There is no term for what Tate and I were to each other. This didn’t bother me throughout all the years that people looked at us askance; “Are they married?” “Is he her father?” “Do they have some kind of arrangement?” This happened most often when we were looking for a new apartment or taking the other to urgent care. In later years it would happen when he would bring one of the kids to daycare or school. We just laughed. And yes, we knew we were a pretty odd site.
Here is what I said in a speech on his 60th birthday, just one week before he went to the hospital for what we later learned was lung cancer.
“To me of course, Tate you are many things; my artistic partner, my business partner, my housemate, my comrade, the third parent to my children, a member of my family, and most importantly, my best friend.”
And yet even that does not say it all because basically, at some point early on in our friendship, Tate and I decided that although we were not romantically involved, we wanted to share a life together. This life wasn’t to be exclusive. I wanted to marry and have children eventually. He too wanted to find someone special. I like to think we helped each other make those dreams a reality along with all the other dreams we worked toward because we were better people together than we were apart. So when Steve and I began to talk about forming our own company in a new city, I knew that I did not want to do it without Tate. We were a unit.
Tate and I never took vows or held a public event to announce our commitment to our life together. But we did, along with Steve, make some very intentional ground rules for our relationship and our work. Chief among them was “No Warehousing.” This was short hand for talking about conflicts, annoyances or hurt feelings as they came up rather than stuffing them away (in an emotional warehouse) until they burst out when you least expect (or appreciate) it. Tate and I were really good at this. So good in fact that many have said we fought like an old married couple. I cannot deny that our bickering sometimes sounded like an episode of All in the Family. But I can say with certainty that there was never anything unsaid between us. We said it, we hashed it out if we had to, and it was over. When people ask how we were able to live and work together everyday for 15 years without getting sick of each other, that is my answer.
Tate taught me to live beyond judgement. Not without it, but beyond it. After all he said, judgements are just thoughts and thoughts can always be followed by new thoughts. Furthermore, he explained, thoughts are just messages and they may not even be our own. They may be messages from the many outside influences in our lives. The first time he taught me about all of this, it was in the context of discussing racism. He said something like:
“If you are walking down the street and upon seeing a couple of black guys coming your way you decide to cross that street, you could admonish yourself for being a shameful racist or you could say, ‘hey – that was weird. Where did that thought come from? Do I really fear for my safety? And if so, why?’ Break it down. Was is a racist thought? Sure! But does that mean you are a racist? Well that depends on what you do with that thought. And what you do next after that. If we could all just talk about the ugly parts of ourselves without so much judgment and shame, we’d be able to get a lot farther in what we call “race relations.”
I’m laughing to myself now because I make him sound like such a sage. He was. Certainly not in all ways. He was a slob. He was horrendous with money. He could defensive to the point of paranoia. He often made terrible first impressions and he made some mistakes in his life that he sorely regretted. But actually because of all that, he was the wisest person I’ve ever known. Tate’s wisdom came from his weaknesses and pain. He wrote one of my favorite lines in Ebeneeza – A Hartford Holiday Carol, in which the Ghost of Holiday’s present says to Ebeneeza, “The pain that makes us most of us human you allowed to make you cold, callous and unfeeling for those in need.” Tate’s pain didn’t just make it him human. It made him generous and beautiful and loving. It made him someone I wanted and needed in my life forever.
Another pain that was Tate’s to bear was the world’s reaction to his size. He wasn’t just a black man in America or a big black man in America. He was a fat black man in America. This last part seemed for many to be his most egregious offense. How dare he make people so uncomfortable with his weight. How dare he make people confront their hatred of fat people which inevitably lead to their fear or hatred of their own bodies. I’m not saying that people hated Tate. But they hated that he was fat and they hated themselves for hating that he was fat and they wanted him to just loose weight already so that everyone could be more comfortable. Yes we can all talk about the health risks that come from being overweight and they are very real. But our society’s vilification of fat is also real and it is palpable. Tate and I talked about this often. He knew when people were uncomfortable with his body. Since his death, I have even had a few people say things to me like, “well he was so overweight,” as if to offer some rationale or meaning for his death. If you are someone who has said this to me and I did not stab you in the thigh with a fork, consider yourself extremely lucky. And by the way, although he never “got control over his eating,” in the last 11 years he did change his eating habits, quite smoking, develop a regular gym routine and visit his doctor every three months like clockwork to stay on top of his cholesterol and blood pressure.
But I digress. Tate was so much more than that his size. He was artist in the truest sense. He lived his art, whether it paid off or not. His love of theater came from his love and respect for the human condition. With theater he was both a workhorse and a scholar. No task was beneath him (though he could grumble louder and longer than an angst ridden teen and crotchety old man put together). He could quote playwrights from the mainstream Western theater canon as well as he could quote Brecht, Fo or Fugard. He taught me most of what I know about being a working artist.
He taught me much of what I know about being an adult. I was 22 years old when we met.
So here I am. It is the middle of the night and I am once again awake trying to imagine living this life that we built together, without him. While I have not found a term that encompasses all we were to each other, I have found something that I forgot to say to him say to him in that birthday speech:
“Tate, you are part of my being, my definition, my reason.”
And now you are gone.