When I was a child, I didn't fantasize about being an actor when I grew up. But that's what I am. I didn't dream that I'd be a receptionist, either, but that's what I do now. I didn't really think much at all back then about being an adult. Life just happened to me, and I watched. As I got older, if I had to make a life choice, I seemingly made it on a whim. Or I didn't choose at all. Mostly, I just watched. Like a benevolent alien in human skin, I observed the ways of those around me—like an alien who had friends he cared about and passions he pursued, an alien who felt love and pain but who knew deep down that there was a limit to those connections. Like I was in the world but not of it.
I imagine that's how a lot of queer kids feel growing up.
One of my first gay mentors—though I doubt he thought of it that way—was a guy I worked with in the early 1990s named Flynn. I was a valet at a hotel in downtown Seattle. He was the receptionist. I was in my early 20s. He was in his mid 40s. He was gay. He was hilarious. His wit was wicked and his jokes were sometimes catty and cruel, but only toward those who had it coming. He was wise without being showy. He was showy when we needed a show. He was welcoming and warm and kind, but you had to be worthy of his kindness—you had to have kindness in you. I wanted to be just like him when I grew up, when I, too, became a gay man of a certain age.
He taught me what I needed to know just by being so gleefully himself. When I try to describe him to others, the best I can do is to reference a character from the movie Victor Victoria: Flynn was like Toddy, the gay best friend (aren't we always) to Julie Andrews's titular character. Robert Preston buoyantly inhabited this character and showed me how a gay man could be funny and fierce and unapologetic and kind. As an added bonus, Toddy also ends up hooking up with Alex Karras in the end, and that man was a goddamned teddy bear stud, so that gave me hope. (And yes, queen, I know. We only see them as a couple once, sitting in bed together like two of the Golden Girls in a road-trip motel, but come on. It was the early 1980s. If you want everything given to you by pop culture, you are going to go to bed very hungry indeed.) But Preston's Toddy was just a character. Flynn was real.
I worked with Flynn for two great years and then I decided that I was done being a valet. I quit with no plan for what was next and stumbled (as I often did) into my next random job. After I left the hotel, I visited Flynn once at the house he owned with his partner, Darrel. (I've changed both of their names.) It was exactly the kind of home that I long for today. Small. Cozy. Put together. Just enough. Not fancy. A home. This was back when a receptionist in Seattle could own a home, but that's another subject.
I didn't call Flynn anymore after that visit, even though I now wish I had. I knew he, too, had left the hotel and was going to be starting another job in an office. One of the unpleasant truths of being a bit disassociated is that I can sometimes be bad at friendship. Feeling like a tourist here on earth does serve me well when it comes to acting, but it's not great for my relationships. I love people intensely, but when they drift away, my attention sometimes moves to the next thing in front of me. I didn't keep up with Flynn, but I thought about him often.
A few years later, I heard that he had killed himself. He jumped off a bridge. On Christmas Day or Eve. I can't remember now. He told Darrel that he was going to the store. He never came back.
Years later, I realized I had grown up into the man I had wanted to be. That Flynn showed me how to be.
In addition to being a theater artist who can put on a show, I'm also a Canadian who's gay and living in the United States, so it follows that I'm funny. That's just what a gay Canadian living in the United States is. I've had my share of reviews, both positive and negative. I try not to give too much credence to reviews, but I'm not an actor who avoids reading them.
In March of 2012, The Stranger published a short piece about me that was extremely flattering and that felt like a major milestone in my artistic life. It was just a paragraph. No profile in the New York Times to be sure, but it did talk about a performance I had given that year, and the headline was hyperbolic in its praise of me, if also a little morbid. "Now you can die happy, Stephen Hando," it read. Oh, my. Next to the headline was an illustration of a tombstone with my name on it. I'll confess the first time I saw it, my throat tightened a bit. But my gay Canadian humor is of the darkest hue, and I appreciated the tone and the recognition. I realized that I had, in fact, done some of the best acting of my career, and I felt like I was on the cusp of something great.
In less than a year, things in my life would change so drastically that any humor I had found in that article was replaced by a rueful irony that was cold as ice and completely stripped of any joy. Who knows how depression works. All I know is, sometime after that article came out, I lost my way. I was swallowed up by a sense of hopelessness so intense that I felt living was too much to bear. It was depression of a kind that I had never experienced before. Every day, every single day, for two years, I woke to the thought: This is the day I'll do it. I'll kill myself today. The light I'd had in my eyes was gone. I was never happy. I honestly thought that I could never be happy again. "Now you can die happy, Stephen Hando." Fuck. I missed my chance.
The only time I found any comfort at all was when I was asleep. Mostly my dreams were good ones. In my dreams, everything was back to the way it was. I was okay. My friends and my partner were with me, and it was like nothing had ever gone wrong. But then I would wake up—and remember I was going to kill myself today. So I slept. A lot.
During that time, I let almost everything go. I was going to die soon, so why bother? I lost almost everything. The performing I did during this time was uninspired at best and humiliatingly inept at worst. My friends reached out again and again, but eventually I stopped returning calls. I neglected e-mail pleas. They did all that anyone could do, but they are adults with lives to live and troubles of their own and eventually they stopped trying. I walked to the edge of killing myself every day, but I never took that final step. Why not? That, also, is a mystery to me.
But the answer must have to do with my partner, Jeff. In the middle of this extreme detachment on my part, Jeffery, my partner of almost nine years, the man I love so deeply, stood by my side. It must have been a horrible, lonely, terrifying time. The very core of who I was changed, yet he stayed with me. I was cold and cruel in ways I didn't know I had the capacity to be, and he endured it. I don't know what he saw in me that made him stick around, but I am so grateful that he did.
I think now that we all have the capacity for darkness. It just takes the right unfortunate combination to unlock it, and everyone's combination is probably different. I pushed Jeff away again and again. He countered by offering his love. He was stranded, with no guidance, but he kept trying as hard as he could to pull me back. He cooked me meals that I refused to eat. He ran errands I couldn't complete. There was yelling, there were ugly, painful actions on both sides, but he didn't leave me. And because of that, somehow, I survived.
Eventually, through a temp agency, I found myself placed at the only job I have ever loved. A job that brought me back to life. I work at a local health care clinic. Part of my job involves talking with people who have just discovered that their lives are altered forever. I'm often one of the first voices they hear when they reach out for help. They desperately need someone to be present for them in that moment. It demands so much compassion and presence that it helped pull me back out of whatever abyss I had fallen into. It woke up a heart I thought was dead. But it wasn't dead. It had merely been hibernating. And slowly I became myself again. Mostly. We are all a work in process.
Like Flynn, I work the phones. It means the world to me to have that connection with him. My coworkers are hilarious and compassionate, and I care for them so much. They inspire me to make them laugh every day. Now I get to be the witty older man who knows a thing or two about a thing or two. About why people behave the way they do. About things that are good and emotions that are painful.
I think now about Flynn and his partner, Darrel, and I have so much compassion for both of them. I think about my fiancé, Jeff, who showed me what it means to love someone. How strange to say those words: "My fiancé, Jeff." It's a reality that I could never have conceived of growing up. I think about that great group of friends who tried for such a long, long time to pull me out of the emptiness. How frightening my inexplicable distance must have been. How frustrating. Ultimately, how exhausting. And I think about my parents back in Canada who had their hands so full with their own terrible struggles that I kept all of mine hidden from them. But they must have suspected. Their son had simply disappeared.
I don't know that there was anything Darrel could have done to save Flynn. I know there was nothing specific Jeffery or any of my friends could have done for me, except what they did. They tried so hard and for so long, and I am grateful beyond words that they did. We have to try as hard as we can to save the ones we love from the demons that they are fighting. We have to love them as hard as we can. What saves a person? I don't know. Life is lovely, but it can be cruel. But I live in it now in a way I did not before—as a member of the human race, not an observer. I feel more deeply and fully than I had before, and for that, at least, I'm grateful. It's made me a better man. I wish Flynn had stumbled upon that thing. I wish his new office job could have saved him. I wish he could know me now.