Several things have happened over the last few weeks that have caused me to spend a fair amount of time reminiscing about my childhood friend, the late Proctor.
We met when we were both in middle school in the early 1970s. I was in 7th grade, Proctor was in 8th grade. Despite the single grade difference between us, he was actually 3 years older than me; his parents, both educators, had held him back twice in grade school. We did not have any classes together, but we were both members of the after school Drama Club, which is where we met.
Proctor was tall, painfully thin, gangly and (despite his precocious facial hair) very effeminate. While I have since learned that outward traits and behavior are not certain indicators of sexual preference, Proctor was, in fact, gay. He was not comfortable with this fact until after high school graduation, so during our earliest friendship he was fighting his orientation fiercely, a fact that caused me no end of confusion during my early teens. Did he ‘like’ me? Did he ‘LIKE like’ me?
For the record, he did ‘like’ me but did not ‘LIKE like’ me. Our decades-long friendship was never subjected to the possibly corrosive dimension of sexual acting-out, which is probably one of the reasons that it endured. In fact, I firmly believe that all young women should cultivate gay male friends—or at least one. It is like having an ambassador to a foreign country.
Speaking of fighting…both individually and together, Proctor and I proved to be irresistible to the bullies at our middle school. I was a deeply square, brainy girl long before it was hip (Big Bang Theory, where were you when I really needed you?) and Proctor endured constant harassment due to his dearth of manliness. Comparing notes on the various verbal and (sad to say) physical attacks that we had endured was one of the things that cemented our friendship early on.
My Mom was always welcoming to our friends when my sisters and I were growing up, so Proctor became a frequent visitor to our home. When the afternoon would grow late and Mom would ask, “Proctor, do you want to stay for dinner?” his response was invariably “What are you having?” He would then phone his mother to ask the same question and make his decision based on which meal sounded more appealing. Believe it or not, he made this process seem endearing rather than insulting.
We both loved movies and went to the new multi-plex at our local mall often with our group of fellow theater nerds. On one occasion I had a piano recital and missed a weekend matinee. Proctor phoned me that evening to tell me that I had, just HAD, to see the movie as soon as possible. It was great, he enthused, telling me about the anti-hero plot line. “Of course you know,” he inserted casually “he dies in the end”. Argh! Of course I didn’t know that! Proctor’s tendency to be a walking spoiler was, somehow, another paradoxically charming thing about him. Despite “of course you know he dies in the end” there was no malice in this revelation. He was just so carried away by the story that he couldn’t help himself.
My family and Proctor’s family belonged to the same church, so I knew his parents slightly. Proctor’s dad was unshakably convinced that his son would one day (as he put it) ‘wake up’ and decide to marry me. In the very first years of our friendship, such a suggestion made me swoon. Later, it made us both smile and shrug.
Proctor was the first of our circle of friends to get his driver’s license, which meant many trips to Disneyland and to Los Angeles for theater, museums and galleries. During one memorable summer, Proctor and I attended improv comedy shows in several tiny theaters around Hollywood. One of the comedy troupes featured a very young, pre-fame Robin Williams, who was an absolute force of nature on the small stage. Proctor joined the actors during the show at their urging to play an improv game called ‘freeze tag’ and he was so good that he got an invitation to audition for the company. When Williams appeared later that year on an episode of Happy Days, I phoned Proctor and instructed him to turn on the TV and tune to channel 2. We watched the goofy guy with suspenders with whom Proctor had very recently shared a stage and babbled excitedly to each other through the entire episode.
During high school, just a few months shy of graduation, Proctor became deeply depressed. He frequently spoke of his conflicts with his father, who seemed to be realizing that Proctor was not going to ‘wake up’. Often Proctor was his usual buoyant self, but every once in a while he would phone late at night and talk about killing himself. I compared notes with other mutual friends, and they reported similar telephone calls. I have no idea how this might of ended had not my beloved composition teacher, Mrs. G, given the class an assignment to write a persuasive paper. One of the suggestions on the list provided for the assignment was ‘Write a letter to a friend and talk him or her out of committing suicide’. A no-brainer—this was the prompt I followed for my paper.
A week later, Mrs. G asked me to stay after class. She had my paper on her desk, a passionate plea to Proctor that struck every note I could think of to convince him to stay alive. Stabbing at the paper with her index finger, Mrs. G said “This is beautifully written, and I can’t believe that it is completely invented. Who needs help?”
Proctor got help. Whether because of Mrs. G’s intervention or some other influence, he went into therapy. His black moods receded. “My therapist says that my suicidal impulses are no longer a problem,” he would say over lunch in the cafeteria, “but he does insist that I pay in advance.” The late night calls stopped being about suicide and once again started being about the movie showing on television that night. He graduated from high school and moved to San Francisco to get his college degree. I moved away to college, too, and our in-person friendship was replaced by letters and postcards and occasional telephone calls. This was, please recall, pre-Internet, pre-Skype, pre-social media. Our lives diverged and we touched base now and then, but there was none of the constant contact that is available today, and certainly none of the day-to-day communication that we had enjoyed for the five years that we had known each other through middle- and high-school.
Fast forward several years. I was married and living in the prototypical Southern California planned community with three young children, Proctor was living in a nearby city with his partner of several years. In 1991 I got a Christmas card from him that chilled me to the bone: he was suffering with repeated bouts of pneumonia and had resigned from his job because he lacked the strength to work.
I phoned him immediately. We never said ‘HIV’ or ‘AIDS’ to each other because we both knew what he was trying to tell me in his Christmas card. I wanted to visit him immediately, and he asked if everyone in my house was healthy.
Well, no, they weren’t, actually. I had three elementary school aged children and they were entering a truly unprecedented stretch of illness. I called Proctor at least twice a week to report on the latest sniffles that had seized my children. We chatted until he was too tired to continue talking on the phone, and I promised to come and see him as soon as my household was not a seething cauldron of germs.
Then, light at the end of the tunnel: No one had been sick with a cold for several days. I phoned Proctor and made plans to go and see him that coming weekend. That is, until one of the children returned home from school and blossomed into chicken pox that same evening.
One child with chicken pox turned into two, and then three. I had a trio of spotty, cranky children to tend to, and there was no way I was going to bring a new virus into Proctor’s home. We rode out the chicken pox with lots of help from my Mom and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and at last, AT LAST, everyone was well.
When I phoned Proctor’s home, I got the answering machine several times in a row. Then, the Monday after Mother’s Day, my home phone rang. I was close to an extension but did not pick up the receiver, because I knew what the call was about. Proctor’s mother left a message on my answering machine: he had died on Mother’s Day, the pneumonia finally drowning him in his hospital bed.
Despite my despair at missing the chance to visit face to face with Proctor during his last days, I took comfort in the strong bond we had formed when we were barely out of childhood. The memorial service was full of new friends who spoke of his generous nature and quirky sense of humor. I listened to them and, though I was sorry that I had not spent more time with the adult Proctor, he sounded an awful lot like the tall, gawky, awkward kid I had met decades before in Drama Club.
When I went to hug Proctor’s mother and offer her my condolences after the memorial service, she thanked me for being Proctor’s friend at a time in his life when friends were scarce. I told her that he had been the same for me. She told me that her son had tried to comfort her as his life slipped away by singing to her.
What has reminded me so strongly of my old friend recently? An intense conversation with one of my daughters about the singer/songwriter Elliott Smith, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Proctor and who also battled depression. An invitation from my Bunco buddy, Misty, to watch her young daughter in a community theater production of Joseph & The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which was the last play that I ever watched Proctor perform in. A box of old photos that my Mom gave me that contains some snapshots of Proctor and me at Disneyland, both of us wearing the absurd fashions of the 1970s and grinning like loons. The news that one of the Gruffalo’s childhood friends died yesterday on the other side of the world.
Of course you know he dies in the end. But he doesn’t, really. The friends that we make when we are young and vulnerable stay with us, no matter what.
It isn’t always about beads, everyone. And I hope you don’t mind.
8/11/14: ETA RIP Robin Williams
8/11/14: ETA RIP Robin Williams