On the death of a friend: the writer, actor, and educator David Lee Nelson

I don’t really have the right words to properly honor my friend David Lee Nelson, who passed away this week from Stage 4 colon cancer. But the words of his childhood friends, who knew him much longer than I, have rung as sweet and as swift as a note on the air. Every one of them speak to Davey’s kindness, his rare sweetness. Many mention his wit and intelligence; his bright, unceasing energy, his talent, his often wickedly irreverent, unfailingly sharp, and unfathomably big-hearted sense of humor. So many honor his complicated mind, his intellect; his courage and goodness.

Davey and I met as freshmen (Class of 1996) at Wade Hampton High School in Greenville, South Carolina. Over the years we were fellow theater kids, unbelievably lucky to attend a public school full of some of the most talented arts teachers in the country; a school where the arts were funded and where they flourished. Davey walked the halls in classic Chuck Taylors, his fantastic curls bouncing, with a swinging, energetic gait, a wry aside, and kindness in his beautiful eyes.

I struggled to find my place in high school. Inside I was an Arts kid through and through, but I skimmed the outer circles of several different groups, school-sponsored or otherwise. Davey did a lot, and was involved in a lot, but Davey was a theater kid—this is what I think about when I think about him. How singularly focused he was, how committed to his craft. How he tossed himself body and soul up onto the stage. How he knew, with absolute focus, that he was meant to act, to share himself and his stories in this way. This certainty and purpose, at such a young age, is more than talent. It’s a divine gift, and Davey Nelson did not squander it.

Often back then, Davey would talk to me, or look at me in a certain way as he listened, and I fizzed over with my own uncontained energy, and I would wonder what he was thinking. I wish I’d asked.

We reconnected several years ago, when Davey and another high school friend and classmate, the director Adam Knight, brought their fantastically fun and sharp-as-hell one man show, The Elephant in My Closet, to Greenville. My husband and I drove down from the mountains and met up with some of my best high school friends to watch. Afterwards, we went out downtown together. Sitting in a semi-circle, our non-stop conversation steamed up the glass front wall of the bar. We laughed and joked and recounted, smiles and commentary zinging through the air between us. That night, Davey had owned the stage. He’d been brilliant. He glowed. We were all just so damn happy together; it was one of those nights when you’re grateful beyond words to be alive and with these exact people, in this exact moment. I’ll never forget it.

Over the past two years, Davey and I reconnected over his writing of Hope in the Time of Chemo, a memoiric book of essays, based on his well-loved blog. Right now I’m trying very hard not to regret time lost being a better, closer friend to him, but instead to know, and be thankful for, the fact I knew him at all. He was an incomparable human, and people like Davey Nelson never leave you. I hope his parents, his sisters, and his wife, Jaimie—all of whom he loved fiercely and well, and who brought him incredible joy—know how much his friends grieve with them, and how thankful we are that they shared him with us.

Friends, please give to Fight Colorectal Cancer or your favorite cancer-fighting organizations, read Davey’s words here, buy his hilarious and touching book here, and hug your loved ones extra close tonight.

 Photos: Our Advanced Production Theatre class, 1996-1997, Wade Hampton High School
Bottom row: Davey winning all the things (I think this was for Senior Superlatives)


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