Meade Memorial

Eastern Standard Time:
Trying to Get Away From Tragedy


This column appeared in April, 1993, in The Washington Blade.

By Lawrence Biemiller

I saw Terry on a downtown R train a few weeks ago. I happened to be looking through the door at the end of the car when the train clattered into a curve; as the interior of the next car swung into view, there was Terry, slouching in a seat that faced me.

Which was impossible, of course. Terry died in January.

By now I know to expect that after one of my friends dies I'll keep thinking I see him. The flash of recognition precedes the realization of its impossibility by a fraction of a second. The man slouching on the R train had a face the same shape as Terry's. Terry never slouched, though. Years of yoga had given him excellent posture. It stayed with him even in NYU's hospital, where I last visited him -- groggy with drugs, head tethered to an oxygen line, chest attached to a suction tube draining fluid from his lungs.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 4, 1985, page 34: A photograph of Terry in the front room of his old apartment in Berkeley. He's looking directly into the camera lens, smiling gently. His face is unlined -- he is still only 31 here -- and his hands are folded in front of him on the arm of his brown sofa. In the background, by the window, half a dozen cactus plants on a small table make a miniature desert against the white plaster of the wall.

The photograph accompanies an article about Terry and his lover Paul, who had died in the spring of that year. Friends of mine at the University of California, where Terry and Paul had both enrolled to finish their degrees, had recommended Terry as a student who could describe the virus's impact in human rather than statistical terms. He and I met over a two-hour lunch that probably taught me as much about life as I learned in all of high school. He spoke so eloquently about being Gay and living and dying that afterwards all I had to do was add quotation marks and a few he saids and the big chief put the story on the front page.

A month or two later Terry scared me -- I think for the only time, because later I learned not to be afraid. We had dinner in San Francisco on a chilly, rainy night. He was recovering from a cold, he said, so he was ordering an "old lady cocktail" -- some bizarre apéritif. In my innocence I took this to mean we were near to losing him. We walked down Powell to the Bart station under twin umbrellas at the evening's end, and when he coughed it tore my heartstrings. I was in love with him for months after.

It wasn't that Terry was especially gorgeous or particularly shapely. It was that he had an inner presence that I can't really put a name to, a calm and powerful confidence that he projected until you felt calm and confident too. And he made people feel special. He came to visit for a few days the spring after I met him, and a letter I wrote then tries to capture the effect he had: "He treats me as though I were beautiful -- with a glance (he has bright blue eyes), with a confidential remark (he leans close so no one else will hear), with a touch of his shoulder to mine, or a hug. He never says anything unkind about anyone. He gives everyone he meets a sense that he trusts them, even strangers on the street. I think he has his life pretty well worked out."

It was an unusual life, at least by the standards of my close and conventional circle. Terry grew up in a farm town on the western edge of Minnesota, left at 18 to live with a succession of lovers, moved to San Francisco, met Paul and lost him, graduated with a major in environmental science, and went on to make his living as a massage therapist. Not long after our first lunch he met the boy dancer, who became his lover and one of my all-time favorite people. They left Berkeley for Manhattan, where Terry developed a good client list and volunteered at GMHC while the boy dancer took dance classes and joined a small, wonderful dance company named Harry.

In New York they lived on 22nd Street, in a second-floor apartment to which they brought a taste of Berkeley's eclectic spirituality and comfortable sexuality. Everywhere were candles and lovely smooth stones that Terry and the boy dancer had collected from beaches; over dinner they spoke casually and naturally about sex, as if it were just another important way of expressing yourself, like talking or dancing. Time and again they reminded me to pay attention to life's details, which is where its magic lurks. And time and again they explained that the point of living is not to seek approval from others; it's to become confident enough to grant yourself your own.

Now they're both gone, along with so many of us, so much of our moral and spiritual richness and warmth. I kick around this big, quiet apartment wondering who will set an example for all the teenagers who are just today finding courage to whisper the word "Gay" to the bathroom mirror. Who will teach them to be anything but shallow? Who will establish a standard of behavior that's anything but callous? Who will treat them -- the unlovely as well as the lovely -- as though they are beautiful? No one taught me more about being Gay than Terry, or could have taught me better.

I think it was Donna who took a snapshot of the group I marched with back in '87: John, Debby, Kristin, Tom, j.-with-a-small-"j," Wendy. Terry is standing next to me in the back row, grinning wonderfully. In my old notebooks are whole pages of other memories I wish I could copy out for you here -- the afternoon Terry took me to visit Paul's grave; the summer night he and the boy dancer ran and leapt and giggled and hugged on the Christopher Street pier; the July Terry came up to the lake in Maine with Mark and me; the phone call last Christmas in which he complained that he could no longer concentrate long enough to get through the bridge column in the Times.

Terry died January 9th at age 39. Lately I've been thinking a lot about something he said during our first lunch. It's something I think all of us who've grown up Gay in this country and this time can understand, something that explains why so many of us are here this week. "I'm trying to get away from the notion of tragedy," he said. "I've had enough of that."

Copyright © 1993 Lawrence Biemiller. Published April, 1993, in The Washington Blade.