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November 8th, 2010

Examining death, including the one I caused.

My memorial service will be fabulous, I can assure you of that. I first outlined it during the initial, deadly wave of AIDS in the 1980’s, and have edited it here and there over the years, updating the songs I would like played or the video footage shown.

Focusing on the spectacle, though, may just be avoiding the facts: if it’s my memorial, that means I’m dead. And death is a subject about which I have both too much and too little understanding. I’ve seen more than my share of it, and yet I have no greater insight than the next guy.

Final DeadlineThat’s especially true if the next guy is Chris Glaser. In The Final Deadline: What Death Has Taught Me About Life, his moving and thought provoking new book, the gay theologian and philosopher shows both awe for his topic and a likable willingness to accept uncertainty.

Glaser isn’t out to win souls for Jesus or explain “what comes next.” He leaves that to you and your own beliefs, thank you very much. He’s much more interested in examining death as it affects us, the living, those who remain. And as it turns out, death is all about life.

“Death forces us back on life, as a shut door forces us to find another passageway, a roadblock prompts us to take a detour, or a great loss encourages us to savor what remains,” Glaser writes.

Glaser segregates the book into chapters on manners of death, such as “Death by Murder,” “Death in Public,” “Precipitous Death,” and so on, and he populates his musings with stories of his many dead friends and acquaintances (“You have more dead friends than Jessica Fletcher,” a friend tells him in reference to the Murder, She Wrote heroine, and by book’s end you tend to agree).

Those friends provide lively characters and dramatic deaths from which Glaser draws insight. They include clergymen, relatives, celebrities, criminals, and pets, dying of everything from cancer to crashes (car and plane), overdose, stabbings (more than one!), gunshot, and even someone setting himself on fire on Sunset Boulevard. An impressive coterie of killings, to be sure. AIDS, of course, haunts the “Death by Plague” chapter.

Throughout, my active imagination kept indicating something miraculous or supernatural might occur, and sharing Glaser’s interest in all things, well, dead, I hoped for them. Would Glaser witness spirits leaving the recently departed? Would he sense something at his friend’s fatal crime scene? When Glaser receives the typewriter of a murdered friend who studied paranormal activity, and then leaves a blank piece of paper in the carriage, I held my breath for paragraphs, waiting for the instrument to clack out the name of the murderer or at least a howdy-do.

The damn thing never does. Instead, Glaser draws his own messages about his late friend’s untimely demise, including the value of leaving something behind, a gift for your survivors, be it in writing or in their hearts.

ChrisGlaserThe Final Deadline is really a memoir of sorts, and Glaser’s engaging honesty about his own lifelong fascination with death make him an endearing guide through sometimes morbid terrain. “Watch boxes that snapped shut were ideal coffins,” he confides about his childhood burials of departed goldfish and parakeets. He enjoyed the solemn ritual of “preparing its final resting place, covering it with earth and prayer and flowers.”

His final chapter, “Death Made Personal,” delivers just that, as he recounts the deaths of his parents, and then the death of what he had believed his “lifelong” relationship, to a partner who was his “never-ending romantic movie,” who leaves him as a result of the HIV positive partner’s renewed health in the wake of improved therapies ” and a wanderlust for what his extended life expectancy might hold.

Glaser is dumbstruck by the abandonment, after having moved across the country to follow his partner’s career, and proving his love despite their difference in HIV status. He writes that he knew “my partner might die, not the relationship. When we bought the house, I calculated how difficult it might become for him to navigate the staircase…”

Actually, Chris Glaser is too easy on the guy. The partner, the one who built a life with him and then unceremoniously dumped him for no compelling reason, was me.

Chris’s book references The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, in which Tom and Huck have the good fortune of attending their own funerals. I had a similar experience reading this post-mortem of our breakup — but instead of hearing the praises of survivors, I saw in clear black and white the grief and confusion of the lover I left behind. The wreckage of my past is on full, excruciating display.

mark - Copy“My ideal world was shattered,” he writes. “I felt worse than unloved. I felt unlovable, unattractive, undesirable. Taking things ‘one day at a time’ seemed like too big a chunk…” And his anguish and battered self esteem lead to a period of misfortune and poor choices. “I dated people who turned out to be scary in one way or another,” he writes. “I drank too much. I acted out sexually. My wallet was stolen.”

The gay dating pool is frightening enough, but to know I thrust a good man into it, bruised and hurting and without a credible reason why, is a tough chapter to face, my friends. And yet Chris tries his best to protect me from my own history. In a book filled with intimates, living and dead, I alone go unnamed.

The truth is my drug addiction was beginning a decade-long march to destroy me, something Chris only touches upon in his recounting. My secret experimentation with crystal meth, coupled, yes, with my feelings of rebirth as a result of new HIV medication breakthroughs, was a dangerous and cunning combination.

I was a blossoming addict who wanted out: of the marriage, of the perceived limits (of what I couldn’t tell you), of anything that kept me from the siren call of the gym and the dance floor and the circuit parties and the drugs, oh my the drugs, that promised fantastical things around the corner but that somehow never arrived.

With characteristic grace, Chris moves through forgiveness and uses the puzzling experience to evaluate himself and his goals. He changes course in his lifelong struggle for Presbyterian ordination. He reads and re-reads everything that inspires him, from the bible to Gore Vidal, from To Kill a Mockingbird to Zorba the Greek.

Chris finds peace, renewed vitality in his career, and a relationship that exists to this day. As he closes the chapter, he recites a poem that once came to him in his sleep:

Love is being crucified
And rising again
As if it never happened.
That’s love for you.
That’s love for you.

Chris Glaser’s beliefs are many and steadfast, but his faith in love is his most unyielding conviction. In The Final Deadline, and in his life, love never dies.

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16 Responses to “Examining death, including the one I caused.”

  1. Richard Says:

    November 8th, 2010 at 10:49 am

    Wow Mark, going to get this book for sure, thanks for sharing !!

  2. Joe Says:

    November 8th, 2010 at 10:51 am

    In a word, wow…

  3. Charles Green Says:

    November 8th, 2010 at 10:57 am

    What an experience it must be to read the epitaph of your own relationship, Mark. And what bravery and class to own up to your part in its demise. Chris is also a class act in how he handled the subject in his new book.

  4. Craig Thomas Says:

    November 8th, 2010 at 10:59 am

    “Savor what remains…” What a statement!

  5. bill konigsberg Says:

    November 8th, 2010 at 11:51 am

    Wow. I didn’t see that one coming… I agree that Chris is a class act in how he handled the relationship in print. This is a book I’d really like to read.

    I also appreciate your humility in this piece. It’s not easy to admit our wrongs.

  6. Mark Olmsted Says:

    November 8th, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    The non-addict/alcoholic population has a lot of trouble understanding that the relationship we have with the high and its intendant gratifications leaves room only for 2nd, 3rds and also-rans. It’s not the substance itself, it’s the illusion of transcendance and possibility it gives us that demands our attention: we think we are moving towards a three-ply, enhanced experience of life. How can anyone compete with that?
    Which doesn’t excuse bad behavior on our parts, or course. (Thank God for the amends process). But the wreckage of our ex-partners can be assured that, indeed, it’s not about them. Which isn’t always a relief to some. It can be humbling to accept your impact on another human being is limited. Chris seemed to have learned the right lessons.

  7. Sue Says:

    November 8th, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    I hope Chris is okay and happy now.

  8. James Keagler Says:

    November 8th, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    WOW! What a great lesson. What a great guy.

  9. tony Adams Says:

    November 8th, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    Fascinating. Some survive.

  10. Marna Says:

    November 8th, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    I must read this book. It comes at just the right time — “a great loss encourages us to savor what remains”; I love that.
    And is that Calvin T. Dog? (It certainly is. Calvin was our child and an author is his own right, via Chris’ penned Unleashed: The Wit and Wisdom of Calvin the Dog, with author photo by yours truly. — Mark)

  11. Willam Says:

    November 8th, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    he’s cute.

  12. Subversive Librarian Says:

    November 8th, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    I love your post, Mark. You and Chris are both class acts.

  13. leann Says:

    November 9th, 2010 at 8:10 am

    Mark, thank you for yet another poetic and moving article. I remember my very first Chris Glaser book, which I bought for myself and then ultimately I passed it on to my mother. She in turn made notes and ear marked important passages which she would read to me over the phone while I was in College at NIU. “Coming Out to God” saved me and my family from the damaging Catholic beliefs that being gay meant going to hell. I cannot thank you both enough. I am fortunate to know you personally Mark. As we have shared many a common struggle with our common defects of character. Its amazing how God has brought us all together. I used to believe in the “six degrees of separation ” concept but now I know that these pivotal seismic occurrences in my life are called “God moments and God movements”. I honestly felt like I stood in the presence of an apostle when I met Chris Glaser for the first time during the Hotlanta Roundup two years ago. I brought that ear marked and tattered book with me knowing that Chris would be leading a discussion, and in the midst of our introduction (you by his side) I fell apart in his arms and thanked him for being there for me in spirit some twenty something years ago. So yes I am looking forward to reading “The Final Deadline” and I hope you will deliver a signed copy to me next time you visit your peeps in Atlanta. I love you and I miss the only other gorgeous red head in my life.

  14. Carole Ann Kaplan Says:

    November 9th, 2010 at 10:01 am

    I am most drawn to your writing that incorporates memoir and the power of the shared experience of living. Your writing flows without hesitation leaving the reader to want more. I see a shift in your writing style that is powerful. That shift is, in part, coming from the creases of your heart.

  15. Donna Gore Says:

    November 11th, 2010 at 7:28 pm

    This looks like a good book. Everyone is afraid of death but death is a fact of life. And it’s not so much about the deceased, as it is about those left behind.

    Over time, I realized that “heaven” was just some B.S. crap invented by people who can’t face up to the fact that they have to die some day. And then I went into a period where I was obsessed with a fear of death. I finally decided, well, there’s nothing I can do but enjoy THIS life. And I don’t have to be scared, because I will be dead, therefore I will not be able to feel fear.

    Something that helped me was Greta Christina’s essay “Comforting thoughts about death that have nothing to do with god.” Are you familiar with Greta? She writes for the gay, lesbian and free thought communities. http://www.gretachristina.com/comfort.html

  16. Don Says:

    August 5th, 2012 at 10:40 am

    That must have been a very tough post to write Mark albeit an important one. I am going to pick up Chris’s book and give it a read.

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