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Charles Nolan's Funeral: 'I Want People To Be A Little Shattered'

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I rolled off the plane, clicked the New York Times and there, on the main screen, was Charles Nolan --- dead. How could this be? I knew Charles had been visited by cancer. But the last time I saw Andy Tobias, his partner of 16 years, he'd said nothing about Charles's health. And just a week ago, when Andy and I traded e-mails, he was his usual ironic, borderline goofy self.

Charles dead, of head and neck cancer, at 53 --- that's terrible enough. But the next day, Andy's website brought more news, all wretched. Early in January, Andy had buried Judy Davis, his 91-year-old mother. A week earlier, he'd participated in a memorial service for his stepfather.

Andy has heroic qualities --- he's possibly the nicest person I know, generous in the extreme, with a magician's ability to manufacture time --- but Superman would fold under this much loss. I worried for Andy.

Last week, at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament, there was a funeral Mass for Charles. I'm ambivalent about retailing this service --- I always liked it that, in the 1800s, when a Londoner died, his street was often covered with hay so the sound of horses' hooves wouldn't disturb the mourners in their grieving. So part of me says this was precious, and private, and should be limited to the memories of those who were there.

But there was a magnificence about this event that demands sharing.

Let me just introduce these men.

Andy Tobias is Jewish, one of two sons, Horace Mann and Harvard, making his first fortune --- on paper only, as it turned out --- in his early 20s. For a while, he wrote for New York magazine about business and money. He pumped out one witty, helpful bestseller after another. Then he was a software pioneer, with a program called "Managing your Money" that actually did what it promised. He lost a lover to AIDS. And now he's the treasurer of the Democratic National Committee.

2011-02-05-charlesnolan.jpg

Charles was Catholic, one of nine kids born in ten years. He rocketed out of Massapequa, Long Island to Seventh Avenue. One by one, he revived stodgy brands (Bill Blass, Ellen Tracy and Anne Klein), only to walk away from fashion for a year because it was totally clear to him that the best use of his time was to help get Howard Dean elected President. Then he went out on his own and became a brand himself, so self-confident about his clothes that he used regular people --- like his mother, like Andy's mother --- in his shows.

Two powerful men. A great love story. Married in every way but in the eyes of the state.

The Mass began with a soprano singing "Ebben? Ne andro lontana," from "Le Wally." Charles chose it, thinking of the overwhelmingly emotional Callas recording. Andy listened to the music and questioned the choice: "It's devastating." Charles had a ready response: "Well, I'd like people to be slightly devastated." Which tells you quite a lot about Charles right there.

There were candles and incense, and readings, and then we got to the meat, from St. John 2:1-11. It's the story of the wedding banquet, and the party that quickly runs out of wine. Jesus asked that six jugs be filled with water, and, as you recall, the water became wine. And not just any wine:

The master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, "Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now."

"He made the ordinary extraordinary," the priest said. And then he connected that story to Charles. In the 1970s, he recalled, Charles volunteered at a homeless shelter for woman that this church sponsored. After the first night, he went back to his apartment and, before entering, stared at his key. How was he so lucky to have a home when so many didn't? He burst into tears. He held that moment close, never taking his good fortune for granted. And gave and gave to causes that mattered.

I'm used to fill-in-the-blank eulogies delivered by strangers. But this priest really seemed to know Charles. The faint Long Island accent piqued me; I looked in the program. The priest was David Nolan, a brother.

The stories continued. They burned. Charles, sick, "never catching a break --- there was only more sickness, more pain." Charles, dying in Andy's arms, as Andy sang to him. Andy holding the body until the undertakers had to take Charles away.

You shake your head. You ask: how do they do it? You wonder: Could I?

Communion was offered. And prayers. And then Andy got up. I can't imagine how. He didn't talk long --- self-possession is a scarce commodity in such moments. Some funny stories, a wry anecdote, remarkable restraint --- Andy hit it out of the park.

After 9/11, I went to funerals where Rudy Giuliani asked mourners to give the dead a standing ovation. The first time, I was moved. As he did this at more services, the gesture seemed show-biz and made me uneasy. But here --- you couldn't not stand and applaud a guy going home to many, many nights in an empty apartment.

One final song, from Rhonda Ross Kendrick and the David Raleigh Ensemble --- violinist, cello, piano, a few backup vocalists. I'm especially susceptible to music, but in this moment, with that song, who wouldn't be? I mean: the Diana Ross and the Supremes classic, "Someday We'll Be Together," presented softly, as if for an audience of butterflies. (Later, I googled: Ms. Kendrick is the daughter of Diana Ross.)

I was standing by the door as Andy and the Nolans went out. A pale blue coffin. Grief cutting lines into young faces. But such strength --- resilience you read about in books, only staring right at you in your real life. It broke my heart to think this, but these were the words that came to me: They can bear this. I can too. It's part of the bargain. It's what we're built for.

I came out into a gray day. Black water soup in the icy streets. Not much joy in the air. I had an important meeting to go to, dinner to cook for my wife, a chapter book to read with the kid. I can't remember when I felt so lucky, so glad to be alive.

Godspeed, Charles. And to Andy, as he'd say, "hugs."

Videos:
"Ebben? Ne andro lontana," performed by Maria Callas

"Someday We'll Be Together," performed by Diana Ross and the Supremes

[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]