July 23rd was once a day I would never have really thought much about. It was just another summer day to be played out as a child or one worked through as an adult. That all changed for me in 1987. This is a story not easy to tell – but it is time to honor the memory of a brother God took far sooner than anyone ever expected.
Gary Lea McFarland was born three years before me in 1956 and he and I would be the only children of Tom Lea and Jean McFarland. All the experiences of his life were lived out in a sort of prelude for me. He entered Longfellow Elementary School three years before me and was there holding my hand and explaining all I would need to know to survive my first day of school. He walked the halls of Southern Junior High and then Owensboro High School and prepared me for the experiences of middle and high school. He did all the things big brothers were suppose to do for their younger brother.
Aside from our school experiences, Gary and I had very little in common. As children I was interested in just one thing – sports. When I was hanging out at Rash Stadium watching high school football practices and dreaming of being a Owensboro Red Devil someday – Gary was probably at the library studying history or reading. We were so different in fact that as we got older we became somewhat estranged from one another. He went to Western Kentucky University and I went to vocational school. He went to church and I did not.
When I was a senior in high school – I decided to turn my life around and found God to be a very real need in my life and all the years growing up in church began to pay off for me in an hour of need and my life changed forever. Gary had much to do with that. For years we all were convinced that Gary would end up in some sort of Christian ministry vocation. He even announced that desire to our home church on an Easter Sunday while he was still in high school. But that never happened.
Our lives continued to take different paths – my working as a machinist before finally deciding to go to college while he finished up his college degree. After he graduated Gary moved away to Frankfort, KY to work as a tour guide for the Kentucky Historic Society. Lisa and I were married in 1983 and Justin came along in 1986. No one in our family was more excited about Justin than Gary. He adored that little boy and Lisa and I spent a weekend with him in Frankfort so he could show Justin off to all his co-workers. He was a very proud uncle.
But something was not right. Over the course of many events I began to suspect that Gary was living a secret life. Eventually I deduced that Gary was, in fact, a homosexual and in 1987 when the AIDS scare was at its zenith with little acceptance or understanding I was forced to confront him about his lifestyle. My fear was that he was carrying the AIDS virus and as a father – I felt it necessary to protect my child. It was the most painful and uncomfortable conversation I ever had. As expected Gary denied my suspicions but I was able to say to him that it was alright either way because I would love him no matter what. I think he was relieved to hear that.
In early July of 1987 Gary came home for the last time. My mom would later say that he looked bad – frail, pale, weak and had a cough that she questioned him about. He kept saying he was fine but my mom found it odd that he kept hanging around on that last day – as if he did not want to go back to Frankfort – as if he wanted to tell someone he was sick – but did not know how. I believe he knew it would be his last day in Owensboro.
On July 23rd I was at my desk at the old Goodloe School building that housed my office where I worked for Green River Comprehensive Care Center. At 10:00 that morning a call came through to me and it would change my life and my parents lives forever. The call came from one of Gary’s co-workers and she said she had bad news. As she explained it – Gary had been sick and had missed that last few days of work. He always called in to tell his co-workers he would not be at work – but that morning he did not. Someone from their office went to his apartment and the lady told me they had found him dead.
Time stood still. I had no idea Gary was that sick. I had not said good-bye. My only brother was gone and it was now up to me to go tell my parents. I remember running from my office and driving like a mad man across town. My only thought was that I needed to get word to my parents before someone else did. I ran into their house – gathered them together and told them their oldest son, Gary – had died.
The devastation of that event – for all practical purposes – was the beginning of the end for both my mom and dad. They never recovered from that horror of losing their oldest son. How many times I hear of parents losing a child and I think of them and I know the pain – I have seen it – first hand. My dad was never the same and he passed away just sixteen months later. My grandmother – so strong for my mom during the funeral – went back home and fell into such a depression that she never really recovered. My mom lived for another nineteen years – but the sadness of losing Gary stayed with her like a wound that never healed. She never found real happiness after that day.
And as for me – July 23rd has now come and gone twenty-six times since that horrible day. I think about the events of that moment – but more than that I think about Gary. He was a man conflicted with his sexuality – probably ashamed of what and who he was. So ashamed, in fact, that he refused to reveal his sickness to anyone and when he died – he died alone. Lisa and I took the long painful trip to Frankfort to gather his things (he did not have much) and load them into a borrowed van to bring home. I will never forget walking into that apartment. The coffee table had been moved away from the couch where he died – moved to allow the gurney room to collect his emaciated body. I remember the coroner calling me and asking if he was homosexual and my saying for the first time to anybody – “Yes”.
We would learn in the days following his death that on his way back to Frankfort, his car had broken down and was towed away. He did not have the money for its repair and he worked out a deal with the tow company to take the vehicle to cover the charge of the tow and drive him back to his apartment. For the last week of his life – he had no vehicle to drive and no way to get to a hospital. And because Gary never wanted to shame his family with his lifestyle secret – he chose to die alone in a one bedroom apartment in Frankfort, Ky. How many times I have thought about what must have been a hellish last night he suffered through and how much I wish I could have been there. No one should ever die alone.
Knowing all this about his final days – inspired me to have engraved on his headstone a scripture verse from 1st Corinthians 16: 13-14 – “Be men of courage, be strong – do everything in love.” Gary was the most courageous person I have ever known and he chose to die painfully alone to protect his family – to protect me.
But one thing more I know. Gary died on that day knowing his Lord. The God he served and loved was a God of forgiveness and grace. I believe he knew that and I believe that God welcomed him as a person whose sins were hidden in the finished work of Jesus. When Gary left this earth – he was welcomed into heaven by a God who saw – not a sin sick soul, diseased and unworthy. God saw Gary hidden in the holiness of Jesus Christ.
Some will say that the sins of a homosexual are unforgivable. I disagree and someday when the glory of the moment finally comes – when I can embrace and thank Gary for the courage he displayed for his little brother those many years ago – the grace that not only saved him but is what I rely on as well – will be celebrated.
I miss you Gary – but I will see you again!