It's been nearly 8 months since my close friend, Justin, passed away. I wrote this shortly after his passing but have been waiting for the right time to publish it. Tonight feels like the right time. Oh, how I miss him. His birthday is in a few short weeks. Perhaps that is why I keep coming back to this post in my heart and mind.
Artist, Sean Diediker, holds a painting he did of Justin after news of his death. My parents gifted me a copy of this painting for my birthday last month.
It dawned on me that many of you who don't know me in real life might be wondering who this Justin character is that I often blog about. The Justin who just passed away 2 months ago. I thought I'd fill you in on the history of our friendship and try to shed a little light on the absolutely incredible person he was.
Maybe it seems strange to you that my best friend was a man. He also happened to be one of Vic's closest friends (I came first...but he adopted Vic once we got married) as well as my parents'. That's just the kind of person he was. A friend to everyone. At his funeral there was a running joke where we argued over whose best friend he really was. Each speaker that got up introduced themselves as "Justin's best friend."
I met Justin in 1997 at Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) the first day of school. We were both auditioning for my dad's performing group, Showtime Company. After the auditions, he approached me and asked me if I wanted to walk home with him. I still remember what I was wearing. Black dance pants, black dance shoes and a burnt orange Banana Republic sweatshirt.
As we walked, he opened up to me about his brother who had recently had surgery, and some family friends of his who had just passed away in a car accident. He was so honest, so open, so sincere, so real. His kind and vulnerable ways really struck me. It was the first time I ever remember having a conversation with someone of the opposite sex where I didn't feel uncomfortable, self-conscious, or like I couldn't be myself. (A pretty big deal for a 19 year old...at least for me).
I left his apartment feeling like a different person. Honestly. In that one walk, that one conversation, I felt a whole new world open up to me. A world where people are real and honest and they communicate with heartfelt words. No flirting or awkwardness...just two human beings with beautiful souls who want to enjoy being in the presence of each other. I had experienced this with my girlfriends, but never with a guy.
We both ended up making the performing group and spent the entire year together...singing, dancing, rehearsing, walking to classes together, studying, driving around in his old little car, and laughing our heads off. We took trips to Salmon, Idaho and swam in the hot springs, went sledding, hung out with his marvelous parents, and stayed up late talking about life. With our friend, Paul, we headed to San Francisco to play at the beaches and parks and shop. At the end of that year, we toured together with the rest of our performing group for an entire month. It was heaven.
After college we kept in touch...always. We had the same sense of humor and would leave each other the funniest voice mails. We always talked about recording our voice mails into one big album and making an NPR story out of them. They were hilarious. So many different voices and characters were born in those voice mails.
Every guy I dated was compared to Justin. In fact, (and I truly don't remember this...what was I thinking????) when Vic and I were talking about getting married, Vic tells me I walked over to the phone, called Justin and asked him if he thought the two of us would ever get married. When he told me, "no", I hung up and was able to tell Vic that we could go ahead and get married. ( I DO remember doing this with another guy I almost married two years earlier). Justin was my standard for all men.
He was there for me when I went through the temple for the first time, he was there when my brother was in drug rehab then ran away in NYC over Christmastime, (literally. He was came to NYC with my family for Christmas when I was living in Brooklyn), he was there when I got married, he was there when Lucy was born, and he was there when Lucy died. He was the only non-family member in the room when we said our final goodbyes. Vic was on one side of the bed (I was laying in bed next to Lucy, stroking her hair) holding my hand, and Justin was holding my hand on the other side of the hospital bed. He brought food to the hospital and fed the countless friends and family who came to support us.
He was classy and interesting and enjoyed the finer things in life. He sent me beautiful silk scarves on my mission, he spoke French, he ran Salt Lake's number one restaurant (Cucina Toscana), he sang like George Michael, I loved his siblings and parents and sense of humor. And my family loved him. He was like a brother to all of us. He came to family dinners, on family vacations...it was not uncommon to be talking on the phone with him and have him tell me he needed to answer the other line because my mom or dad was calling.
Our good friend, Paul Canaan, (who is in Kinky Boots on Broadway right now...so fun), used to tease Justin relentlessly about how he couldn't take Justin anywhere because he would end up talking to the clerk, sales person, gas station attendant, librarian...whomever, and learning their life story. He was passionate about people. He taught me how to love strangers and connect with them.
His last text to me, which I got about three days before he died while I sat in rehearsal, was asking me how close to Kiev, Ukraine my parents were (they go there once a month from Moscow) because he had a friend filming a documentary there and he needed to get to a safe place. He had friends everywhere. I don't know a single person who met him who didn't love him.
He had his struggles. I think it is why he had such a tender heart. He knew the reality of pain. I will never forget the day he asked me to go to his house near Liberty Park. Lucy was about 3 months old. I sat in his messy living room (his house was being remodeled...let's be honest, his house was always messy) as he stained the new cabinets in his kitchen. We chatted about some of his friends and their latest projects...photography, painting. And then he stopped what he was doing, knelt down at my feet, and told me he needed to tell me something. The tears flowed down his cheeks as he confided in me that he was gay. He was trembling. He explained how he had prayed and fasted until he was 130 pounds (he's 6 feet tall) but that nothing worked. He told me that if he could cut off one of his limbs and have the Lord take away this struggle, he would gladly do it.
I cried with him that day. I listened and hugged him and told him how much I loved him. Just like he had done for me so many times before, and continued to do until the day he died.
Sometimes Vic and I would sit in bed with the phone on speaker and talk to Justin about his heartaches. We'd also talk about business ideas (he had such a creative mind and was always starting new projects. He was the ultimate host.) We always talked about traveling to France together one day. We'd talk about food and our families, church, music... there weren't many topics I can think of that we DIDN'T talk about.
No matter what was said, we were just saying "I love you" with every conversation. There were times he'd retreat into a dark, black hole and not want to come out. But eventually, he always did. He lived with his sister (and sister's husband) and her 4 children in their beautiful home in Bountiful. He loved his nieces and nephews immensely. He couldn't hide for long before a loved one would coax him out of his depression.
Justin was a builder. He built up everyone around him. He made you feel like the most special person in the room. It was truly his gift. If you go to his memorial facebook page and read what people have written about him, you will see that I am not exaggerating here. He was an absolutely beautiful soul.
So when I say that I'm happy for him--happy that he is home--it is because I know about the wars that were raging in his heart. He often told me he just wanted to go home. He was so weary. He said he felt he lived a life of "almosts". I can almost be happy with a woman...but not quite. I can almost be happy with a man...but I struggle with the gay lifestyle and the guilt. I can almost be rich and famous (most of his friends were) but I just want to live with my family and serve people.
You know that 80's song, "You can look at the menu but you just can't eat...you can feel the cushions but you can't have a seat. You can dip your foot in the pool, but you can't have a swim. You can feel the punishment but you can't commit the sin." ? I think its a Howard Jones song. He used to say that was his theme song.
Yes, he came close to taking his life at one point. But he was in a wonderful and happy spot when he passed away. He did not take his own life. He had just finished 2 intense weeks of parties and dinners at Sundance (including a birthday party for the actress Geena Davis) and was supposed to take over ownership of Cucina Toscana the day after he died. I firmly choose to believe that he truly wore himself out in the service of others. It was not uncommon for him to wear himself ragged. He would not eat at his incredible dinners. He was too busy serving and hosting. He'd go through the Wendy's drive-thru at 2 a.m. then go home and crash. In the days before he died he was looking dehydrated.
All that matters now is that he is gone. But it also matters that he left an incredible legacy and impression on those of us left behind. I mostly mourn for his family who aches for him...his brothers and sister and parents.
I will miss his gigantic laugh, the safety of his hug, the freedom he granted me to be myself--to call and talk about everything and nothing. To sob uncontrollably because motherhood is too hard, and death is too hard. To talk about marriage and business ideas and church and money.
I have felt him near me and even communicating with me since his death. I've even laughed with him. I feel incredibly grateful knowing he is with Lucy. I feel incredibly grateful that I was a small part of his life and he mine. I love you, Justin. Thank you for loving me so perfectly.
I know it is so cliche, but I want to do better at expressing my love and gratitude to everyone in my life. We never know how much time we have on earth together. And we never, ever know the depths of heartache people are experiencing.
So that's my Justin. My incredible, unforgettable, wonderful Justin. One of the best men I have ever known.
Here he is being the Master of Ceremonies at my last benefit concert for A Good Grief.
photo by Justin Hackworth