Remembering Harry

EVE GORDON

I love Harry Kondoleon. I love him to pieces, and I always will. I’m very grateful for today’s memorial; I feel he’s here. Harry loved his friends and family with the passion and fidelity usually reserved for lovers, and he left a part of his soul in all of us. I look at Mitchell, and Stephen, and Christine, and Lucas, and Patricia, and you and you and you, and I know he is here.

I miss him so much. I miss his voice, his superb advice, the antic poetry of his conversation. I don’t know what I’m going to do without him, I’d grown addicted to his huge affection, his endless curiosity, so flattering, his truthfulness. For years now I’ve been in awe of the strength and openness with which he faced his illness. When I first heard that he had AIDS, I called the hospital, with no idea of what I could say to him. Harry answered the phone and I blurted out, lamely, “Oh Harry…you have a private room!” He immediately replied, “A private room for a public disease.” He simply set the tone.

A long time ago, he helped me a lot when someone I loved died. I told him I was afraid to throw away or even move the objects that this person had owned. He responded that objects have power and I should respect them, and that eventually they would lose their power. That if I lost or broke these too precious objects, the grief I felt would be useful, and appropriate. He said it better, of course. He could always help me, cheer me, console me. He was, as Rita Ryack said to me once, a font. He was a font! And every conversation, every visit, every line from him was precious. Harry once said this: “I don’t want to sound too Pollyanna, but I believe in sending out messages that are nutritious. Rather than tell you that even the Evian water has radiation in it, I’ll say, ‘Wouldn’t you like a nice cool glass of good water?'” That’s Harry. Fresh minty delicious iced tea!

I had a cat for many years, her name was Debbie, and one day she died. Harry knew how much I loved her and he loved her too. He named a character in his next play in her honor. And I found a letter recently he sent me shortly after that, saying: “Guess what — I’ve called another character Debbie. She is a topless nurse and a force of good.”

I’d like to read a little bit from another letter. Nothing deep, I just want to bring him back for a moment, so I picked out this: “Dear Eve and Todd, I did so much adore my Christmas pears. I licked them furiously as mere biting seemed beneath them…I hope your holiday was fresh prince of bel air. I’m so bored! But I have begun toiling at some new writing thing. I purchased two black mollies. Do you know what that is? Fish…Not feeling well so often is depressing — so I thought I should see a therapist. But when I went to an ‘intake’ meeting the woman asked me if I was white! A second meeting I went to the man told me I was the only one who’d shown up for the ‘prayer meeting.’ Help! Your Marilyn photos on my fridge are sexually harassing everyone. What’s new? You missed my tree. Love, Harry.”

I don’t know why, but reading Harry’s words reminds me of his favorite way for anyone to read him: with him sitting across from you, staring at you, preferably asking you every few minutes why you smiled there, or what were you chuckling at. Many’s the time I sat in the audience of one of his plays, laughing and sighing, only to catch out of the corner of my eye Harry, sitting at the end of my row, bending forward to watch me watch the play. Not the least bit self-conscious. He would later tell me where I laughed the most and ask me why.

Another memory. Once Mitchell and Harry and Todd (my husband) and I were playing celebrity, a game like charades only you’re allowed to talk. Harry played to win, as a rule, and he could get pretty excited. I was trying to get him to guess Warren Zevon, and we were stuck and getting a little frantic. I said, “Okay, the last letter of the alphabet…?” and Harry, playwright, poet, man of letters, leapt up and screamed, “X!”

Way back at Yale, Harry was directing Self Torture and Strenuous Exercise. Opening night was approaching and we still hadn’t blocked the play. So we decided to confront Harry about that. It was the day scheduled for tech rehearsal and we were gathered nervously in the Cabaret and Harry walked in with some Balinese masks. We said, “Okay Harry, it’s time to block the play, right? Can we do that now?” and he said, “First, let’s all put on these masks and pretend we’re God!” I said, no, no, Harry, we open tomorrow, we’re really worried, come on! and he listened to my little speech with what can only be described as…contentment, and he replied, “OK, but let’s put on these masks and pretend we’re God!” Well, of course, we did, and somehow it all worked out and everybody loved the play.

Now I would like to tell you about the last time I saw Harry. Todd and I had had a baby daughter some months back and hadn’t been able to see Harry since her birth. We had stayed with Harry for a while last year when I was pregnant, and he had expressed some anxiety that he might never see her. I had promised he would. “Harry, I promise you’ll see Tess,” I said. “Good,” he said.

But after Tess was born, it was hard to come east; we kept waiting for decent weather. Meanwhile, we sent Harry pictures all the time. He loved her. He would call me up and say, “Eve, I love her so much!” He sent gifts — a tiny hunting cap, a bunny in festive garb, autumn leaves from Yaddo. He would address them to Count-Tess. He kept her picture on the mantle and said “I can see her soul!”

Then last month I felt Harry was running out of time and we couldn’t wait any longer, and Todd and Tess and I flew out for the weekend. Todd and I had decided to ask Harry to be Tess’s godfather. I called him and said, “Harry, will you be Tess’s godfather?” He and I started crying, and he said, “Yes, oh yes, I’ll always protect her and watch over her and love her!”

He finally held Tess, his goddaughter, the day before he died. He had so little energy by then, and I was afraid that Tess might hurt him by grabbing his face, or squirming violently away, or crying really loudly. She usually doesn’t like new people to hold her, and I was worried. Todd carefully handed her to Harry — and what happened then was an answered prayer. She held very still, and they stared at each other fixedly for some moments, then she gave him a beautiful, heart-stopping smile. Harry laughed and cried and started talking to her, saying, “You’re going to have such a beautiful life! You’re going to be happy! You’re going to be so happy!” He put his hands on her head and said, “I bless you. I bless you.” Then he looked up at us and said, “I’m a priest!”

At the end of our visit that day, we held each other and we said goodbye forever. “Let me kiss you,” he said. “Say a prayer for me.” When we left his apartment, I opened up his book that he’d signed for Tess and I read what he wrote. On the dedication page, where it says “to my friends” he wrote “but really to my goddaughter, Tess, because she is so much like God. Love, Harry.” Mitchell tells me that after we left, Harry told him that when Tess looked into his eyes, he felt she was saying, “Oh! You’re going where I just came from!”

The next day, Harry died. Some time later I realized that Tess’s inscription was probably the last thing Harry ever wrote, and I turned to it again, searching for something, a clue, significance, something. I think I found it. The last three words he ever wrote were “God love Harry.” It struck me as a command. God, love Harry. Or a primitive declaration. God love Harry. Harry spent so much of his life searching for God, questioning God, writing and thinking about God. That his last words were of God, and that he died with the Lord’s Prayer on his lips, gives me some comfort.
I don’t really know how to pray, but Harry asked us to say a prayer for him, so I will. Darling Harry, I will. I will pray for your soul for the rest of my life. I will tell Tess all about her godfather. And when I am an old woman I will still remember you and cherish you and miss you. I promise.