I know I will speak at Don’s memorial, but being succinct is important, and I’m not feeling very succinct today. I want to really try to say this. However long it takes. And I can do that here.
Don was my closest friend in Boston. But he was everyone’s closest friend. Seriously. So many people have told me, “He was my best friend,” while he was in the coma. I believe that this is because Don was so good at making people feel loved. He could be everyone’s closest friend, really and truly. He had that big a reach. He had that much room.
I met Don when he signed up for my September 18, 2004 class in the Meisner technique. I remember him signing up really vividly, because he kept emailing to ask me to look at his web site. Even though I’d already produced 6 or 7 slams by then, I wasn’t used to teaching actors, who always want me to look at their web sites. But Don just seemed…so nice, and funny, and kind of cute, I finally caved and looked at his web site. Which had a picture of him on a boat. I just cracked up. I was like, who is this guy? I just kind of liked him.
The September 18 class was a one day workshop, and it rocked. Sometimes that just happens–people click, they love the technique (Meisner), and they want more, more, more. I was, at the time, running an after-school tutoring program in the inner city with insane hours and I told them I could maybe carve out 3 Saturdays before the end of the year. Don signed right up. Then I quit that job and offered my very first real training class in January of 2005, and Don signed up for that, too.
With some people, what you remember is their acting work. And Don’s acting work was very good, but that’s not what stands out to me. He’d come up to me after class, and face me, looking up (because I am 5’8″ and wear heels that make me two inches taller, and he was 5’4″ and didn’t wear heels), that completely sincere look on his face. He’d just wait. Until he had my full attention, until other people quit interrupting, until I was present and completely focused on him. I think of it now and I realize he had such confidence of purpose–what he had to say was important to him, and he wanted it to be heard, and he knew how to make sure I’d hear him. Just the way he did this, which was like a small boy with a teacher he really likes, and who he believes will get him if he really gives her a chance…I kind of fell in love with him just for that.
Then there were the things he said. For example, I gave him a scene about two gay men in Provincetown, one of whom is dying of AIDS. Okay, yes, I have a certain amount of mischief in me, and no one would call it type casting, so I was pushing at both the guys and laughing inside about it. During the scene, Don looked at me, really trying, and said, “Is this okay?” And I gave him notes on how to connect better, how to make the relationship more convincing. It was really sweet, how much he wanted to get it, and how honest he was about it being hard.
Afterward, he came up to me, and waited until he had me (as he always did), and then he said, “You know, I have some gay friends. I didn’t think I was prejudiced. But having to think of being gay myself–that was really hard. Maybe I do have a little prejudice. So I want to thank you for giving me that scene so I can grow.”
There it was. Slayed. He pretty much had me for life.
Of course, that was Don’s gift. This kind of very simple honesty, absolutely from the heart. Anyone with any sensitivity was slayed by Don.
He did this over and over.
He was in the Another Country Ensemble for a year, which started out as a love fest for everyone, but very quickly became a burden for me–I was working too much and this was when I really learned I would always be outside any community composed solely of my students. It didn’t end well, which I now know enough to prevent, but didn’t then. But as it was ending, Don came up and stood in front of me, and waited until he had me, and he said, “I think I treated the Ensemble like a class. I just came, and had fun, and didn’t do work to help out. That wasn’t fair to you, was it?”
I said, feeling shy because I was touched, but also still a little mad, “No. I am really burned out.”
He said, “I’m really sorry. Is there any computer work or anything I can do now to help?”
If I wasn’t so proud, I would have started crying.
Sometimes I think the foundation for our friendship was laid down right then. But I had been his teacher, and I knew he idealized me, so I was very careful. It literally took years for us to become friends. He would call me, and talk about his acting career, which was going really, really, well, better than mine. He did research, he went on lots of auditions, he got cast all the time. I was happy for him, and totally jealous, but I was his teacher, so I worked on just being happy and saying the most supportive and truthful things I could.
I’m not really like Don. I’m hard to get close to. I’m afraid to let people know what they mean to me. Don never for a second let me forget how much he liked me, and, as we got closer, how much he loved and trusted me.
He kept working with the theatre company. He tried directing. He did the list serve. He didn’t like acting for live audiences, so that fell by the wayside. We started to meet and do acting stuff for fun, to make plans about auditioning together, but half the time we’d end up just talking, or I’d try to get him to eat my latest health food concoction and he’d say something like, “I could see getting to like this food if I kept eating it.”
This last year was a big leap in being close to Don, because we started co-directing, and there’s this need for real communication and trust when you do an artistic process together and share control. It’s incredibly intimate. So, it can destroy a relationship. Or it can make it so much better. Which, in this case, was what happened.
We talked through stories, which led us into world view and what we thought about humanity in general, and found out how much we agreed. We talked about our artistic processes and how we go at narrative. I think things through, imagine them in my head, and know ahead of time what meaning I want to get at. Don thought with his body–not just as an actor, but as a director. He had to be moving, pacing, waving his arms when he directed. He had to stand very close to the actors when he gave them notes, sometimes he even walked alongside them as they tried something out. And if he had an idea, he couldn’t really explain it, he had to show it. So a lot of the time, he’d say, “I have an idea.” And I’d say, “Just do it. If I don’t like it, I’ll tell you.”
Once, we were rehearsing the lesbian love scene in Saint John the Divine in Iowa, and that happened. He had an idea, and I was stuck on how the blocking should look, so I said, “Go for it, Don.” So he directed the scene, and it was very sexy and carnal. He turned to me and said, “I really like that. A lot.” Then he paused. “But I’m a guy. So of course I like that. It might not be what you want.”
It was so endearing, that honesty. I was like, “No, Don. It’s not what I want. But it is very, very, very hot.” Then I tweaked it. And he was like, “Well, it’s not quite as hot but there’s more of a relationship.”
He just cracked me up.
And he was so loyal. I had a student who approached him to be friends and he told me it didn’t feel right to him, that it was too much about me, so he wasn’t going to follow up past the first time. He gave me advice about how to handle it. Or, when I had a potential investor who wanted me to rewrite the screenplay for Saint John the Divine in Iowa, he said, “There’s one answer to that.” Then he pointed to the door.
This summer, I started to have some hard times, and I’d call him and tell him, and he’d be like, “When did this happen?” And I’d say, “Like a week ago maybe.” And he’d say, “And why didn’t you call me then?” And I’d say, “I was worried you’d be sick of hearing about it.” And he’d say, “Would you please just call me?”
We both hate to drive and want people to come to us, and he lived in Newbury and I live in the city, so that was a deal. We started meeting at Chipotle in Saugus for three hour lunches. We talked about everything. Finances, retirement, acting frustrations, panic attacks, our families, our own neuroses, the meaning of life. I’d always be resisting the impulse to wipe the lettuce off his chin, because if Don and I were the Odd Couple, I would definitely be Felix and he would definitely be Oscar. I mean, I carry a toothbrush in my purse and go in restaurant bathrooms after I eat to brush. Don spills food on his shirt at every meal.
Don hadn’t had an acting role in a while, and he wasn’t very employed, and it got to him, and he was just beginning to really try to crack it–he talked about starting to teach improvisation, about going fi-cor (spelling) so he could do non-union as well as union movies, he even talked about directing full length comedies. He was starting to go to the gym, he was interested in what yoga had done for his friend Dick.
Are any of us really finished when death comes to call? Don was 48 years old. His mother had a birthday while he was in the coma. It’s not what he would have chosen.
I could write about him all day, because I don’t want to let him go.
But if I have to hold on, because that’s part of who I am, I don’t want to just remember, I want to be changed. I have the kind of courage for facing danger, for taking risks, for living an unconventional life, but I don’t have Don’s kind of courage. I don’t go up and stand in front of someone and wait until they see me for who I am. I give up on being seen very easily. I seek out people like Don, whose breadth of humanity is so generous and free from judgment that I know I won’t have to guess whether I’m valued or loved. And I certainly don’t find it easy to tell people that I love them. I can show it through my actions, and I am always aware, but I would love to have Don’s openheartedness. Really, the tell was in his death. Down the hall was an older woman who’d had a stroke, with one daughter sitting at her bedside. On the day he died, somewhere between 20 and 30 people came to the ICU, and usually there were at least 5 sitting bedside, sitting vigil, wanting to witness and be there as he took his journey out of his body and this world, wanting to send him on his way with as much love as they had to give. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I kept thinking, If you really love, this is how you go out. If you let people know you, if you’re not afraid, this is how you live and die.
I was raised in an extremely image-conscious upper middle class family in which we were all fairly attractive. I know how to dress, how to project an image, how to look classy. I was raised to succeed, to marry a doctor or a lawyer, or maybe to become one myself. I hated those values…and I still do, especially because sometimes they fall over my eyes like a veil. I am grateful, though, that I am not stupid enough to be caught in them permanently. Don was a short, overweight guy who was always pulling up his jeans with both hands. And he was one of the most loving friends I’ve ever had–and that’s something, because I’ve had friends who have fought for me, protected me, supported me through a major grieving process. What I’m saying is that thank whatever/whoever I knew Don for what he was, that my parents’ values didn’t keep me from knowing and loving him.
I will miss him. I hope never to lose the feeling of being held in such positive regard, to know absolutely my own value when I look at myself through his eyes.
Wherever he is, I hope he still feels held by me…and by every other person he touched.
I love you, Don. I know you know it. And that is the second gift. I am so glad, wherever you are, that you know it.