Tonio K to Walker Percy to Ashes to Ashes to Dust to Dust

It’s a great big goofy world, and the internet can only multiply that.  The other day, I wrote a column about my funeral (plans for, not reporting from), including a song I wanted to have played, “We Walk On” by Tonio K.  On a whim, I posted a link to it on a Tonio K. Facebook group, asking other members what song by Senor K they’d like to have played when it’s time to say sayonara.  It was simple fun from a simple man, and got eight or 10 responses—including my favorite:  “I’m Supposed to Have Sex with You.”  Couldn’t figure out whether it was a cry from the terminally celibate or a shout out to closeted necrophiliacs.  But I digress.

In the column, I also gave a secular reading I wanted my friend, Mark Roth, to speak on at the service.  Oversightedly, I neglected to give the source, and should have.  Here’s the quote:

“I don’t quite know what we’re doing on this insignificant cinder spinning away in a dark corner of the universe. That is a secret which the high gods have not confided in me. Yet one thing I believe and I believe it with every fiber of my being. A man must live by his lights and do what little he can and do it as best as he can. In this world goodness is destined to be defeated. But a man must go down fighting. That is the victory. To do anything less is to be less than a man.”

It’s a quote from Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, winner, I think, of the National Book Award but not even one of my favorite Percy books.  (For the record, I like Lost in the Cosmos, The Message in the Bottle, Signposts in a Strange Land, The Second Coming and even his collected correspondence with Shelby Foote better.)  (I’m not sure who is compiling this record, or why, but now it’s in there.)  Still, that quote has stuck with me ever since I read it more than 20 years ago.

I was in a motel in Vergennes, Vermont, sharing a room with my best adult friend, David MacKay.  I was directing and acting with an improv theater group made up of “at-risk” teenagers from an alternative school I was running, and Dave was traveling with us and acting as a sort-of chaperone, not so much for the kids, I think, as for me.  Dave was married and had a single son at the time; Dave also had hemophilia and, in one huge dollop of bad timing, had relocated to San Francisco after graduating high school in 1980.  In short, as a hemophiliac he needed blood supply and living in San Francisco he was at the epicenter of what was called “the gay plague,” HIV-AIDS.  In 1994, sharing a room with me, Dave was HIV positive, status he hid from most of the world, and one of the most carefree men I’ve ever known.  As it happened, we had just shooed two of my female actors out of the motel room of a couple truckers—“we were just getting to know them, Keith!  God!  You’re not my father!”—when I came across this passage, read it to Dave, and we talked about it for 20 minutes.

Four years later, I quoted it at his funeral, and kept it close to my heart as his widow, Kathy, and I spread his ashes at his favorite places.

David MacKay has inspired me for the past seven years and will do so for the rest of my life.  As you know, Dave was a tremendously funny man.  Dave’s humor, though, was not an encyclopedia one-liners.  In fact, I can’t remember Dave telling a joke.  Dave’s humor was natural and organic, arising from his ironic and slightly twisted take on whatever situation he found himself in.  Instead of telling jokes, Dave carried humor with him.  No, Dave embodied humor, incarnated humor, made humor flesh.  And made us happy. 

            Dave and I talked a lot–about kids, about marriage, about life and about death.  Every morning for two years, Dave and I had coffee and conversation.  Dave was a stoic existentialist.  The word “stoic,” I think, has gotten a bad rap over the years, and has come to describe a person who takes great pains to let you know about the great pains he is not letting you know about.  David suffered miserably from a number of serious complications and health problems.  He never once, within my hearing, complained; instead, he gratefully accepted whatever life offered him, happy that life was there to offer him anything.  Like the boy who wakes up on Christmas morning to find his bedroom filled with the stench of horse manure, Dave met each day believing that all the crap he faced meant there must be a pony around here someplace.  There must be a pony.

            Dave and I talked seriously about how one finds meaning in a universe which has no God.  Or at least no God who is willing to return our phone calls. David’s position,  basically,  was:  “Life is truly absurd.  We can’t explain birth.  We can’t explain death.  We can’t even explain tooth decay.  All we can do is embrace the absurdity of our existence.  Humor provides that embrace.”  The one thing that Dave did not find absurd was children, especially his own.  Dave loved Dustin and Ryan with a passion, and would do anything to make sure that they were safe and knew they were loved.  And they were.  And they are.

            Although I have some very funny Dave anecdotes, Kathy has asked that remarks be kept at a PG-13 level.  That pretty much excludes the story about the student who brought a BB gun to school  and our manhunt for the boy after he had taken a shot at a first grader.  During our search, Dave remarked, “Just think, 10 years from now I wonder who’ll be playing me on America’s Most Wanted–a special episode entitled “MacKay’s Maniacs:  How One Teacher Destroyed a Generation.” 

            Likewise, I can’t tell the story of that same student three months later, when Dave decided that what the boy really needed was a role in life and that that role was videotaping road performances of the Clearway Improvisational Theater.  Even when we had to drive the boy home from Berlin at 3 in the morning, Dave was still saying that the boy had demonstrated character  in being willing to stand, video camera in hand, outside a girl’s motel room in sub-zero temperature on the off chance that she would be taking her clothes off. 

            Likewise, I can’t tell the story of another trip a year later, in which Dave and I happened to be relaxing in the hotel hot tub.  When two female students innocently approached the tub, Dave said to me, PAUSE  Well, let’s just leave that one off the plate entirely.

              No, none of those stories would be appropriate, so I’m not going to tell them.  Instead, I want to leave you with a quote that Dave and I talked about a long time ago.  It’s from a book called The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, and I think it sums Dave up pretty well.

“I don’t quite know what we’re doing on this insignificant cinder spinning away in a dark corner of the universe.  That is a secret which the high gods have not confided in me.  Yet one thing I believe and I believe it with every fibre of my being.  A man must live by his lights and do what little he can and do it as best he can.  In this world goodness is destined to be defeated.  But a man must go down fighting.  That is the victory.  To do anything less is to be less than a man.”

David MacKay was that man.  I loved him very much.  I always will.

And I do.




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