EULOGY FOR DUDLEY CLENDINEN
By Taylor Branch
Cathedral of the Incarnation
JUNE 4, 2012
This bow tie is a first for me, courtesy of Jed Dietz. It makes me feel more like Dudley, albeit with a good deal less of that shiny white hair. A bit more courtly and charismatic, debonair, and slightly odd. I can’t believe you’re gone, but then again, we saw what you went through with such graceful courage, and we celebrate your steadfast love to the end for this world’s zany, ornery, ever-blessed people.
Dudley was the quintessential fizz in life, serving up constant, mysterious bubbles of delight. He was in the middle of everything, but also, simultaneously, a detached observer who turned every hardship and frustration into a doorway for affectionate wit. He was impish and eccentric, like my own late father. Everybody knows he was fun. Even now, we hope to draw on his irrepressible spirit to help us through this moment.
Let us never forget, though, that Dudley’s life was full of trauma long before he met the disease he called “Lou.” It is tempting to telescope gay progress in retrospect, and to forget unspeakable hell less than half a lifetime ago, but Dudley never did. Here’s what he and Adam Nagourney wrote of their youth: “No one homosexual was celebrated in the American culture in 1969. When they looked for information in libraries that year, they found clinical references and glum descriptions in journals of medicine and psychiatry, with a scattering of news items filed under such headings as ‘variant,’ ‘lesbian,’ ‘pervert,’ ‘sodomist,’ and ‘deviate’….Even the Village Voice, the chronicler of the New Left, found humor rather than history in the gay riot at the Stonewall. ‘Wrists were limp, hair was primped,’ it reported…The Voice…disparaged homosexuals as ‘queers,’ ‘swishes,’ and ‘fags’.” Their contemporaries often considered it better to be dead than to be gay, and a decade later along came AIDS to accommodate them like a guillotine cutting through hard-won prayers of optimism. And for Dudley, all this was on top of his personalized struggles with alcohol and family upheaval, let alone our common woes of racism and war. No wonder he gobbled up psychiatrists like vitamins.
I repeat, let us never forget. It is precisely because of his travails that Dudley is so special. He confronted, captured, and subdued them for adventure, which he shared with us all. He always wanted to drive, for instance, and that scared us. We prayed he would not be able to remember where he had parked one of his old clunker convertibles—forty feet long, with the throaty engine, wobbly hood ornament, and glove box full of parking tickets—but then we were off to somewhere. Dudley was happiest when we were lost. Because we weren’t. For him, chaos was merely the occasion to kick-start a story, and every crisis became a wonder. For the same reason, dinner could never be too late. Christy and I used to sneak pocket snacks into his suppers on Bolton Hill, knowing it would be hours of mirth before Dudley would produce a trademark stew simmered forever in his stove-top armada of deep skillets.
More than profundity, Dudley milked an earthy connectedness from our various foibles and fussiness and feuds. Famously, his toasts lifted all those present with an elegant caress for each person around the table. Just last week, with his body shriveled to a sliver, he provided comfort and amusement when Steve Wigler turned up shaken at midnight with his windshield shattered by a wild turkey on the highway. Here was a random, quirky drama, perfect for Dudley.
The “Lou” disease took his precious conversation toward the end, but never the written word. Above all, Dudley was a writer. I never saw him happier than when reading passages from his Canterbury tales book in public. Only a few months ago, he wrote, “All of you know me well, manifold warts, whimsies and all.” He fired off an email for help, writing, “Somehow I have vaporized my address book.” He leaves his spirit with and in us from the page.
Here, from only nineteen months ago, he confronted an unknown affliction in a note to his students: “for a long time, my voice had been getting balky. cranky. unreliable. sometimes it sounded like a granite wheel,. sometimes like diane rehm on steroids. and sometimes like a rusty hinge.
“well, it’s asthma, i thought. or allergies. or acid reflux, for which i take boatloads of prilosec. or the bad air in baltimore. but it’s annoying to a recovering alcoholic to sound more and more like a raspy drunk. so in late may, i started seeing doctors. lots of doctors.”
Later in October of 2010, he approached his diagnosis in an email: “i saw my my new neurologist and had lab work thursday. had a brain MRI wednesday, which is a little like being trapped inside a philip glass symphony. wonderfully strange radio signal sounds. brain is fine – meaning no strange lumps. just ruined sinuses.
“the neurologist thinks my whole complex of symptoms, – breathlessness, fatigue, fading voice, thick tongue, loss of throat control, choking, strangling, etc,, (but unfortunately not dirty apt., piled up dining room table, lateness or other annoying habits) – are all attributable not to my inflamed, drippy sinuses, or anemia, or reflux ,or severe iron deficiency, but to either lou gehrig’s disease or something called myasthenia (or miasthenia?) gravis. a disorder of the auto immune system.
“gravis is about 90% treatable. gehrig’s is about 100%^ untreatable.
“i regard this as good news, or at least good odds. he suspects it is gravis. i am hoping he is a smart doctor. i should know by wednesday.
“root for the latin.”
When the Latin failed, and Lou Gehrig’s disease was confirmed, Dudley instantly and characteristically embraced the story of his own demise in a riveting series of radio interviews with Tom Hall. Thank you, Tom. Thank you, Joshua, for giving us the inspiration of your care and devotion. Thank you, Whitney, family and friends, and above all Dudley for love to the end.
Two weeks ago, he wrote to thank my wife for a photo of her mother’s 100 birthday: “ohhh, christy – thank you. i feel privileged. i have wanted for years to see your remarkable mother in her element. god, she has weathered well. what a tough, beautiful, classically yankee lady. thank you for my flowers. i love the fact that you always do that. and now i see where it comes from.”
Last week, he wrote to celebrate our son’s graduation from law school: “and i appreciate your note,” he concluded. “to be con’td.” And he signed off
“Lovedudley” in one word run together. “Lovedudley.” Like it should be, and will be.