Monday, December 11, 2006

The Fourth Card Of Christmas

This picture was inside the last Christmas card I got from Clark Henley. He was the first friend of mine to die of AIDS and the best friend I ever had. We met in San Francisco and were inseparable for years and when I eventually moved to New York, we spoke regularly on the phone. He always sent me postcards from his travels because he knew I had a huge collection of them. He was generous, thoughtful, kind. And funny. Endlessly funny.

His HIV+ diagnosis was a blow. It was 1986 and AIDS had just been in the New York public awareness since 1983 and only because The Village Voice did an extensive story on it. I wasn’t really clear on what the disease was or how it ravaged the body and I wasn’t alone in my ignorance. There was no AZT cocktail back then, no Diana, Princess of Wales touching HIV-infected people in front of international cameras. No one knew much about it except that it seemed to be a death sentence. When Clark got full blown AIDS I told him that if or when it got really bad I would come and take care of him for as long as he wanted. Every time we talked I mentioned that he only had to say the word and I would drop everything and fly to San Francisco. He said okay. We had a deal. Clark would call if he needed me.

Presuming he was all right I never bothered to make sure. To double check. I was so wrapped up in my standup career that I didn’t take the time to call his other friends or his family to see if he was, in fact, okay. The late 80’s were the boom years of standup. There was so much work I could’ve opened a club in my living room and had a full house every night. I was working constantly and it seemed that Clark and I spoke less and less but I never questioned why. He was living his life, I reasoned. He was okay. I zoomed ahead in standup with fifty dollar gigs at The Duplex and late night MCing at The Improv, a weekend at The Comfort Inn in Niagara Falls. Yes, there was a gig there. I was happening, people. I was on my way. Clark would call if he needed me.

Clark had my sister’s address in his daybook, but not mine. He knew mine by heart. So when the family sent out death notices, they sent one to my sister. That’s how I found out.

What kind of person had I become? What kind of friend was I? How could I have thought that my ridiculous career was more important than a person I cherished and loved?

The weeks that followed swallowed me whole. Why didn’t it ever cross my mind that Clark might have been protecting me from his pain or from possible infection if I went to take care of him? Those were the days when people thought that if you touched someone with AIDS, you got it. Did Clark think that? Why didn’t he call me and talk to me about it? Was he even too sick to call? More importantly, why didn’t I call him? How could I have been so incredibly passive, so pathetically shallow and self-involved in my own boring little world of MeMeMe?

I’ve never been that selfish again. If anything, I’m more than there for all my friends. I go above and beyond because one day I didn’t.

Clark always refused to call me Suzy. He called me Susan because he said I was most definitely not a Suzy.
“Like Susan Hayward, that’s how I think of you.”
“Because everything you do is very, very dramatic.”
“Well sure, if you’re gonna count that.”

Clark came from a wealthy Bay Area family and never had to work a day in his life so he had plenty of time to be creative. The Christmas tree in the background of this picture is entirely decorated with elephants. I think of him at least once a week. And always will.

End of Chat.


  1. Ms S.

    wasn't sure what to expect from the heralded "coming soon" notices, but it certainly wasn't this.
    your story of Clark brought back many memories of a good friend of mine, Robert (Bobby) F., met when we were both in the navy, and the person largely responsible for my introduction to Berkeley and S.F.
    Bobby passed along his old VW bug to me after being diagnosed with AIDS and deciding he was going to live it up during the year or so he had left, bought himself a new car, redid the apt. he shared with other old pal of mine. man, we miss him terribly--

    thanks for sharing!

  2. The Thursday event is still coming. After I run the cards, which end on a Tuesday, I think, there will be The Reveal.

  3. This was heartbreaking. He sounds like a wonderful human being. I'm so sorry, Suzy.

    (I love your twelve days of Christmas cards idea, and the stories behind the cards. Brilliant.)

  4. I think of you so much as a funny writer, and it's really wonderful (and somewhat brave) that you've allowed us to see this side of you too. This is a beautiful piece and a lovely tribute.

    I'm with Jess - this whole 12 days of christmas card memoir is just fantastic.

  5. Suzy (if we can still call you that), that just ripped my heart open. You are such a good writer it inspires me! I'm so sorry about Clark. He sounded wonderful.

  6. Wow. You want me to run for Congress? I want you to run for Queen of the Universe. You get it. Not everyone would have lived through that experience and come away with such a valuable lesson about what matters.

    Those were scary, odd times. I hate it that Clark didn't survive them. He looks like a wonderful person to know. I love that picture of him. He's charming.

  7. Wow, for once I'm at a loss for words. I think maybe the best friends are the ones who would keep you at a distance to protect you from the pain of illness and loss. Maybe what made him happiest in those days was just knowing that you were living your life, loving him from a distance, and doing what you love doing. From what I've read he would never have taken that away from you, and I'm pretty sure if you'd called, he'd have said everything was great. The fact that you still think about him so often and have shared something so deeply heartfelt keeps those beautiful memories alive. As much as we wanna be, none of us are super heroes, but loving someone like that....damn sure comes close.

  8. My best friend died of cancer about 18 months ago. When he was diagnosed, I asked him to move back here so I could take care of him. He said he was fine. I told him when he needed me to call, so I could fly to him and he said he would. He didn't. The weekend he died I told him I was flying down because he wasn't doing so well and he insisted I stay home because he was just fine.

    I kick myself in the ass for not going down there.

    I'm so sorry you lost your friend. It sounds as though he was a great guy.

  9. Life is unfair. A great deal of it seems to be about loss and how we learn to deal with it.

    When I was 18, young and stupid, I lost a very dear friend--tragically and suddenly. My last words to him were angry and selfish. It took me years YEARS to forgive myself.