Yesterday I had the privilege of speaking at my second memorial service in two weeks’ time.
The occasion? A celebration of the life of Richard Schiffer, the partner of my dear friend Chris MacLellan. Richard, aged 83, died seven weeks ago after a years-long diagnosis of cancer.
The Sun-Sentinel, a Fort Lauderdale paper, chronicled the couple’s last months. The story has now gone ’round the world. The article is so worth a read. Read it here.
Here are my comments from yesterday’s gathering:
Chris, I’m so glad you asked me to share a few words today about Sofia . . . AKA Richard . . . AKA Bernard.
I knew Richard as your partner and friend, and of course I immensely liked Richard because of his encyclopaedic knowledge of musical theatre. That you and he were together was icing on the considerable cake.
Richard was witty, charming in his own way, clear-spoken, self-depracating, and funny. Richard didn’t suffer fools gladly, or lightly. He was, in my estimation, an old soul who would have been perfectly happy if all us were Noel Coward or Cole Porter, or any witty gay man whose salon would be filled with snappy repartee and verbal bonbons. And I would have believed him had he told me that, in his younger days, he had met Cole Porter, so great was Richard’s love of this art form that I love too.
My best Richard story includes a car ride back from Kansas City. We had all been to a Heartland Men’s Chorus concert, and the ride back featured Chris and me sitting in the front seat of the sedan, discussing all the things we wished about the Gateway Men’s Chorus. I am certain we were candid AND charitable at the same time. I thought that Richard was sleeping most of the way home, but at one point he spoke up and said, in his best New York Jew voice, ‘Now that you’ve fixed all these problems, maybe you can talk about something important.’
What I took from that was that I did indeed need to think and act in a larger sphere, and with more charity in my heart. Richard reminded me that I need to deal with solutions, and that I don’t need to try to figure out ‘why’ unless I’m going to figure out ‘how to fix’ as well. This was a lesson that has stuck with me for five years now. And I’m truly grateful.
I have in my house a memento that Richard gave me as he and Chris were downsizing. Richard’s chotchkes are legendary, and I’m delighted that he knew my color palatte and tastes when he gave me a lovely little lady to add to my collection.
Richard was born when Herbert Hoover was President. Chris is of a somewhat different generation. How two people of different ages and backgrounds and life outlooks and experiences came together is the stuff of storied tales. Chris . . . you all had a good run, and one of Richard’s lasting gifts to you is clear in the direction your life seems to be taking.
Richard grew up in New York City at a time when walls kept gay men in the closet. He died in a day when we are all witnessing more and more equality, increasing opportunity, less stigmatization, and a much healthier climate in this country, as least as related to human sexuality. His life went through a gamut of ages in this world — the Depression, World War II, the quiet solidity of the Eisenhower era, Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon and the Cold War and rise of globalization, and so on. Throughout all these changes, Richard stayed true to himself. He was a fixed object — a short, firm, funny, worldly, artsy, irascible and lovable guy.
Chris has asked me to introduce a recording that we, and many others, did together a few years. The group is the Gateway Men’s Chorus. We are singing a new piece written for us: “Rise Above the Walls,” by my composer friend Greg Gilpin. The song is about rising above differences, seeing beyond ourselves, and finally claiming the truth that, as we rise above the walls, we will see with heaven’s eyes.
I’m so pleased to intro THIS song, because this lyric is part of the story of Richard’s life. In his many, many days on this earth, he rose above the walls. He saw beyond himself. He sees now with heaven’s eyes.
Rest in peace, little one. You have risen above the walls. This song is now yours.