Death showed up, and Dave McQuay wrote the story

MICHAEL OLESKER

March 07, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

You should have seen David McQuay in his life: vagrant strands of long blond hair flying up there in the breeze, eyes dancing, and this body so skinny you expected straw to fly out of his chest like Ray Bolger.

Once, his feature stories ran in the News American, which used to be a newspaper around here but is now an empty lot at Lombard and South. Its death arrived prematurely. And now, against all odds, it's arrived too soon for McQuay as well.

It's a pity what happened to him, dying of colon cancer the other day. He was 40 years old, which was just the other side of 14 for Dave. He was the gentlest of souls, a grown man who somehow held onto the childlike sense of wonder that most of us either discard or cover up with the years because someone in authority informs us it's inappropriate.

"David, David," you thought about telling him. "Tuck your shirt in."

But you never did, because he wouldn't have understood the point. A whole different world was happening inside his head, which had nothing to do with the mere appearance of things.

Walking through the newsroom, he seemed not to notice all the suits all around him. To point out his floppy sneakers, or those disheveled strands of spaghetti falling from his head, would seem an act of cruel intrusion. And so you never mentioned the world of uptight adults, and you hoped nobody else would tell him, either.

You wanted him to hold onto his illusions for as long as he could, and you tried not to envy him too much because your own had fled.

The story about Dave that everybody remembers, of course, was Truman Capote. The great American writer showed up here to deliver a speech, but couldn't pull it off. Gone on booze and barbiturates, he could barely put words together.

It fell to Dave, who worshiped good writing, to tell the sad tale of a man once capable of wonderful language who'd let it get away. He did it not only with the grace of a good writer, but with the gentleness of a good man.

Lately, he was writing columns for the Orange County Register, a lot of them about the process of his own dying. The columns have been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, but that's the least of it.

What comes through is not the dying, and not the sense of feeling sorry for himself, but the old McQuay sense of wonder: trying to figure out how he got here, and where he might be taken, and how he was doing until the future finally arrived.

He would write about the doctors changing his diet, about

rediscovering the joys of Cheerios and remembering the delights of a Maryland crab cake. He wrote about trying to recover the strength in legs that once carried him through basketball games in North Baltimore, after he'd been lying in a California hospital bed for weeks.

And he wrote about an other-worldly feeling when the priest came to give him communion in his hospital room and it took him back to his days at Towson Catholic High.

"I grew up Catholic and went to Catholic school for 12 years," he wrote. "I was humiliated by nuns, hated the folk-rock Masses, disagreed with Rome on issues, and after graduating from high school I left the church. If any religion attracted me, it was Buddhism. I went to a church for weddings and funerals.

"But then, at 40, death approached my door. It couldn't open it. A priest was in the doorway."

ZTC L And McQuay found himself saying, "I need communion, Father."

Again and again, he found himself becoming transformed with the priest. He describes a state of bliss.

"Call it God or love -- and maybe it's the same thing -- but a wave of energy moved from Baltimore . . . to Orange County where it shined on me through this priest, who offered the most beautiful prayers I have ever heard. He was a spiritual lightning rod. . . .

"I still have cancer, but what this priest did most of all was remove my fears and anxieties, like a surgeon removing a tumor, and pump the blood of faith in me."

The column ran Nov. 27. The end came about three months later, while he was sleeping, when his heart gave out from all the tough times it had endured.

Some time back, when the News American was still struggling for life, there was comfort in looking across its battered newsroom and seeing the youthful McQuay. Messy? Absolutely. Unpredictable, for sure. Also, bright and literate and hungry as hell to write.

Some of his friends gathered the other evening at the Johnson Funeral Home, on Loch Raven Boulevard, many from old newspaper days here. There was Dave, laid out formally in a corduroy jacket and a sports shirt.

"How do you like that?" somebody said. "They finally got him dressed up like a grown-up."

But he fought it pretty hard the whole way, and bless him for that.

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