The cat's last meow

When I left The News & Observer ten years ago, the final thing I did was delete two voice mails which I had saved for a long time.

One was from a high-school friend, Randy, who had left a message on the day Jackie Onassis died. I hadn’t heard from him for many years, since the last time I saw him. While visiting him in Manhattan, we actually saw Jackie, at a Picasso exhibition at MOMA. Randy was ecstatic, absorbing every detail of this tiny woman with jet-black hair. I was glad to be able to view Guernica alone – everyone else was watching her, too.

I am honored to say that I was the first person of our high-school set that Randy came out to as a gay man, while we were still in college. After he left the message, we talked a few more times, but he moved around a lot before eventually dying of AIDS. He challenged my thoughts on a lot of things, and from him I learned that love and friendship can remain constant, despite time and tremendous changes.

His message shared space with an extremely unlikely phone bedfellow: Jesse Helms.

I’d been assigned to localize a story on a book about pets of presidents. Yeah, that’s the kind of thing you get asked to do in a Features department in a slow week. I was to contact the state’s politicians and ask them about their pets. At that time, Jesse was not talking to anyone from the N&O. But I made the call, and the person at his office that I spoke to made the usual response. We’d both done our jobs and I moved on.

But that flashing voice mail light I saw later turned out to be Senator Helms, telling “Miss Debbie” that he’d be delighted to talk to me about his cat, I believe it was. We never connected, but I kept that voice mail to be sure I hadn’t been hallucinating. Political reporters from the News Department came over to my desk to listen to it, verifying that it wasn’t an impersonator and shaking their heads.

Let people like my friend suffer, sure. But we’ll talk about the cat.

I’m not a political expert, and there has been plenty of analysis of North Carolina’s complicated son since his death July 4. For a great one, go to Dan Gearino’s blog today. But I realized that, like Randy, Jesse taught me something, too: There’s a difference between holding to your principles and refusing to evolve. As for Jesse, Bono and AIDS in Africa – even a stopped clock can be right twice a day.

When I pushed the delete button, realizing it would be the last time I’d hear Randy’s voice, I shed some tears. When I deleted Jesse, I laughed. It took North Carolina decades to do the same thing.

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