Redeem: To free from what distresses or harms or atoning from a mistake. The act of making something better.
“What do you mean you won’t go to the pool with me, Larry? Weren’t you on the swim team in high school?” Despite the fact that the question was directed to my work colleague, it was layered with my own emotional baggage. Revealing my very-different-looking one-toed tiny feet at a public pool still put me at unease. Larry and I were on the phone, he sitting in his office in Newport Beach, CA while I was at my desk looking out at the Manhattan skyline. We were excitedly planning to spend a couple of days touring in Rio, Brazil before an anticipated work-trip.
I had first met Larry at a large Firm event in Newport Beach shortly after I joined the company. Within minutes of meeting, it was as if we’d known one another for years, and I was immediately taken with how sweet, gregarious and funny he was.
Having already been to Rio, Larry told me it was an absolute must for us to plan to see the ‘Christo Redentor,’ (Christ the Redeemer) a massive statue of Christ with outstretched arms located at the peak of the Corcovado mountain overlooking the entire city. “You’ll even feel inspired as a Jew!” he joked.
Afterwards, we planned to have dinner at a famed restaurant atop Rocinha, with a panoramic view. The following day, we’d drink from a fresh coconut while on Copacabana Beach. Although the plan sounded wonderful, I was aware of warnings about the water quality and so I suggested we opt for a safer swimming scene – the hotel pool.
It was that suggestion that prompted his reply on the phone. Hesitating again, Larry repeated himself. “Meg, I’m not sure I’m up for that.” When I pressed further, more from confusion than nosiness, his voice got softer, forcing me to hold the earpiece closer to my ear. “You see, I don’t like to see my body in public. I have a scar I don’t like people to see across my chest….” Sympathetic, I told Larry we didn’t have to do anything he didn’t feel comfortable doing. Within a moment my fun-loving friend re-emerged. “Meg, you are going to just LOVE Rio!” We hung up and I found myself humming Barry Manilow’s famous tune. “Her name was Lola….”
Recently I posted on the DHIFI Facebook page about Barry Manilow’s public disclosure
about being gay. Although the news didn’t seem to come as a surprise to many, according to press reports, Manilow had been hiding his romantic relationship with Garry Kief, his long time manager for almost four decades. Their close friends and family attended their wedding in 2014, but honored the couple’s desire for discretion in public.
What I found most surprising was not that Manilow decided to keep this aspect of his life private for decades, but rather that he seemed so surprised at the warm reaction of his fans. According to Manilow, “I thought I would be disappointing them if they knew I was gay. So I never did anything.”
Manilow’s announcement has been on my mind for a completely different reason though, since I heard about it the same day I received news that my dear friend Larry had died from an illness. The last time I actually saw Larry was after work one evening in the Fall of 2013. It would be my last business trip to the West Coast since I was about to take a new job in New York. When I arrived at the Island Hotel in Newport Beach after a long day at the office, Larry texted me. “Hey, get in your jammies and come over. We have drinks and dinner waiting for you!” By this time, Larry and his partner had been living together for two years.
Larry’s passing has made me think a lot about how each day we are alive we have a choice. Do we awake each morning flaunting with the courage to be ourselves, or do we choose to hide, swallowed by our fears of how others may judge us? I reflect back on that day we actually went to the beach at Copacabana. The heat was sweltering and after sipping from the coconut, Larry turned to me and said, “Wow, was that refreshing!” In that moment, I once again, albeit gently, prodded my friend to go to the pool. Although I too wasn’t thrilled at the idea of showing off my deformed feet in public and enduring the usual stares, I had learned it was also exhilarating to push past my fears. Once again, Larry refused. “Meg, I told you….” And at that, I let it go. We agreed to meet later for dinner, and as I happily swam my laps back at the hotel, it occurred to me that I hadn’t even noticed whether anyone was focused on my imperfect body or not. Not only had I reached a level of inner peace about my difference, the decision not to hide had continued to reward me with experiences I used to deny myself.
This week I can’t help but think about the irony of Larry’s passing on the same day Barry Manilow came out of the closet. Unlike Barry, being gay was something Larry had embraced throughout his adult life. That part he didn’t hide. In return, he and his partner lived together in love openly, making the fullest of every day they would have together. His choice to flaunt and unconditionally accept this invisible difference was rewarded with joy and acceptance from others. Yet there were other choices Larry wouldn’t make. He still wasn’t fully comfortable in his own skin, both figuratively and literally. By hiding his chest scars, he missed out on other good times. And then, all of a sudden, it was too late.
But for those fortunate enough to live a long life, there is still time to choose to let go of fears. With tears in his eyes, Manilow described how he was overwhelmed when fans accepted unconditionally his relationship with Kief . He happily shared the reaction of his fans. “When they found out Garry and I were together, they were so happy. The reaction was so beautiful—strangers commenting, ‘great for you!’ I am so grateful.”
On that trip to Rio, atop the mountain, Larry and I couldn’t help but to spread our arms. Me first, then he followed. In retrospect, it felt as freeing as I feel when I choose to do whatever pleases me the most on any given day. It is no wonder that so many mimic the same pose inspired by a statue that encourages redemption.