A Journey Post of a Different Colour: David
Someone gently tapped on the log in my eye this month—and then he died. His name was David.
It was a kind and gentle—and unspoken—tap that brought me face to face with how short I fall from being the good Christian man I’d like to think I am and like others to believe as well. David’s death on December 5th has, so far, ushered in a month, captured in a moment of revelation, in which the log could not have become more real. It’s who I’ve been and still am, after nearly seven decades of life.
This essay is only tangentially about my log. The log is relevant only as it puts into better relief a man whose life has helped me to see my log more clearly. I honor him because his life shows something about what it means to be human and something about God, who created each of us in his image.
David’s death came while I’d been thinking and writing about the Sermon on the Mount, preparing to write about judging—you know, the part where Jesus says: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”
That portion of Scripture is puzzling and frightful for all, Christian and non-Christian alike, for Jesus goes on to say that the measure we use in judging will be the same measure with which we will be judged.
That standard is just not on the radar of most during adolescence, that twilight zone tween time when we’re trying to find ourselves and be accepted—and we are amazingly judgmental towards those who don’t fit in with what we imagine we’re supposed to be.
I first saw David in that zone. We were classmates in those years, both junior and senior high, from the Fall of 1960 until our graduation in the Summer of ‘66. David didn’t have much of a log in his eye that I can recall now. He was simply different.
He dressed different, wore gold pants and, later on in life, really bright colours. He spoke different, his interests were different. Different is why I used the British form “colour”: it’s different, not misspelled.
Junior high was, for me, a whole new gigantic scary world. A lot of people were different to me. I certainly heard about him long before I heard him. Boys turned to me, snickering as he passed by: “Have you seen David? He’s …” whatever. Back then we used “queer” for things we neither understood nor were honest about—i.e., our fear that we wouldn’t fit in.
I didn’t openly make fun—but only because my parents and upbringing taught me that what we look like on the outside was not who we are. My mom and dad’s best friends (“aunts” and “uncles” to me) had been victims of polio and cerebral palsy. “Crippled people,” for me, was not about identity.
Crippling conditions were explainable disabilities. But unexplainable things … well … I was just beginning a near life-long struggle with my own identity, looking for me in a way that extended far beyond the bounds of normal. I stayed away from anything unexplainable … “thing” being, in this case, a person.
David and I had occasional classes together. During eighth grade, we had an extraordinary class, not the kind where familiar kids get to sit with those they choose. It was a summer honors class in Hollywood, and there were only three from our school: David, me, and another student, Bob.
Our parents carpooled, driving each day from Eagle Rock. I don’t recall saying much on those rides: I was hiding. David spoke a lot, especially when his parents drove. And I came to understand that David was a highly intelligent person, whose patterns and subjects of speech were far outside my ken.
Our class, an English class, was filled with highly intelligent eighth graders, delving into subjects (“delving” was a word I’d not heard in my life until then) both fascinating and intimidating. I was in over my head and wondered why on earth I’d been selected. I didn’t ask, I didn’t want to be thought stupid.
David thrived in that class, I think. His smartness was apparent and his curiosity was great, and his class contributions were frequent, drawing on knowledge of people and things which seemed without limit. I learned two things that summer: since it was 1962, about Marilyn Monroe, who died that June. And I learned respect for David’s intelligence. Both were intriguing and threatening to this fourteen-year-old.
For the rest of our time in school, David and I spoke occasionally, but even in high school I didn’t associate with a person who was, at best, considered to be an odd duck. Other words used for him were, in that day, of a similar category as cancer. I had determined to be social (a “sōsh”), and ran in circles of the more popular sort.
The bottom line for my life, by 1966, was that I knew David was isolated from the kinds of people I wanted to be around, or so I assumed, and I didn’t consider myself any the worse for it.
I went on with my life, going to Vietnam, getting married, becoming a Christian, having children, going to the mission field, returning and becoming a middle school teacher. Our high school class had reunions and David was there, I think, but I don’t remember more than a brief “hi” or small conversation.
Then came our 50th year class reunion this past November.
We said hello and chatted. About that summer class, about the people and the teacher. His photographic memory was on display. I admitted that I had felt way in over my head. I’m sure he knew that, but David was gracious and kind enough not to say it. We spoke of other things, but not that elephant that stood in my mind between the two of us. I had a flitting thought that we should talk about my part of the elephant and what I knew now had been an extremely painful part of life.
I don’t know whether he sensed my thoughts. But David asked if I could give him a ride home. By L.A. standards, we lived close—20 miles—so I said of course, I’d be glad to. He seemed touched by that.
It’s peculiar how old prejudice sits scribed like permanent ink on the soul. I didn’t think it mattered much to me that he might be gay—but I was still hesitant for others to see us doing something together. I meant what I’d said to him, but kind of hoped someone else would offer.
A 50th reunion is different from those earlier ones of our youth. At 68, we had become mostly whatever we would become, not much to hide or pretend about. Several had died, and it was now time just to enjoy people and get to know the real them, not hang onto the cardboard images left from the 1960s.
So, I am now a convinced Christian and I want to love others and see them through the eyes of grace and mercy, knowing we each are created in the image of God—as I hope others would do unto me. As a follower of Jesus I’m still learning what it means to genuinely love people. People.
I was thinking about this as we drove him home to Hollywood.
On the way, we chatted more. As we drove through mutually familiar neighborhoods, I discovered a lot about his interests and past—things of which I’d only been marginally aware. What he shared about himself was striking in retrospect, especially to Michelle, who had just met him. He spoke in an unboastful way about his involvement in costume design, the books he’d written (including a landmark volume on Hollywood costume design—before the internet). He knew stars and others, was a friend to Edith Head and wrote her biography. He was a friend to Olivia de Havilland, and visited her on her recent hundredth birthday in France. He held an MFA and was a lecturer in art history at Otis College for nearly two decades. Our classmate Paul was with us, and David asked questions about his life and family.
Knowing him in the limited way I did since that long-ago summer, I wasn’t surprised about his expertise, his teaching or consulting. I suppose I was intrigued about the friendships, what with my dismissive assumptions about superficiality in Hollywood. He spoke of his first job after university, teaching at a nearby junior high. I now find that ironic—as he likely did—since it was his own junior high years among us, after all, that likely deepened the personal pain he experienced in life.
We never talked about the elephant. Two weeks later, David was dead of a heart attack.
I heard the next day via mutual friends on Facebook. In addition to the notes about missing him, his accomplishments, RIP, etc., I discovered something that nearly knocked me onto the ground. Some of the women from our class had been life-long friends with David. As far back as Kindergarten, he had been a kind, caring, and sensitive person who showed classmates how to care. He gave freely, unselfishly. He displayed the stuff of true friendship early on.
That overwhelmed me. I can’t say it more strongly. Yes, I sensed my guilt, both for having been a part of his isolation and pain and for having allowed the opportunity of the fleeting thought two weeks before to slip away. A friend who read an early draft of this essay drew the conclusion I had not forgiven myself for my part in his isolation. That’s true at some level, but I realize that, mostly, I find myself angry at what we—me included—do so blindly to one another while we ourselves are so insecure. Society tries to fix this by teaching tolerance and other PC values to correct behavior but it doesn’t change hearts.
I truly regret not taking the opportunity of speaking with David about our school years together. That fleeting moment was the voice of Spirit. Too late I’ve realized I had reaped what I sowed. My measure had been measured back. For most of my life I had assumed I was none the worse off for not including David in my circle of friends. Too late I realized that I was, for he had much to teach.
As the day of the memorial approached, I realized that I could learn from David’s life from those who did know him, then, hopefully, allow that to percolate within my own soul and pour it into others.
What I learned—what I am still learning from David—is something about God and about the way he designed us. Scripture says (Genesis 2) that he created people in his image. It doesn’t specify just how that is true, but it means at least that the best parts of being human come from him and are like him.
David’s kindness came from his pain. His brother said so at the memorial. His kindness came from his pain. I had puzzled over that very point every day before the memorial and for many days afterward. Then, slowly, certain things got clearer, things I should have known long ago.
We humans seem to live on a spectrum that runs from self-centered to other-centered. We say that young people grow up treating others the way they were treated: those who were abused end up abusive, those who see giving, give, etc. I grew up witnessing much giving, little abuse. Yet my life seems to have been so much more self-centered and fearful than my youth would lead one to expect.
One might have expected David would be bitter, even abusive. I’m sure he struggled with that somehow. But I never really knew David after all. So I learned through family and friends something beautiful about his life and significance. They testified to the truth: “You will know them by their fruit.” (This was spoken about false teachers but is generally so for all of us.)
David’s fruit was heard consistently from all who knew him well. He taught others (by his life, in his relationships) about kindness and caring and gentleness and love. About being sensitive to others who hurt deeply—because he hurt deeply, even as a young child. He was unselfishly giving. This was his fruit.
Such fruit is valuable to God because that’s the way he is, it’s the same image in which we are made. Such fruit comes from the heart, not to be paraded but to quietly serve God and others. But how does it come from a life of pain? Most of us spend our life avoiding pain, though we don’t really have much choice. Scripture says (in Hebrews 5), that Jesus learned what it meant to obey through his own human suffering. He learned much more, being made like us who were made like him. He learned compassion and comfort in the face of the cross. His was a life of rejection and suffering and pain. And yet he gave.
What I’m saying here is that David showed us something about God, something about being human: he learned to be sensitive to the pain in others and to reach out in relationship and thereby lessen their pain—and I hope, some of his own. This is a legacy of greatness that all of us would do well to ponder and pursue, a legacy to be cherished by those who were enriched by knowing him. I am thankful today that David’s life intersected with mine, however briefly.
And I am the better for it. Thank you, David.