoid of articles and full of “But, my dear!” and “Rrrreally?” and “When Count Burabura and I met at sweetest little Roman trattoria.”

I loved my friend.  We shall miss him bitterly.  I want him to be remembered.  I feel a strong obligation to eulogize him.

And as I struggle to do that here, in this posting, I feel intense sadness that he died having lived completely in the closet, so that even in death, he is not who he was in life—is not remembered as who he was in life, since, to our shock, we’ve found that several of the obituaries we’ve retrieved for him on line fabricate a wife he never had.

And I wonder why it has to be this way, for anyone, in the world in which we live.  And especially for those most ardently devoted to the church, to a church for whom they exist only by being invisible.  Even when they are, as our friend assured he was, part of an invisible but very powerful elite club of gay men with access to the elite halls of the Vatican itself, where—so our friend told us—hidden gay princes have for centuries carried important jeweled ecclesiastical gewgaws in papal processions, and continue to do so.  Though they’re not really there.

Since there are no gay men in those processions.

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