Becoming more human, a tribute to a friend

My lifelong friend, Duane Archer-Buffum, passed away on November 23, 2019. This tribute is written to him.

I’ve asked myself a thousand times over the past few decades what would have happened if I had handled the conversation differently when you told me you were gay when we were teenagers (and had been seeing each other)*.

What if I had said, “I’m so glad you could trust me to tell me that. Other people in our world may not immediately be accepting, but I’ll be here for you.”

Instead, I fell apart. In my myopic teenage view of how the world would work, I saw this as something that made me a victim somehow.

Quite the opposite. It made me — eventually — an ally for the victimized.

I can’t remember how or when we found our way back to each other, to a place of friendship instead of anger, but I think it was quicker in reality than it seems in my mind.

It was quick enough that you visited me in Tallahassee. We went to dinner at Flamingo’s (RIP Flamingo’s). You talked to me about your courtship of Pam. It was quick enough (and healing enough) that I could talk with you honestly about my concerns about that relationship (as if I had any say ha ha). And eventually, Wayne and I ended up as guests at your wedding.

There were long stretches after your wedding where we didn’t talk at all. I moved to New York. You and Pam started your family. Your teaching career got underway.

Maybe it was Pam’s invitation to your 40th birthday that resulted in the first real time we spent together again. Of course I thought one of her sisters was her (thanks, faceblindness!) but she clarified that, fortunately.

And it was probably Facebook that made it easier for us to talk regularly again.

Events unfolded pretty rapidly once you decided to come out and once you started dating men. I remember reading in the Union County Times about some school board meeting where they brought up their concerns — in a decidedly critical Bible Belt way.

Whatever those concerns were that came before the school board, that’s not the vibe I got when the high school auditorium at capacity with people honoring you after your death on November 23 of last year. Facebook filled with tributes from people saying how you had changed their lives and their children’s lives (as a teacher).

I loved how much you loved acting. And God I loved how good you were at it. As much as you could have succeeded on bigger stages (regional? national?), I think your talents made a bigger difference for all the students you taught over 30 years, both the high school students you taught for so long and the elementary school students you had started teaching shortly before you died.

The parents of the elementary school students were bereft. They talked about how you had brought insecure children out of their shells, and about how much everyone was looking forward to the production of “Annie” that you were working on when you passed away.

I’m glad those elementary school kids had you, but I suspect the biggest impact you had was on the high school students who finally had an “out” teacher. Union County High School wasn’t the easiest place to be a gay kid (I suspect) and you told me how many students were relieved to have you to talk to. I’m so glad you were there for them.

I remember when I caught up to you after seeing you in “Beauty and the Beast” at Gateway Community College, how you were crying as you hugged me because it was so hard to leave that experience behind.

Seeing through different eyes, a tribute
After “Beauty and the Beast,” 2017

Cliches are stupid BUT I have to say I think the conversations we had in the few days after my mom’s death were graced by some weird serendipity. If the timing had been different, you probably wouldn’t be living with your dad when I was back in town for a few days to arrange her services and support my dad. I came to your house “to stop by” after I had been in Gainesville shopping for a dress to wear and of course it wasn’t a quick “stop.” It was an in-depth conversation that we extended to text after I got back to my parents’ house that lasted into the later hours.

“For Good” was sung at your memorial. There’s a reason this song is sung at so many goodbye occasions. It says exactly how we feel at the most difficult goodbyes. “…because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”

There’s also a reason we came into each others’ lives. Even though it took me a long time to process that conversation we had where you told me you were gay and to realize that it wasn’t about me, maybe I’m being too hard on myself to think I should have had more insight more rapidly.

In looking back at our Facebook conversations, we talked in 2013 about how the Mormon church was changing its thinking about homosexuality (because you married a Mormon woman, she and many of your kids were still involved, so it mattered).

I said, “I think hearts change before policies and theology do.”

And you said, “So, you see how it would have been for me to come out in high school way back then.”

Meaning — even though in my replaying of that long-ago conversation in my mind I said “go forth and be who you were meant to be,” that wouldn’t have been right either.

I do regret how it still took years for me to really embrace what it means to be an ally, to finally retire treating our history as a punchline “I dated a guy but he turned out to be gay and then married a sweet Mormon girl, had six kids with her and then married his husband” and give it the respect it was due. It was two human beings growing up together and getting more in touch with the people they were meant to be.

I think the biggest change our relationship made for me (besides turning me into an ally — eventually) was that it made me a much more practical person about romantic love. And it made me realize that much of “romance” is a creation in our own heads shaped by the world we think we want. I had my own hefty set of insecurities as a teenager, and I was much more focused on what being your girlfriend and being part of your family would look like than on what kind of relationship I needed to grow into (and contribute to). Seriously, the body language in almost every photo of our teenage life says “clingy.”

Seeing through different eyes, a tribute

There’s a second thing our relationship did for me, and probably one of the reasons we complemented each other so well, and that was to push me to break the rules — a tiny bit — occasionally. I still can’t believe my parents let me go to senior skip day, but they did. I remember the hilarity (to us) of going through the McDonalds drive-through repeatedly, with you changing your accent every time to try to trick the employee(s). I remember “stealing baby Jesus” (again, thankfully this was pre-social media). I remember how we were supposed to play music (piano, you and flute, me) at Christine Prokop’s wedding reception after you played piano at the ceremony and you just didn’t feel like it so we blew it off (very sorry, Christine — I would apologize if I knew how to find you now!). And I hunted high and low for this picture, which to me is just a fun memory but that someone pointed out says “keep off the grass” … the grass we are most certainly standing on!

Seeing through different eyes, a tribute

Fortunately, our friendship only got better and better over the past seven or so years, particularly.

It wasn’t an easy period, as we both lost our moms (you in 2015 and me in 2018). You had some serious health problems and a few other issues you trusted me enough to share. However, it was a period that was capped off by you marrying Shane, who you called your soulmate.

I didn’t expect to see on a Friday night when I was scrolling through Facebook Shane’s announcement that you were gone.

I think the thing I grieve the most is knowing that, even though our communication was sporadic and mostly consisted of Facebook messages, I always knew the conversation would be so good. I also always knew that we would end it by saying we loved each other.

“For Good” was sung at your memorial. There’s a reason this song is sung at so many goodbye occasions. It says exactly how we feel at the most difficult goodbyes. “…because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”

I was talking to your sister at the visitation period prior to your funeral. We were touching on some of the ups and downs of the past decade. Not to get into it here (heck, it was YOUR life so you know what happened and my readers don’t need to at this point), but the conversation veered briefly into various choices that had been made.

My response: “We’re all so very human.”

I truly believe that. I believe that no matter what faith tradition a person has (or if they have no faith tradition), the most courageous thing we can do is to be as true to ourselves as possible, and to support others in doing the same.

In one of our Facebook message exchanges, you said, “There were things … that I had to go through to be where I am now. I knew if I didn’t do it right now I would die before I was 60.”

I’m sure I scrolled right past the “die before I was 60” part. I mean, how likely would THAT be?

It turns out it was prescient.

You fit so much joy, drama and spirit into your life that I’m pretty sure you covered more than 55 years.

You’ll always be in my ear when someone tells me something about themselves that scares them, reminding me to hear what they’re saying (and feeling), even if it surprises me.

Although “For Good” is such an incredible song and so fitting as a goodbye, there’s another lyric from “Wicked” (from “As Long as You’re Mine”) that pertains to how I feel about the difference you made in my life.

“…you’ve got me seeing
Through different eyes”

Knowing you made me more human, taught me that breaking the rules can be a little bit exciting sometimes, and led me to see the world as a kaleidoscope when tunnel vision was the default.

I’ll be grateful, always.

Becoming more human, a tribute to a friend

*I didn’t know until decades later that I had been the first person you told. The conversation: “You know you were the first person that I ever told that I was gay to? And it was very hard because I knew I would break your heart and it broke mine just having to tell you. But look where you are now.” <3

2 thoughts on “Becoming more human, a tribute to a friend

  1. I’m sorry for your loss. I think that we all have times in our lives that we wished we had handled differently.

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