Monday Mourning: The Death of a Friend

Tandy Culpepper is a 61-year-old gay male who spent the better part of twenty years hiding his sexuality from the public and from employers so that he could make a living at his chosen profession, broadcast journalism. I'm speaking of myself in the third person in that sentence because it seems somehow less neurotic and self-serving to do so. I have three master's degrees – none of which include a single, specific course in journalism. I am in the rewriting process – the book that will not be finished – of a memoir which, among other topics, touches on what it's like to deal with being a gay broadcast journalist fired in the town where he was born – because he was gay. I am also an Army brat from an old southern family several members of which lost no time telling me “I told you so” after I took that TV job and returned to Birmingham, Alabama, in spite of likely knowing they hadn't rolled out the carpet for Martin Luther King, Jr. – what the hell had I been thinking, anyway? I'm way too analytical about most anything that comes up in conversation. Go figure. I reported under the name of Andy. Examples of my work can be seen on my website, Don't forget the hyphen or you'll likely read about a musician by that name who is very likely a distant cousin.

DW:  Who was the person that died?
TC:  My friend Jim. He was one of the kindest, most sensitive, artistic, creative persons I've ever known. We were in a way soul mates, though we'd undergone long separations since we'd first met. Each time we reconnected, it was as if no time had elapsed – that kind of relationship. I had wanted more from him after we'd first gotten to know each other. I wanted to be his life partner, because he had become in short order my best friend in the year after I'd “come out,” first realized I was gay. We lived and met each other in our mutual home town, Birmingham, Alabama, after we'd both returned following stints in other cities. A local theater company brought us together. The first time I laid eyes on him, he was applying pancake and eyeliner prior to going on stage. I recall thinking, “Who is this guy? What is his deal?” He caught me staring at him in the mirror and started laughing. That launched a friendship that lasted until the day he died.

DW:  How old were you at the time?
TC:  I had just recently turned 38. I remember thinking how terribly old I was – so close to hitting 40. The notion of that being old makes me smile now, me past 60, all these years later. Silly rabbit.

DW:  How old was your friend?
TC:  I don't remember how much older I was than Jim. I think a couple of years at most, so he'd likely have been 36 or so. Very young to die, at any rate for any reason.

DW:  Was it a sudden death or did you know it was going to happen?
TC:  This question caused me just now to inhale sharply. Was it sudden? Yes. Death is always sudden when you love someone, isn't it? Certainly, the news had been unexpected – to me, if not to anyone else who'd been in his circle. I'd been aware that he was ill, but during this period, this time – the early nineties – longevity had been somewhat unpredictable for men of my generation living with Jim's illness. He died of complications from AIDS. I'd seen him in the previous few months – he lived in a town about 2 hours' drive from where I'd been working most recently back home in Birmingham. But I'd not been in contact for some weeks because I was dealing with a sudden personal setback – being fired from my job when the chief executive of my company decided to terminate me because I was gay. I was too caught up in my own life drama to think about Jim. Or anyone else, for that matter. No small irony, now that I think back on it. Not exactly a bastion of personal liberty, Alabama, then or now.

DW:  Did you and the person talk about their death? Or death in general?
TC:  No. This very real possibility did not come up in conversation. He was still involved in his art work, still creating, though his vision had been compromised as was his hand-to-eye coordination. Jim was a photographer, a painter, a writer. He could do just about anything. He was dyslexic, as I recall, which made his achievements so much more impressive to me. I still have some of his work, more than two decades after his death.

DW:  Had you experienced any other deaths in your personal life before Jim died?
TC:  Yes. Aside from grandparents, the distant relative here and there. I recall a boy in my elementary school died almost directly in front of the school when he ran into a parked car. He was riding his bike home from school. The accident took place directly in front of the campus – hideously near where we were all preparing to leave for the day. He had been trying to avoid an on-coming tractor-trailer rig. The impact with the car's bumper threw him under the wheels of the oncoming rig. There was a chalk outline of his body there in the street in front of the school. I remember it being there as I walked home from school. This was the year President Kennedy was shot, and my school was no more than two hours by car from Dallas. Too late for him, authorities dictated no more tractor-trailer rigs could use the roads in the neighborhood as short cuts. Two years later, at a middle school in Alabama, one of the girls I attended eighth grade with was killed when she slipped off the side of a car on which she'd been sitting and was pulled under the wheels. It had been a parade of some sort. She was a cheerleader. One other loss I recall was a young man from a group of co-workers at a station where I worked in South Florida. He had a congenital heart disease and underwent open heart surgery to repair the defect. He died on the operating table. He was 19.

DW:  Were people supportive of your grief or did they shy away when you were grieving?
TC:  I don't recall discussing any of these deaths with anyone else – except in the case of Jim. His partner was the one who had broken the news to me. I was on the phone with him at the time, calling from California, where I'd just moved six weeks after losing my job in Alabama, in March of 1990. I wanted to see how Jim was doing. He informed me that Jim had died the very week I arrived in California. I recall his words: “We lost Jim...” and then the date. I burst into heaving, wracking sobs. And he – Jim's life partner – spent the next few minutes consoling me. Consoling me. It should have been the other way around.

DW:  Is there anything you wish you'd done differently with this person?
TC:  Yes. I wish I'd called him every day. Because when we'd first been friends, in that first year, my day started with a phone call from him every single morning of the work week. I'm not kidding. He'd already arrived at his job, and I didn't go in for another couple of hours. The phone would ring. Then came the words: “This is your 8 AM wake up call. Wakey, wakey.” Every morning.

DW:  Was he buried or cremated?
TC:  If I had known this, I no longer remember. I'm glad I don't know, to be honest. I have a hard time thinking of people as being disposed of in either manner. It's not a subject I can broach. Certainly not contemplate regarding my own ultimate demise. I think I fear that prospect more than I fear death itself.

DW:  Did you learn anything about the grieving process that you'd like to share?
TC:  Grieving is a necessity. Grieving is something that should be embraced and faced head on. To do otherwise is to invite a meltdown at some later date. It's important to remind oneself that you have suffered a loss. Deal with it. Wear it. Let it pour over you. Otherwise, you'll keep it bottled up, and out of the blue, you'll find yourself incapacitated by it. And the person you have lost deserves no less than your attention for at least so long as it takes to get beyond the visceral pain of that parting. You won't be able to think of him or her with happiness in your heart until you deal with the pain. And it's important to remember the times you smiled because he or she had been part of you, your life, and vice versa. So, if you don't get past the pain? You can't expect to remember the good times and celebrate those memories in the manner your relationship merits.

DW:  Were any songs played at the memorial that were important to the person?
TC:  I don't know what songs might have been associated with his memorial. But when I think of Jim, I think of the Village People. We had a mutual friend who was dating one of the band members, and she got us back stage passes when they came to Birmingham. So, YMCA comes to mind. Plus, I had gone to the local Y to workout with Jim on one occasion. And he stood there in the Y stark naked and lifted weights in front of me. It was so like him. I can see him now, in the mirror, curling bar in hands, turning over his shoulder with a wicked grin on his face as he caught my astonished reaction. “What?” he asked, as if he could have had no idea what I'd been surprised at. I'm smiling now remembering that moment. Jim. Blond. Impish. Beautiful body. Brilliantly blue eyes. And that grin. This is your 8AM wake up call. Wakey, wakey. 

This one goes out to Jim.