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Jack's Take: A friend for the ages

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Mike, Gil, and Jack in Palm Springs, April 2022 — Photo courtesy of Jack Hilovsky
Mike, Gil, and Jack in Palm Springs, April 2022 — Photo courtesy of Jack Hilovsky

A week ago, I received the message. His husband left word that my friend Gil had entered hospice with widespread metastatic cancer. The next day, Good Friday, Gil passed, a little after 9 p.m.

I guess I might have been prepared, as my friend was in his eighties. One year ago, he had suffered a fall and injuries related to it. But he had been on the mend, and his life in Palm Springs — well, his entire life — had been an active one.

I met Gil in my mid-twenties. I was moving into an old house in Madrona and preparing to start grad school. A petite man with an auburn beard, who often wore a bandanna around his head, rented a room. A former priest, he rode his bike around the city and cleaned houses for a living. At heart, he was a contemplative who had a magnificent way of listening and befriending people.

On a walk with him, we discovered a small Catholic church several blocks away from our house. When we passed by on Sundays, we heard the glorious sounds of a gospel choir. I ended up joining the church, singing in the choir, and dating one of the other choir members. It was a joyous time.

I only lived six months in the Madrona house before moving back to Capitol Hill, but Gil and I maintained a friendship. Both of us used bicycles to get around the city, so I benefited from his knowledge of the most gradual hills to take when navigating between Lake Washington, downtown Seattle, and the University District.

Gil & Jack cycling in Ireland's Aran Isles, June 1993 — Photo courtesy of Jack Hilovsky  

And when I finished my master's, I invited him to join me on a bicycling adventure in Ireland to mark my 30th birthday. We flew to Dublin, our bicycles in tow, then hopped a train to Limerick and biked north along the western coast. We cycled along the Cliffs of Moher, stopped in Westport to visit the church where my maternal great-grandparents were married before setting sail for America, delighted in the music and modernity of Galway, and sailed through the Aran Islands. On the way back from Connemara National Park, we visited a girl we met on the plane, who had invited us to stay with her and her family in Ballina. Her pa owned a fish-and-chips eatery, and we dined with them and stayed in their home.

That was 30 years ago this June. And it seems like a dream.

I never viewed my friend as an activist. And yet he possessed a strong sense of what was right and wrong. Maybe that was the priest in him. His anger at the church of John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI for condemning the morality of LGBTQ+ people boiled under the surface. He and his husband were married in a University District Congregational church, and I attended the service. It was my first same-sex wedding before marriage equality became the law of the land 15 years later (thank you, Supreme Court!).

In addition to bicycling, he was a runner. And a nudist! He invited me to my first Bare Buns run near Issaquah. I'll never forget how nervous I was prior to the start of the race. Men and women without a stitch on, were racing through the woods, up and down hill and dale. It was a wonderful experience and so freeing.

Jack & Gil on the road in Ireland, June 1993 — Photo courtesy of Jack Hilovsky  

Grief arises in a variety of ways. Sometimes you want to be alone; sometimes you want to be held. The tears may not come right away. Now it's more like being hit with a stun gun.

It's so true about that song, "You Don't Know What You've Got Until It's Gone." I didn't take for granted my friendship with Gil, but it just always seemed to be there. We last saw each other in April 2022. I had traveled to Palm Springs with my significant other for IGLA, the LGBTQ+ international swim competition. We took Gil and his husband Mike out for a Mexican dinner one night. It was sunny, bright, and dry. The conversation was relaxed, and my companion and I talked about our upcoming trip to Spain and preparations to walk the Camino de Santiago. Gil was thrilled about our adventure.

Soon thereafter, he took his fall, but he followed our trek on social media. He said it inspired him during his long recovery, made him want to get up and walk again.

My friend was a quiet, unassuming man, whom you may never have noticed in a crowd. He had a beautiful sense of humility, a striking contrast in these loud and often impolite times in which we live.

During a spring break visit to Palm Springs five years ago, I stayed with him and Mike during a particularly lonely time in my life. As we were in the garage loading the car, preparing to depart for the airport, I broke down and wept, telling them they were like family to me. And from that time on, they became my "guncles," my Gay uncles. We silently drove to the airport as I dried tears from my eyes. As I got out of the car, Gil embraced me and said, "You are always welcome here."

That is the type of person my friend was. A welcoming soul who was a priest at heart despite rejecting the church that had turned him away. I am sure there are a pair of welcoming wings awaiting him in the afterlife.

Shalom, sweet Gil. Your mission on earth is now complete.

Jack Hilovsky is an author, actor, and blogger who has made his home in Seattle since 1986. His first book RJ, Farrah and Me: A Young Man's Gay Odyssey from the Inside Out, was published in June 2022. It can be found at Elliott Bay Book Co., Madison Books, Nook & Cranny, and University Bookstore, among other local booksellers.