There are no photos in this post because the time I am reflecting on was before digital cameras were common. I am looking for the photos to share here, and will scan and post them as soon as I can.
My first memory of David Sullivan was on a beach stroll in south Florida. It was a blustery day and the surf was up. There was a good crowd of us walking, most of us clutching our hats to our heads. David was in his swim trunks and he was diving in and out of the surf, splashing and whooping at the top of his lungs. I didn’t know him at all. A mutual friend told me later that David had just survived what had at first seemed to be a terminal cancer diagnosis. He was celebrating, being alive, cold water and wind and all.
We took to talking about travel. I was a baby traveler then, just back from my first trip overseas, to West Papua. That must have impressed David, because he launched into travel story-telling at full throttle. I will thrilled, and we became fast friends. He wrote and sent me books about places I might like to go, or places he had gone. And then he suggested that I go to Tibet with an acquaintance of his.
Yes. This newly found friend offered to introduce me to the founder of this amazing organization doing medical relief work in Tibet, and suggested that while I work out the details, I could just come stay at his flat in San Francisco. No problem.
Really? I could hardly take him seriously, but as he persisted in sending me contact information for the Terma Foundation and telling me more about their travel schedule, I began to believe him. So, as was my habit in those days, I took a deep breath and made the plunge. To California…
David did everything in his power to make sure I fell in love with northern California. He understood the seat-of-my-pants kind of life I was living then, and made the most of it. We had tremendously good times.
He took me to dance where the Brazilians dance, where I watched beautiful black-skinned women in outrageous white dresses dance in ways that made me blush. He introduced me to a dazzling array of ex-girlfriends, all wonderful and fascinating people, and one night he dropped me off for a belly dancing class with the legendary Magana Baptiste. She was nearly 80 years old but still full of zest and instructing with good form. It was an amazing class. We hiked at Point Reyes, Mt. Tamalpais, and Big Sur. Hiking with David usually meant walking until the sun had set and the stars were out. He always brought a thermos of hot tea along. I’ll never forget those long walks, moving across that beautiful California landscape, passing from day into night. The chill came on fast, and the hot tea knocked it back. On quiet mornings, as I took in the foggy Bay light, he would knock on my door and come sit at my desk to tell me about a particularly vivid dream he’d had the night before. He was hilariously funny, and so willing to share, so much, so easily. Just for fun, he staged a photo shoot of himself in a pair of Groucho glasses, me in a white slip, and a seven year old friend (Hugo, wherever you are, God Bless You.) in a monster mask. It was excellent amateur hilarity. My ribs were frequently sore from laughing. And, when I was deep in preparation for the trip, and he was on a particular hard piece of work, we would take refuge in his warm apartment in the evenings, listen to music, and tell stories. Looking back, I can see that we enjoyed an unusual degree of platonic domestic harmony. What a gift.
Anyone who knew David knows about his stories. If you heard them from someone else, they wouldn’t seem real. They were swashbuckling, outrageous stories, spanning decades and continents. It didn’t seem like one person could really have lived so much. But with this earnest man looking you in the face, there was no doubt that these were his stories. And no doubt he loved to share them.
I heard about his brief encounters with rock-n-roll celebrities in the sixties. How he sat on a snowy hillside in Woodstock New York and watched the music of Jimi Hendrix’ guitar float out of a chimney below. Jim Morrison on a beach in southern California; a brief tryst with Janis Joplin’s sister. I never hear Joan Baez without thinking of David. He told me what that old music meant to him back when it was new, and it’s connection to his political genesis in Colorado in the sixties. His political intelligence was deep and broad as well, and I never left a conversation without food for thought, sometimes lifetime’s worth it seemed.
David was a private investigator, renowned for his work in cult investigation. I never worked for him exactly, but I was fortunate enough to be brought along, as prop of sorts, I suppose, on some of his more lightweight missions at the time. The best one I can remember was to Esalen Institute at Big Sur. What a beautiful place. I pretended to be his girlfriend and sat in a hot tub overlooking the Pacific Ocean while he took pictures, casing the location of an abuse case. He had a fearless ability to schmooz his way into unlikely places and make himself seem perfectly at home, but his motivation was not selfish. His sense of justice was keen, almost insatiable.
When I returned from Tibet, I came back to his apartment for a break before heading back east. He was out on an investigation and wouldn’t be home for awhile. I went out dancing (not with the Brazilians this time) and threw my back out. I was still laid up when he bustled through the door. His eyes were wide. He threw down his suitcase and came into the living room, where I had made convenient temporary quarters, walking with long strides. He sat on the floor in front of me and told me the whole story of infiltrating the cult training he had to investigate. You can read more about the story in this month’s Harper’s magazine. I think he talked for four hours. He was brimming with the experience, almost desperate to make contact with the rest of the world again. I treasure the fact that I was one of the first friends to hear him out. He made the case, and the case made his name as a cult investigator.
Not long after that, I returned to Tennessee. Life changed again, and again. We kept in good touch, and even as our lives became more divergent, we did not lose our respect, love, or enjoyment of each other.
When I told David that I was getting married, his first response was: “Really? Why?”
It was an earnest enough question. David was deeply a radical, but never much of a farmwife. He knew that I had a hankering for this place, for land and family, and he wanted to make sure I was being true to myself, to my life, in that big decision. When I answered his questions as best I could, he was satisfied, and there was no hint of criticism.
David was one of the most generous people I ever knew. I was sometimes embarrassed by his generosity, until I realized how integral it was to him. He believed in sharing, and when David believed in something, there was no way to keep him from it. If David loved you, you knew, because he told you. If he was angry, you knew that too. It seemed against his personal code of honor to hold back thoughts or feeling from someone if he cared about them. It wasn’t always easy to be around him, but it was always vividly real. It’s very difficult to say enough, to paint an accurate picture of who David was. If he sounds larger than life, he was. Some people just are. But no one is larger than death.
Even though it had been over nine years since David and I spent time together, learning that he died has ruffled my feathers all over. There are some friends who touch our lives so completely – it doesn’t matter how long or how far we go from each other, we are still right here.
The last time we spoke on the phone he told me about how his cancer relapse was proving more difficult than he had hoped. The stress of maintaining energy for his work and also going through treatments was immensely taxing. As much as I had always believed that one day I could go to visit him in California again, with my family, or that he would make it out to the farm for a visit, I could feel that possibility waning. My heart aches to realize that he’s not on the other end of the line anymore. I relish the colorful memories of him, and the adventures he shared with me. I am tremendously grateful for the slice of life he opened up to me, by convincing me to come see California, to travel to Tibet. I cherish the stories of his life and work that he poured out to me. And I know I am not alone in missing him.
David. I hope I told you enough times how much you meant to me. I hope you felt that love across these miles and those years. It’s still flowing. Thank you friend.