Friday, September 26, 2008

A most extraordinary man has died (no not David Foster Wallace)

And though this man may be having drinks with David Foster Wallace now, it's more likely he's toasting with Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. And, I hope with all my heart the next world is kinder to him than this one was.

I met Jeffrey Hartgraves in 1990, just after I finished my undergraduate work at U of A. We met at Playwright's Workshop Theatre in downtown Phoenix, and from that moment on, became writing friends, then friend-friends, and ultimately, he and I became each other's muse, each other's confidante, and each other's best cheerleader in our writing and creative work. I have never met another man as funny, as spontaneously wicked and brilliant, and I have never met another man who felt quite as deeply the isolation of existence. He was ungodly talented -- directing, acting, writing, visual art -- he really could do it all exceptionally well. I don't know if he ever believed in how talented he was, or if he ever realized, truly, that he was loved by so many people. His heart had been wounded young, and he walked through life with that ache.

Jeffrey's creative resume is extensive. When he moved from Phoenix to San Francisco in 1994, his life exploded. He worked in the theatre. He wrote. He performed. He directed. He won awards. He was always in a show, always writing a show, always excited about language and books and art. We would read each other passages over the phone -- poetry, prose -- anything that moved us. We sat in cafes together (Momi Toby's in San Francisco) and wrote and wrote and wrote. We wrote plays together and gave readings together.

We went to Italy together in 1999 and held hands while fireworks exploded over the canals in Venice on New Year's Eve. Everyone in Italy thought we were married. (It was a bit much for them to imagine a gay man and a woman traveling together, perhaps!) We loved beauty, and through each other, we saw more beauty than we could see alone. We walked through the ruins of Pompeii and pet the cats in the Colliseum. We froze in a castle in Rome and stood in awe, for likely the same reasons, under the statue of David.

He was lonely, as we all are, and I watched him from my home in AZ move in and out of his lifelong battle with alcohol. I watched him search for companionship and an intellectual and artistic equal. I went to visit him a lot after he moved to San Francisco. Sometimes the visits were perfection -- filled with avante garde theatre, a single glass of wine, Italian food, and literature. Sometimes he drank too much and I left feeling like I could not go back until he got that piece of his life under control. But I always went back, and he didn't always drink, and I knew he wasn't ready to give it up. Always, we wrote and always we talked about art. There is no one else who filled that part we both played in each other's lives.

In 2005, Jeffrey was diagnosed with bone cancer. He endured excruciating chemotherapy. He started going to a counselor. He slowly began writing and producing a show about his illness -- Shark Bytes -- which was produced earlier this year to raise money for him. He had gone into remission for a time. Then, he had to undergo an 18 week chemotherapy bout over the summer. He hoped he would be done for a time. He had a show planned in Los Angeles. He was working on a book, MY CANCER CIRCUS. He was trying to get more freelance copywriting so he could earn some income.

Three weeks ago, right around his 47th birthday, he found out he was out of remission. He did not tell anyone. I've spent most of this morning on the phone with half of San Francisco trying to fill in the gaps of the story. He told no one. He retreated into himself, into his darkness and his fear of dying and his fear of pain and his utter frustration that his life was not working out like he had planned. I know this script. This was my father's.

He didn't tell anyone. He pushed his friends away. He called me at 1 in the morning a few weeks ago. I didn't answer the phone because I assumed he was drunk, and I'd had more than enough drunk middle of the night conversations with him. I planned to call him later, but I didn't. He called around the time he would have found out about his cancer's return. He didn't leave a message. Was he going to tell me? I don't know.

He'd told me many times over the last few years that he was not going through chemo again. The last three weeks he drank more than any of his friends had ever seen. He became violent, something he had never done. He trashed his apartment. It may seem inappropriate to say these things about a man who has died. If you knew him, you'd know it would be OK. When at his best, he never failed to tell it like it is.

No one knew why he was so angry so suddenly. He died in the night, alone in the apartment. The final coroner's report will come out this afternoon. The blood alcohol level was off the charts. There were pills. There was, I am sure from all my years of loving this man, the decision not to face a different, slower, perhaps more painful death. It doesn't matter what the coroner's report says. He exercised his right to script his own exit stage left.

But I am so sorry he spent his last weeks so angry. I am so sorry I did not answer the phone. And I am so sorry he did not get to have the life he felt was his.

Several years ago, when he was first diagnosed, he told me he was giving me his laptop and his writing when he died. We joked about it, but he wasn't joking. He was methodically going through his things and his life so he would be prepared and not leave people in a lurch. One of his good friends was charged with power of attorney. Everything has been in place for several years.

I will be getting a laptop and his writing. What else will come with that, I don't know.

I am angry that he drank. I am angry that he got sick, and I am angry that he is dead. I loved him fiercely, and already I feel the wind blowing through the place in my life where he lived.

Here's a piece from his play, SHARK BYTES:

I dreamed that I met God. She was sitting on a rather uncomfortable looking rock and she was blowing soap bubbles. That's all. No lightning. No throne. Nobody in sheets with harps. No cherubs or pearly gates. An empty field, a rock, and a little girl blowing soap bubbles. Soon the air was thick with floating rainbow bulbs, gliding and merging into bubble-clumps or falling and bursting on the pointed tips of emerald green grass.

Then it happened. It started small and grew like a wave of sound. Millions of tiny voices all at once. Each bubble had a voice, a spirit, which was rejoicing or laughing or crying. Some floated higher or lower, never seeming to touch the ground. Some were caught in the whirl and wake of others as they passed. Some though, fell straight from the hand of God, and filled with the same breath of creation, fell to a sharp, bursting end.

God's voice in my head said, "Choose the most beautiful."

I can't do that. They're all the same. I mean some reflect different colors and lights and some are different sizes. Some last longer, but they're all ...

"Choose," she said. "Which one should I not have made? Choose the good bubble from the bad bubble. Or choose, if they should all follow the same course, which one it should be. Would they be more wonderful if they all floated single file to the very same end? Or is there perfection in this chaos?"


I hope, my friend, that there is indeed a place like this, and that we will sit and blow soap bubbles and play word games and write scenes and love each other, still.


Dex said...

Thank you, Laraine, for sharing this news and your feelings about it. The world is a dimmer place with Jeffrey gone, but brighter for having had him in it.

ALMA said...

Late night after the debate, thought of you so checked your 'blog'... and I loved the way Obama stood his ground and kicked some ass...told the truth repeatedly... But yes, I remember your telling me about your friend that you traveled with in Venice, the beauty you found together. As he gave you a great gift, so you gave him...chispas, Almaluz xoxo
*I think of our night in Guanajuato, gazing at the the Muses on el Teatro, talking of things that matter. These moments never, ever, die...especially for us writers.

gayle said...

What a beautiful tribute to Jeffrey, Laraine. I know how much he meant to you. I'm so grateful to have had a taste of his words here, and to be able to see some of his performance. I'm sending tons of love your way as you grieve his passing...