My friend Brian died Friday night, at approximately 7:30 PM, after a long battle with cancer.
It’s still, after all these years, a bit of a fascination for me to say “my friend, Brian.” You see, we should never have been friends.
When I first heard the news that Brian had been hired to work in our office, transferring over from another department, I was warned I probably wouldn’t like him. I was told, by various people, that he was difficult to get along with, belligerently outspoken, hard-headed and unliked by the many of the people who worked with and knew him.
From our first meeting, I could tell we probably wouldn’t get along. We were complete opposites in almost every way: where I was younger, gay, liberal, friendly and relatively new to my agency, Brian was older, straight, conservative, curmudgeonly, and a long time veteran of our agency, long enough to be jaded with the attitude that most other people in our agency were useless morons. I don’t know what he was told about me, or what he assumed upon meeting me, but, although he was never rude or condescending to me, I sensed an…uneasiness between us, as if we knew we were looking at the polar opposite of ourselves.
That uneasiness didn’t last long. I quickly proved to Brian I was a hard worker, took my job seriously and was “smarter than the average bear.” That was enough, apparently, for Brian to feel I was not to be discounted or disapproved of and he warmed up to me a bit. I learned Brian was a wealth of knowledge and was always willing to answer my questions, take time to explain things to me and help me out if/when he could. We developed a professional respect for each other right away and, although we discovered we were very different on a personal level, it didn’t stop us from working well together and getting along.
Brian and I gradually grew more comfortable sharing our opinions and beliefs on non-work topics, as well as stories about our activities outside of work. Brian was a good ol’ boy, sitting around with his bevy of beer drinking buddies on bar stools, telling jokes that (I would learn later in our friendship) were very…”un-PC.” I would tell him how I sat with friends at restaurants or in my living room, sipping cosmos and ranting about the injustices against my community, women, people of color, the poor, the sick and immigrants. We never argued, per se, we’d each simply state our positions as a matter of fact and leave it at that. We seemed to have a mutual respect for each other for being so outspoken and strong in our beliefs, despite our differences.
We also discovered we were both a couple of hard core smart-asses and, as Brian learned, he could not only hit me with some real zingers without offending me or hurting my feelings, I could fire back just as mercilessly and without hesitation. We were constantly e-mailing barbs back and forth, cat-calling at each other in the hallway, and giggling like two little school girls in our cubicles as we shared jokes between us that were not appropriate to share with the office at large. We seemed to like and respect the same co-workers, and dislike the same ones, as well. He met Jeffrey and, to my surprise, never seemed to balk or get squeamish at referring to him, and acknowledging him, as my husband. In fact, I think Brian was more worried about Jeffrey liking him then whether he would like Jeffrey.
And so we developed a comfortable working friendship and all was well. Then, something happened that moved us to a whole new level of friendship I could never have anticipated.
We had a co-worker (“T”) that had been a family friend of mine. He was friends with, and had graduated with, my oldest brother. My husband, Jeffrey, and I had been to T’s sister’s funeral. T was also good friends with Brian. Shortly after T began working in our office, and we (me, Brian, T, and all our similarly titled co-workers) were all moved into the same office area, the local news exploded with reports that a same-sex marriage equality bill was going to be voted on by the NY State Senate. For weeks we heard debates and discussions about it on every news channel, radio station and read about it in every newspaper. As you can imagine, it was (and is) a very personal issue for me and I was a roller coaster of emotions as I would hear a powerful speech supporting my right to marriage equality one morning, then hear a scathing attack on the LGBT community and our lack of standing to have equality the next. As the future of my marriage benefits were being debated by strangers while my co-workers went about their business, taking their equality and freedoms for granted, I said little but could be quite moody at certain times. It all came to a head one morning when “T” was listening to his radio at his desk (which he always did) and an interview was aired by a very virulent anti-gay opponent of marriage equality. Unfortunately, T’s desk was on the other side of my cubicle wall and I had to hear it all. As that segment ended and I found myself seething with anger and trying desperately to find a way to diffuse it, T said, almost sheepishly, but loud enough for me to hear: “You know, I don’t support gay marriage.” It was all I could do to restrain myself and simply bark a loud, and clearly confused “What?!?!” T went on to explain all the stupid ass-backward reasons why I didn’t deserve to get married the way he did, just by nature of my birth. As I sat and listened to this supposed family friend reveal his prejudice towards me, my husband and our community, something snapped and the feeling of betrayal, anger, disgust and defensiveness poured out of me like an exploding volcano. I went off on T in a way I have never before gone off on anyone about anything in my life and I lost all sense of professionalism and discretion as I tore into him in the middle of the office in front of all my co-workers, expressing my disgust and disdain for him and people like him. I grew so angry, so out of control, I did the only thing I could do to try to end the volatile situation: I left. I walked out of the building to my car and called my boss telling him I had a personal emergency and I had to leave immediately.
I thought for sure I had destroyed my reputation at work; that my co-workers would now look at me like the crazy gay guy that got all emotional and out of control. I sheepishly entered the office the next morning, quietly walked to my desk and prepared to spend the remainder of my day being shunned by my co-workers. That’s when I looked up to see Brian, of all people, standing at my desk. “Can I talk to you in the hall for a minute?”
I truly had no idea what to expect as I followed him into the hall. Would he chastise me for losing control? Berate me for chewing out his buddy? Inform me he had filed a complaint or requested I be moved away from the rest of them? I was nervous and angry, unsure how I would respond. That’s when I got the biggest shock of my life as Brian began to speak.
He said that T was an asshole and every single person in my office, including Brian, came to my defense after I left, telling T he was out of line, insensitive and he could keep his negative comments to himself in the future. He said he could see how much T hurt me, especially because I thought T was a supportive friend. He said he knew how personal this was for me, and he couldn’t imagine what it was like to hear those kind of things about me and Jeffrey from strangers, let alone someone I thought was my friend.
He continued, as I stood stunned, soaking up every word in shock and disbelief. He said he knew it must seem like the whole world was against me some times, but he wanted me to know that I had friends and allies in the most unlikeliest of places and that there was something he’d been meaning to tell me and couldn’t think of a better time than that moment. He proceeded to explain to me that knowing me had changed his life. He had never met an openly gay person before, and that just my working and living openly, with self-respect and honesty, sharing my life, as a matter of fact, with him and everyone else, changed his views on, and understanding of, homosexuality. He no longer thought of gay people as “those people.” When he heard “gay” he thought of his friend and co-worker, Sean and his husband, Jeffrey. That’s when he admitted to me that, before meeting me, he would often sit around with his buddies and tell jokes that were offensive to gay people. He assured me he never really believed he felt any true ill will towards gay people, but he never cared or thought about how his words might impact others or encourage hate in others. And then he met me, and suddenly, those jokes were not funny and he felt bad about hearing them when he knew they were making fun of someone he knew. Finally, when he built up enough courage, he spoke up to his friends and said they could no longer tell gay jokes around him. He worked with a gay man that he liked and respected very much, who was a decent and good person, and he could no longer disrespect him by being part of those types of jokes or allowing them to be told around him. He asked them to stop telling them or, at the very least stop telling them around him. Then he explained that he continued to change and think about the things he said and who they might be offensive to. He started to question a lot of his beliefs about other people of different races, genders, orientations, etc., and that I had changed him from a conservative, insensitive asshole to a more compassionate, socially liberal, decent man. So, he assured me, my life and my words and efforts mattered, because if I could change a cranky old homophobic jerk like him, I could change anyone. Then he thanked me for opening his eyes, for being his friend, gave me a hug and said “let’s go to work, buddy. And, remember, I’ll always have your back.”
As you can imagine, in that moment, Brian became much more to me than co-worker. He became an ally to a cause near and dear to me heart and, more importantly, he became my friend. The truth is, he clearly had been my friend for a long time, I just didn’t know it.
Brian and I continued to grow closer. I learned about his divorce and his estranged daughter and that he now lived alone. I learned he lived in the town I grew up in and I discovered he had been caring for his nearly invalid and mostly mentally incohesive mother daily for years. He knew my mother, who had worked in our agency, as well, until she retired a few years ago. Brian was born with a deformed hand which, he would eventually share with me, was due to a complicated birth and had endured many surgeries to get it as functional as it was. I would often help him with his computer problems, many times calling Jeffrey to assist, which made Brian like and respect Jeffrey even more. He’d always joke that Jeffrey and I had better things to do than to waste our time helping out an old fart with simple computer problems, and he would occasionally remind me how lucky I was to have a great husband like Jeffrey. One of my favorite memories: on a Friday I had declared would be a “say something hat day”, I brought in a bag of head wear into work and not only coaxed Brian into participating by wearing a plastic rainbow tiara, I got a picture of him in it. I used the threat of sharing that picture many times to coerce his cooperation. To my dismay, I can not find that picture. (Perhaps he took it with him when he left. He never did like that I had it.)
When Brian retired a few years ago, he did so kicking and screaming. His mother had passed just before, and he was afraid he would have nothing to do and would leave behind most of his friends, a handful of co-workers he had grown to like and admire and enjoy the company of. His biggest fear, however, was that he would retire, contract a disease, and die before he got a chance to enjoy life without work.
Brian deplored attention and was adamant that there be no retirement party for him. Instead, we, the chosen few co-workers he had befriended, stocked an RV (that one of us owned) with his favorite beer and snacks, forced him to come outside and into the RV (with threats that if he didn’t come with me, I would give him a lap dance in the office in front of everyone – he was smart enough to know I would do it) and had a mobile party for him on the way to a local beer brewery to have a celebratory drink and laugh with him. I think he was very grateful, despite him calling us all a bunch of assholes.
We made sure Brian had all of our contact info and made him promise we would all hang out again. I only saw Brian a handful of times after that. He once came to our apartment for dinner so Jeffrey could help him set up is new laptop. Then he showed up at our house a month or so after we moved in with a housewarming gift: a bear he had had carved for us for our front porch. That was the day we brought Harvey home, and he was the first to meet him.
Shortly after that last time we saw him, Brian was diagnosed with cancer. His worst nightmare had come true. We mostly stayed connected through e-mails and phone calls. He was very stand-off-ish and hesitant to share his struggle with any of us, but as the radiation and medicine and pain became more difficult for him to handle on his own, he started reaching out a bit more to a couple of us (Mostly me and my dear friend and co-worker, N.)
He mostly called N and she would pass on the information to me. He felt more comfortable opening up to a woman, even though I jokingly reminded him I was gay and totally OK with the mushy, teary touchy-feely stuff. He began to call on us, sporadically for support and for help with different things, and, during one of his better moments, we were able to pull together a taco and beer night with him and his few ex-work buddies. He later told me it was the best time he had ever had. Sadly, soon after that, things got worse rapidly. We got to visit Brian twice in the hospital, including on his last birthday. His spirits seemed high, he actually looked fantastic, seemed to have a lot of energy and was his usual wise-cracking self. Despite knowing how riddled with cancer he was, I allowed myself the hope he might stabilize long enough to squeeze a few more months out of life and we might get to have one more taco and beer night with the gang. But I hoped for too much, and Brian’s health plummeted rapidly. We saw him the night before we left for Delaware 2 weeks ago, and he was a ghost of his former self. It was horrible to see him that way, and I could see the pain in his eyes as he struggled to form sentences and visit with us. I knew this was probably good-bye, so we stayed as long as we could, until it seemed like we were causing him discomfort as he struggled to stay awake and coherent and ignore the pain that was wracking his body. We got one more spark of lucidity, as we both hugged him and Brian whispered in my ear “I love you, buddy. Thank you for everything.”
Friday night, Brian left the pain behind, and left those of us who were lucky enough to get to know him, with a handful of memories and a whole lot of sadness at his departure. I will not elevate Brian, postmortem, to some kind of super humanitarian who changed the world with his deeds. He’d be the first to kick my ass for lying. He was a stubborn man with a whole lot of cantankerousness to share and he was more likely to shake his fist at you than shake your hand. Yes, he was an imperfect man who had very few friends. But I was one of them and he was a perfect friend to me. I never could have predicted this man could or would ever make my heart swell so big or hurt so much.
I am glad he is no longer suffering. I am not glad he is no longer here. But the pain is just a reminder that I was one of the lucky few this man chose to connect with and befriend, and my life is better for it.