Jack Dawson and Josh Thomas, wedding night, Dec. 6, 1990
I have written two pieces on the final illness and death of my lover and husband, Jack Dawson, a eulogy and a thank you letter, but I’m struck by how inadequately I describe him. I’m a professional writer; can I not apply my wordsmithing skills to a subject I know better than any other?
What was it about him that made him special; that made me marry him?
Why, on his last day on earth, did ten people go to him, none related by blood? How is it he touched so many people with his goodness?
Some of the gang from Simon Says, a Cincinnati Gay bar, were there that last day; he worked there in some minor capacity, counting the money, making bank deposits. When he was done he would hang out awhile; the crowd at Simon’s became a substitute family, for which I thank them all.
But even being “family” isn’t enough to get most barflies into the hospital room of a man who’s dying; Americans avoid the dying, we don’t go and sit with them. Yet several friends from Simon’s were there, and the owner sat with him till the end.
I’m very grateful; I couldn’t or wouldn’t be with him. I was told he wasn’t conscious, “heavily sedated.” I wasn’t going to go for one last look at him if I couldn’t do anything for him. Something about that just strikes me as obscene. He would not have liked being on display when I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years—though I’m equally sure he was glad his day-to-day friends were there.
The necessary elements for me to visit him were beyond his power: looking into each other’s eyes; holding each other. If we couldn’t do that he wouldn’t want me there.
The last time we saw each other a few years ago, I was shocked by the tenderness we felt for each other; it was almost confusing, disorienting, how dear we still were to each other. I remember a thousand gentle touches and whispered thoughts. We clung together and spoke softly. We hadn’t lived together in ten years, we’d both “moved on with our lives,” and yet… there he was, and I loved him; there I was, and he loved me the same way.
Where did he get such sweetness? It was a gift from God, which can’t otherwise be explained. It was Jack’s own personality that attracted so many people, and when I consider the hard knocks he got growing up, that “personality” also seems a decision, a whole series of choices he made along the way. He would be himself; he would be considerate of others; he would listen; he would care—and he would act.
Everyone from the bar who traveled to that hospital room was on the receiving end of Jack’s caring at one time or another; multiple times.
And so was I on the receiving end of it for eight great and miserable years. He put up with a lot from me. Life with Josh was exciting and maddening, either easy or hard, no in between; he called me “high maintenance,” but for eight good years he maintained.
We never fought, not once. We disagreed plenty of times, but we kept talking; we were fair to each other. He raised his voice to me twice in eight years; both times I dropped what I was doing and rushed to him, because if Jack was yelling at me I had to have screwed up bigtime.
By yelling I mean two sentences at most, not a prolonged screamfest. The minute he got my attention he went back to a reasonable tone. That was a very good thing about our discussions; we were always fair and considerate. I had to do most of the emotional work when we were young, but he would cooperate, he would answer, he would help move us to a resolution.
The illness that resulted in multiple amputations was of course a huge challenge for us. He probably wasn’t as disclosive as he could have been, but half the time he was just struggling to survive. When you’re sick you’re not up for relationship therapy, you want to go to bed.
The illness, vasculitis, not only messed up his body, it screwed with his head. It scrambled his sexuality in ways I’m not sure he understood. I didn’t either. I was 35, young and halfway cute when he got sick; no matter how much I begged (he was the same guy; why would we not?), he’d never have sex with me again.
It seemed like shame working on his mind. I’m told he eventually got over it, but not with me.
Despite no sex, the last year we were together was the happiest year of my life; I didn’t see the separation coming, and I was devastated. But he wanted to go back to Cincinnati, and he needed to be independent, if he was ever going to regain a sense of self. He never said it that way, but that’s my conclusion. He was getting way too comfy in that wheelchair, having me do things for him. I’m proud of his independence since then.
Our separation was the most amicable one in Gay history. We worked everything out in one night, then we took our time. I was able to set him up in his own apartment back at the Roanoke, the same fleabag apartment house I rescued him from years before. He loved Clifton and did very well there for years.
We kept in pretty close touch, although our contact diminished as the years went by. All his friends know that when he was hurting physically or mentally, he tended to isolate himself.
When a person is depressed and will not say so to the closest people he has, there isn’t much you can do. It is horribly depressing to watch your body parts get chopped off; he went through that 8 or 10 or 12 times, we lost count. He went from being a good amateur athlete to being a “crip” in one year. It’s a hard adjustment and it does play on your mind.
So I suppose he did the right thing and cut loose the high-maintenance, high-ambition lover; if it saved his life I’d have voted for it too. It’s not his fault I was never the same; I’m not sure he was prepared for the permanent commitment I brought.
The thing I am proudest of and take no credit for is his advocacy for people with disabilities. He made it his mission to tear down the barriers for others with mobility problems. It came from the same place in his mind and his values that gave rise to his earlier Gay activism. Not only was he not going to suffer in silence as his rights were denied, he spoke up for everyone else. He led his city as he’d led his community. As LGBT people we’re very aware of our pain and suffering, and how they’re derived from politics and big business; we’re not so aware of the pain and suffering of others, the people even less visible than we are. Jack was aware. Jack was a leader.
I need to linger a moment on a word I just wrote; about his values. They were what made me fall in love with him.
My probing questions on our first official date, at that restaurant on Ludlow Avenue as I “measured him for loverhood,” revealed what made Jack Dawson tick. I’m a liberal Democrat; he was a liberal Democrat. I’m an Episcopalian, he was, uh, not. He was raised Catholic and saw through it before he was ten. But still when we came to be married, he was cool with my faith, especially if his pal Wayland Melton could officiate.
Jack was openly Gay and believed he had a responsibility—that we all have a responsibility—to make things better for the next generation of LGBT people. He wasn’t interested in material goods or the latest pop culture. He wasn’t, in short, the kind of fag you see portrayed in fag fiction, superficial and heartless and selfish. He knew better than that; he saw better than that even in the bar crowd at Simon Says. He looked for the good in people, and he found it.
He also understood evil and worked to prevent it. And though doctors might remove his toes and feet and ankles and shins, they could not remove his backbone. He kept that to the end. He had courage from his brainstem to his ass.
He was loyal to me, protective of me, kind to me, loving; and in my horrible grief which runs deeper than I can fathom or write about, I will always cherish our last visit with all our tenderness. We sat together in the same church where his memorial will be held. We went to a restaurant afterwards, snuggled and whispered. The next day we went to Simon Says and had a few drinks so I could see the new life he’d built, the friends he’d made, so we could have a few last hours together before I drove home to Indiana. I picked him up at his apartment to go to the bar, and while he was getting ready I noticed a piece of mail with his new name on it; I knew he’d changed his last name from Ferguson back to Dawson after his adoptive mother Kitty died, but I didn’t know he’d added a new middle name. I asked about it.
“Oh,” he said, “I didn’t tell you? It’s for you.”
No, mister, you didn’t mention it, when it’s only the most important fact in my Gay life.
We separated, but we never broke up; he named himself Jack Thomas Dawson to show he was still married to me.++