The last time I saw Greg Tate, I was eating lunch at an outdoor cafe in Hartford. The car he was in pulled up to a stoplight and beeped to get my attention. I looked up from my book and saw his face smiling at me from the passenger window. It was one of those first warm days a couple of months ago. "Hi Tate!" I said, waving. I knew the tumors were still on his vocal cords and that I would be doing the talking. "You headed to the hospital?"
He nodded, with a look on his face I've seen many times, but never understood. Could have been serious. Could have been amused at my extreme perkiness at the idea of heading to the hospital for cancer treatments. I had no idea what to say next, so I said the stupidest thing imaginable.
"Well... have fun!" He nodded again. The light turned green. He drove away. I couldn't see who was driving. His face was still in the window, disembodied almost, his eyes shifted back to the street and the direction he was going.
I thought, that was the last time I will ever see him.
The second-to-last time I saw Greg Tate, I helped him down a set of stairs in the back of the Mark Twain House. The fundraiser in his honor was ending and I'd been asked to sneak him out the back. My own Greg, my other half, held him on one side. I held him on the other. We are both very small and it felt wrong that our meek bodies would be required as a tool to make it down a few perfunctory steps. I don't remember how we held him, whose hands were where, if we even helped at all. I remember the growl and the sigh of his breath making its way over the cancer and up through his organs and out through a sound. The sound that was everything: the loss of dignity and the holding on to it. We sent him out into the parking lot, dimly lit, towards someone who loved him who'd brought the car around. We released our hands and he walked away.
I thought, that was the last time I will ever see him.
Hours earlier I'd looked him in the eye while telling a story in his honor for the fundraiser. That look was there; bemused or confused or angry, I didn't know. I didn't know him well enough to know. I told the story. I did some improv. I was called upon to be an emergency addition to a burlesque team (I didn't strip). There was act after act of variety show in Tate's honor.
During the show I thought, this is the last time I will ever see him.
I hadn't realized how bad the cancer was until I was there that night at the fundraiser. I didn't realize it until I heard his voice, what was once that huge sound that could cut through any conversation with its force. That voice was an automatic opinion. But when I heard it, early that day on the radio, I was shocked by how ravaged and shredded it sounded. Hearing it made me feel like a child somehow. I felt helpless and small, a spectator who can't swim, standing on a beach watching a ship crack in two.
Greg Tate was an actor, a director, and a founder of HartBeat Ensemble, the first group of people that made me believe and belong in Hartford. I'd been here a year and was waitressing at a brewery, completely unsure if anyone that I shared a single interest with was in this city. Another waitress told me that HartBeat needed help writing press releases. I wrote. I did it all over email, barely meeting the ensemble-- I got the facts. I made them into a story.
Eventually, one of the founders decided to take a leave of absence to get his master's, and I found myself at a dining room table with a huge man and his cat. This is my first distinctive memory of Tate: interviewing me with his roommates, who turned out to be his coworkers. I worked for HartBeat for a year, learning most of what I know about publicity: tell the truth. Respect your audience. Be kind to everyone and everyone will benefit. Tate was at once the roughest and the kindest; one of those people who truly said what he thought. When he gave me a compliment, I took it to heart. Same with criticism.
I made a huge amount of mistakes in that job. I stumbled through, figuring out one hundred percent of everything I had to do. I was overwhelmed. I was emotional. I was, in short, green as a leprechaun and not as lucky. And every member of the ensemble was more than kind to me. Kinder than I deserved.
There's a phrase I love-- I can't remember where I first heard it. "Everyone thinks they are the hero of the story." In HartBeat there are no heroes. Everyone is, in turns, a supporting character to everyone else. They are an ensemble in the truest sense of the word. At the end of my year there, I was miserable as I walked out, thinking: I hope this isn't the last time I see them.
Of course it wasn't. I saw HartBeat Ensemble, and Tate, so many more times. Tate always seemed quietly happy to see me pop up asking him to do some event at an improv show, or taking pictures at the Youth Play Institute as he helped some kids set up the tech. I saw him hug a lot of kids. I saw him laugh hundreds of times. He played the slave Jim in a staged reading of Huckleberry Finn and he loved and lived every word of the speech about treating your fellow person with respect.
Greg Tate died of cancer last night. It was fast. No one expected it to happen like this. No matter how many times I thought it might be the last time, I never wanted it to be. I have never wanted so badly to be wrong.
I was a supporting character in Tate's life, a person who popped up occasionally in large parties. For a while I thought this simple fact gave me no right to speak about his death.
But I feel tremendously sad today. This loss to Hartford, to the community, seems unbearable. And it is because he is a person who lived how I want to live: broadly. Wielding love in one hand and justice in the other. Doing what you believe to be right and being generous at the same time. I'm trying to think of specific examples but I can't. It was just who he was, how he lived. When you're a smaller figure in someone's life, and they in yours, you see them from further away: you are forced to see essence instead of minutae. He was a good person. He was the kind of person who let little kids draw around them with chalk. He was the kind of person who believed that doing a play in a park could change the world. He was the kind of person who believed that act was the change in the world.
The first time I saw a HartBeat play, it was Ebeneeza-- a Hartfordized version of the Dickens classic. Casting Tate as the Ghost of Holidays Present was almost too easy. He didn't have the sobering sternness of the past. He wasn't ominous like the future. He was just there: huge and hilarious and present.
EBENEEZA: You’re the ghost of the present?
GHOST: Soiently, but not just the present. Holidays present.
EBENEEZA: But you’re not Clarence?
EBENEEZA: You remind me of someone.
GHOST: I remind everyone of someone. Someone they’ve loved or who loved them. That’s my job. (HOLDING OUT HIS HAND) You ready?
EBENEEZA: Can’t I just go straight to hell and by pass all the rest?
GHOST: It’s the magic night, lady.
Dear Tate: you remind me of someone. Not someone specific. You remind me of the person I want to be.
You ask: you ready?
I answer: no. I'm not ready. Give us all more time to be supporting characters in your story. I don't want to be a hero and today, neither does anyone else.
GHOST: Can’t stop this ball from rolling. Too many spirits out there pulling for you.
EBENEEZA: Spirits pulling for me?
GHOST: Yeah, you know, like at the end of Return of the Jedi with Anakin, Obi Wan and Master Yoda hanging on the hill, showing Luke the way, glowing and crap.
EBENEEZA: But why?
GHOST: No one is beyond redemption.
EBENEEZA: You really don’t know Clarence?
GHOST: (SHAKING HIS HEAD) Nice guy?
EBENEEZA: Not bad.
The ghosts, I always forget, are supporting characters. They say their piece; they get offstage. They tell the rest of us where to look. They usher us to the next place in our life. They hold us up for a moment, walk us down a flight of stairs, drive us to the hospital, ask one question. They are a face in a window that can't answer all of your questions before they drive away. They don't say this is the last time you will see me. At some point they vanish when we turn around to speak to them. It is usually at the moment when we realize what they meant to show us. When we call out for them, they are gone.
In the next moment, we realize how far they have brought us. In the next moment, we look around and realize we have to keep going on our own.