Isn’t it funny how people who play only small, infrequent, roles in our lives can turn out to have such tremendous influence over who we become?
Today’s column is about one of those people. He was the first gay person I ever met. His name was Donald Hendricks.
Donald died on Sunday. In the 40 years I knew him, we only saw each other five times, maybe seven. Which is why, when I got the news that Donald had died, I lit a candle, said a prayer wishing him peaceful journeys … and returned to work, thinking that was that.
Before long, I found myself staring over the top of my laptop and remembering our first encounter. It was in 1972 or thereabouts. I was 6 (or thereabouts). My world to that point was filled with boys who were boys and men who were men. And, then, one day while visiting Riverside, California, my grandmother drove my mom, sister and me up Mount Rubidoux to see her friend Donald.
I was transfixed. Donald’s house was like none I had ever seen. Filled with art, books, records, huge windows that looked out on the mountain’s wooden cross … and a calico cat named Petula.
And Donald? Well, he most definitely was like no one I had ever met. His voice was tender, not feminine but definitely lyrical, and his mannerisms and dress made clear he was, as my dad would say, “light in the loafers.”
As a kid, my grandmother wouldn’t let me be in the same room as the adults, so I only caught a few glimpses of Donald that day. But I remember vividly that he came into the little side room where I was and let me take out his Fred Astaire records. I couldn’t play them (that would make noise), but I could look at them. And I did. I looked at those records, those books … that cross … and I knew, I just knew, I was just like Donald. And, light in my loafers or not, I knew I’d be OK.
Monday evening, as I started fixing dinner, I put on some old Fred Astaire songs I had purchased about 100 years ago.
As Fred sang (with an occasional assist from Ginger), my mind again turned to Donald. As it did, I began remembering things about Donald that I had never before seen.
I remembered that Donald was the first person I ever knew who took care of someone who wasn’t his blood relative. Her name was Maggie and, for years and years, as her health steadily declined, Donald was the one who nursed her, who drove her to appointments, who loved her. Because she had no one else. And I saw how very much that memory influenced me in the early ’90s when a plague was leaving far too many of my gay brothers with no one else. And how so many of us did what we could. To nurse. To drive. To love. Not because we were blood, but because we were human.
I remembered that Donald wasn’t a bitter man, though some would say he had plenty to be bitter about. As he got older, Donald didn’t see the point. He developed a sense of Zen. Bitterness couldn’t stick to him. I saw that the last two times I visited Donald. And, somewhere deep inside, what I saw planted seeds in my own life. Seeds that would slowly, gradually, sprout, grow and, ever so quietly, blossom.
I remembered that Donald had no choice but to be an artist. Just as he had no choice but to be gay. From the time he could pick up a pen or a brush, Donald had drawn. Elegant, light, airy figures. Figures gentle in their strength and strong in their gentleness. And I saw how that afternoon spent among his books, his arts, his music, spoke not only to the little boy who had no idea what it meant to be gay, but also to the young artist who had no idea how to create.
By the time my dinner was ready, I remembered the very last time I saw Donald. It was in the spring of 2007 or 2008. We met at a tiny restaurant in Laguna and talked less about old times and more about current ones. At the end, we gave each other a big hug and a kiss on the cheek.
Donald whispered in my ear, “You seem so happy.”
I was. And I am. Which is why the “love” in today’s “Love NOLA” is for a man named Donald Hendricks.
And which is why I leave you with an invitation. To leaf through the scrapbook of your own life. Find your Donald Hendricks. And say “thank you.”
Brett Will Taylor is a southern Shaman who writes Love NOLA weekly for NolaVie. Visit his site at ashamansjourney.net.