Living the Questions
In the fast-paced world of advertising, it’s not often you take time to think, pause, regroup, and process. Smelling the roses normally means you aren’t busy enough or you work on a floral account. Last week was no exception. In 400 e-mails behind a calendar that scares me worse than horror movies, I would gear up for a week that included three days of a photo shoot and the two others staying above water at the office. My nights were full of purposeful plans, an attempt to regain a social life lost in the maelstrom of work, sadness, and HIV. With a new apartment on the 26th floor of the newly developed Chelsea high-rise, I would invite my dear friend José for dinner.
José had just lost a family member. It was clearly unexpected, and perplexed by all that comes with death, we would share a bonding night over dinner and wine. The conversation we would have was an amazingly personal exploration of who we are, what we stand for, and much that was unexplainable; it was sprinkled with sadness, laughter, reflection, and a Whitney Houston reference. Our conclusion would be the same. Meaning, understanding, sadness, and reflection — life is simply sometimes sad and so unexpected. But the perspective gained in those moments is priceless; it’s important to live them. Our friendship would become so much more valuable after this night.
Like the scenes of a choreographed after-school special, the days at the photo shoot would build on this assertion. For context, the shoot was not one of models and clothes, but involved caregivers of people living with terminal diseases. I was on location, blind to the content, and busy with business; and with nearly 50 crew members, two pregnant clients, and no air on the hottest day of the year, most of the shoot would skim by, with me noticing only what I needed to. By the second day I was tired. I had not been feeling well. That morning I woke up with two infected eyes — no doubt a sign that my immune system was feeling the effects of too much work and not enough sleep. The sore throat that preceded it and the fatigue I had felt in the previous week were also signs telling me to rest. My drive and stubbornness kept me going. I would be annoyed that day at the stupid side effects of my stupid disease and want nothing more than to go home. Seeing my car waiting outside that evening, I sat reluctantly for the last taping.
Barely able to keep my eyes open, I would put on my headphones and suddenly hear the story of a man who had been caring for his wife. At age 54 she was diagnosed with a life-altering terminal illness. He would describe how she went from healthy, smart, and vibrant to barely able to function. He would speak of how he loved her, but it wasn’t the same. He would speak of his daughters. He would recount the day she realized she could no longer live on her own, her mind spitefully coming to clarity just long enough to understand an assisted-living home was her next stop. The tears of pain she cried mirrored in my eyes. My heart broke for this man, this woman, and their family. My broken heart and painful eyes seemed like a blessing in comparison, a perspective I needed.
The next morning I would rush to my waiting car. A new location. I was still tired but mindful of the perspective from the night before. I would use the first part of the ride to shift from self-pity to business focus. And just as we were crossing the George Washington Bridge, I would open an e-mail from our CEO titled “Important News."
Anticipating the win of a key client pitch the day before, I opened it without hesitation. My heart sank. The short note would inform the agency that our chief media officer, Peter Gardiner, had grown weak and passed out during a meeting; he had been rushed to the hospital and undergone surgery, and he was now under care. The details were sparse, the tone concerning, the prospects unknown.
I would in time learn that Peter had suffered a stroke, had an intense
and complex surgery, and was in the intensive care unit of a Colorado
hospital, his daughter, a Deutsch employee, at his side. Shocking to
most. I had pondered many questions, but never the question of
Peter is more than just one of the agency’s partners; he
is a mentor of mine. Believing in me in my early Deutsch days and a
vocal proponent of my advancement. I would work with him and his team
on one of the biggest branding integration projects of my career. He
would unexpectedly give me credit in a bicoastal agency-wide note. A
small gesture with a huge impact; a note I still have today. We judged the
talent show together, and in my first year at the famous Deutsch holiday party he would show me how to smoke a cigar. I would show him just how
girly I was, throwing up after one puff.
We would travel together,
work on numerous accounts, I often seeking his advice in times of
change, he always sharing words of wisdom on how to position myself for
success. When my former boss left, I remember vividly the late-night
e-mail he sent that simply said, “Deutsch needs a solution, you are the
solution, be the solution. I support you.” I would take on that role
and then some with his support.
And I remember one of his kindest moments,
while on business in Rochester, the day after my fund-raiser for the 2010
NYC AIDS Walk. Following a week in which my face had dominated the social
media landscape proclaiming my HIV status, he would quietly engage me
in conversation about the cause and the disease, and offer his support over a
beer and my regular red wine, ending with a simple affirmation: "That’s pretty damn cool."
As a young gay professional you take note
of your supporters, somehow always feeling indebted to those who believe
in you. Peter likely has never realized his role in creating the
accepting atmosphere of Deutsch and perhaps a larger one outside our
walls. He continues with quiet confidence to be an advocate for good
people regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, or any differences
based in the unfamiliar.
But thinking back, When had I told him this? Had anyone acknowledged this quality?
week I was reminded that perhaps some of our answers to life’s
questions lie in the hands of another. Like a dear friend discovering
the questions around death or an acquaintance recounting the questions
of loss or of a mentor faced with questions of mortality — each
deserving a pause from my questions to give a voice to theirs. A pause
to say thank you, encourage support, and recognize what we never
thought to say when tomorrow was not a question at all.
is my thank-you: May you find the strength you didn’t know you had, may you
feel the support from around the world, and may you live your way through
these questions, stronger, tougher, and right back to the place you left at 111 Eighth Ave. We are waiting.