Andrew ("Glamdrew") Henderson was a cherished friend and colleague of mine. It was an absolute honour to have worked with him on his last artistic project. He died October 26, 2016.
It’s early September and I’m meeting Andrew and Eroca at an art studio in Winnipeg’s Exchange District. We’re beginning rehearsal for their show, Taking it to the Grave. Except it’s not quite a rehearsal, and it’s not quite a show.
Andrew is dying. He’s had lymphoblastic lymphoma, a rare and deadly cancer, for just over two years, and been terminal for one. Now he’s selling tickets for a chance at some truly unique real-estate: his expiring flesh.
“I’m dying anyway—I should charge to take people’s secrets with me to the grave,” he cracked once to his friend Eroca. “Ok, let’s actually do that. Why the fuck not?” And now it’s happening and no one knows what it will be except spectacular.
It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to exorcise your deepest secrets and regrets onto the skin of someone who can get rid of them for good. Whispered to only Andrew, they will be interpreted into a symbol and tattooed, in real time, on his arms. Released from those they burden, these secrets will soon be rotting into oblivion along with Andrew’s body. Eternal impermanence.
The project might sound dark. But here’s the thing about Andrew: he is levity. He is Champagne bubbles straight up your nose. He’s embracing the hilarity and absurdity and beauty and opportunity of his death. He will comfort you about his impending doom. He has magic.
Eroca is a force of her own. She is red lipstick and piercing eyes. She is a dancer, choreographer, healer, witch. She studies cross-cultural funeral practices and the queering of death and mourning. She reads tarot cards and she and Andrew talk about the spirits who are present, some of whom are beckoning Andrew to the next plane (he’s on borrowed time now, she says).
This creaky old room, white walls, hardwood floor, not yet filled with objects, is bouncing with magic.
I am quiet, open, hungry: an eager sponge.
A few days later and the studio has been doused in the material expression of Andrew and Eroca’s energy. Tables are piled with the pair’s makeup, Andrew’s bottles of pills and eye drops. Gold and glittering talismans perch on every surface. Andrew is at work at the sewing machine decked out in his pig ears hat.
Andrew is cheerful, ebullient—the Andrew I’ve always known. He leads us in a set-crafting adventure involving a Rubbermaid of Elmer’s liquid glue. It’s easy to forget the battle raging inside him. He only rarely sits and rests, closes his dry, stinging eyes, nurses a migraine he’s been fighting all day. He brushes off our worry, hates to be preened over—for his illness, at least. He is fine. He is fabulous.
Andrew has something for me, stage manager to stage manager. It’s a toy sheriff’s badge, its silver-gold paint worn off at the tips.
“I would wear it when I was working on a new show, and had to walk into a room of strangers and boss them around,” he explains. “I wore it and I was in charge.”
I gratefully accept this powerful object. Thank you, darling.
It’s Andrew’s 28th funeral-themed birthday party, billed as his last. (So was last year’s, I remind him. He cackles gleefully.) I hang out at the studio with him and his visiting Toronto friends as they get ready. I don’t know them so I’m quiet. Andrew presides over the room as he is adorned with colour, glitter and gold-leaf. He is radiant and knows it. I bask in his light and feed him compliments and feel socially at ease.
I notice a woman applying gold glitter to her friends. I ask her for some and she delicately dabs it around my eyes, along my cheekbones. Glitter gets on my lashes and when I open my eyes I’m looking at her smiling face through a kaleidoscope of gold and the world is blurred, bright and beautiful, a bottle of gold-flecked Champagne.
The evening is a delicious swirl of low lights, custom cocktails, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and the celebration of Andrew’s life and impending death. In the morning, I wake, face unwashed. There is glitter all over my pillow.
It’s five days before the show and Eroca, Andrew, his Auntie and I are hanging the gold curtains Andrew’s corpse will later be wrapped in. Eroca brought them from India and they will be the backdrop to the show. They are the most beautiful things you could imagine.
“Do you want to try them on?” Auntie asks Andrew.
“No,” he says, with a deep breath. “I don’t want to… until I absolutely have to.”
This is the night Eroca and Andrew cry. Andrew’s cry is tearless, because his eyes are so dry and sore.
“I wish I had some fucking tears!” he sob-laugh-shrieks. He has such a beautiful shriek.
It’s Friday, the first performance. Andrew has been dangerously ill since the day before. We weren’t sure he could be here, but he rallies. He’s doing this, at any cost.
This room is thick with strangers, friends, family, nervous energy, uncertainty and love. Eroca guides us into magical, uncharted territory.
I am weightless, joyous, when the glitter falls. We dance to Madonna, Katy Perry, in a storm of shimmering gold foil rectangles. We take turns lying on the floor as others fling the foil above our bodies, watch as it tumbles down toward us. Some of it clumps into huge perfect golden spheres that barrel toward our faces like comets, exploding as they make contact. It is the most divine experience of my life and I gasp and laugh and glitter falls into my mouth and I laugh more.
When the evening closes, as Andrew walks the room to greet his audience, he sees me at the curtains, says my name and we clasp hands for just a moment.
Later, when I undress, there is glitter in my bra.
On Sunday, the second and final show, like Friday, things for Andrew and his body are brutal. It’s difficult to witness. But he is present to preside over another packed room. He could never disappoint his fans.
Before the show, I approach Andrew on his chaise. We hold hands, say few words— it’s hard for him to speak, he is so sick. He fusses with my collar, helps me attach my sheriff’s badge as best he can with his long and beautiful manicured talons. Thank you, darling.
Today, in this same sacred and surreal space adorned with glittering gold drapes, soft pink lights, bubbles, a forest of green hanging ghosts and a tulle Champagne bottle centrepiece under which a spectacular dying person inks the secrets of others onto his fading body, I am heavy. Like on Friday we ceremoniously sweep piles of gold glitter to the centre of the floor. Once it’s gathered, it’s my job to make a mess, dropping more glitter over Eroca and the other dancing bodies, all to start the sweeping again.
Today I don’t dance. I don’t grin. Today, the moment I throw the first handful of glitter I am sobbing—for the first time. I let tears spill down my face for hours.
Today the line to tattoo secrets is longer. There is so much people need to release. We go an hour overtime because Andrew understands the importance of his work. At the end, like Friday, Eroca walks with Andrew to greet his guests. She anoints him with Champagne, and we all follow, blessing him with water, as Superstar blasts. But it’s not like Friday, because this is really the end.
When the show is over, we smoke at an open window in the back with Andrew. I am still shaking.
Andrew, quiet and serene, thanks us for our labour, our support, our love. We express our gratitude for him and he says, “I didn’t do anything, I just lay there.”
Does he really not know what he has done?
I rest my hand gently on the back of Andrew’s neck. I realize later I have no idea if he wanted to be touched— I just wanted to touch him. It’s the last time I do.
Andrew asks for a moment alone to finish his cigarette. We retreat.
A half hour later Andrew is leaving with his family. He had wanted to get drinks with us but we know he needs rest. He is near the door hugging people goodbye. I’m on a ladder across the room, taking down lights. I wonder, suddenly, if this is the last time I will see him. I want to hug him, but he’s walking out, there’s no time, so I yell “goodbye!” and hope he turns. Because every time he sees you, smiles at you, touches you, it’s warm sun on your skin, it’s a torrent of gold glitter barreling at you with ferocious power. We still need it from him, even now when he’s so sick, so tired, when he’s already given so much. And he is still so willing to give.
That night, at home, I find glitter in my shoes.
Three days later I get a text from Andrew’s phone. It isn’t him. It never will be again.
On the morning of October 26, 2016, Andrew fulfills his promise and disposes of 22 secrets, etched onto his arms in ink, in the physical oblivion of his death.
He had been in hospital. We knew the past few days had been very bad. But no one expected him to leave so soon.
The timing, just days after his final show, is artistically impeccable. Despite everything, the dramatic side of Andrew would delight in the perfection, the poetry of it, his final act the completion of a flawless narrative arc.
At the time of his leaving, as always, he is surrounded by love, so many circles of love, ripples widening to encompass so much geography, so many hearts.
I speak to people from across the country, the continent—reporters who had just met him, and people who had never known him but only heard his story. They are grieving, they cry. I do too. I hold my sheriff’s badge and I play Kesha.
Where there is glitter:
in the shards and bubbles of a shattered glass of Champagne
in dust dancing in the yellow shaft of a stage light
in the late-night glow of a beckoning city
in the reflections off an espresso machine’s shiny gold finish
in the watery mirage ahead on a summer Manitoba highway
stuck in the rafters of an Exchange District art gallery
on the stucco ceiling of a funeral home in Selkirk
scattered across a roadside grave in the tiny town of Clandeboye
in my pockets, my purse, my hair
Thank you, darling.