When we met at National Café on May 20, it was the beginning of sandal season. The sky had dressed in pure blue that morning. The promise of a summer tan lingered in the air. It was a dazzling day, a day for big dreams and grand designs. I saw Barclay striding down Greenwich Ave, dapper as always in a crisp white button-down shirt, with a navy sweater thrown over his shoulder and his signature dark sunglasses on. He still stood tall (hard not to at 6'6"), with more of a paunch than he had in his younger years, but that’s to be expected at fifty-five. I thought to myself, Everything is going to be okay.
Barclay saw me and gave me a hug that erased the gap of several years without seeing each other. He beamed that familiar smile, the one that can light up a ballroom or make a lowly cashier or busboy feel special (he bestowed one on the National Café hostess as well, before calling her by name and asking how she was doing; no one is lowly in Barclay’s eyes). We sat down at the table Barclay—always attending to aesthetic details—requested. I looked into his weary but eager eyes and said, “Cancer looks good on you, Barclay.”
For two years Barclay had been waging war on this ugly disease, which had attacked his lymph nodes. He’d retreated to Mississippi to fight the battle among “his pretty things,” which he’d transported from Greenwich, but also the scars from growing up as Timothy Mark Fryery, a closeted gay boy in the Deep South. He’d won that war, made a new name for himself—literally and figuratively—and led a life he never could have imagined was possible in his youth. Surely he could win this war too.
Now we sat enjoying our salads and recounting old times, when I was the editor of Tear Sheet, a magazine I launched in my wide-eyed twenties, and Barclay, in his decadent thirties, had reported on fashion and life from Paris for me. We became friends. Barclay oozes his own blend of joie de vivre and genuine charm that's irresistible.
We talked about radiation, the dark abysses along the way, and the hills he has climbed with his indomitable spirit, reaching a scenic overlook with a view onto a future dotted with more possibilities. He was excited to travel to the Bahamas to do Bill Ford’s wedding. Bill, son of Ford Model matriarch Eileen, would marry Barclay’s dear friend Darrah Gleason Ford. He imagined moving back to Greenwich and continuing the career that earned him a coveted spot in House Beautiful’s Top 100 Designers list for a decade. He said he planned to travel to Greenwich again in the fall. We could do lunch again; he had some contacts who might help me with publishing my modeling memoir.
A different book project altogether has emerged since then. As the posts on Barclay's Facebook page, where he blogs prolifically about his cancer journey, grew more earnest, I had a nagging feeling. It was easy to dismiss it because Barks, as I like to call him, always flashes plenty of bright thoughts into the darkness. He has an inner beacon of light that is impossible to snuff out.
But on March 10, 2017, Barclay shared a video of himself with his 10,000 Facebook followers. In a composed and calm manner, he announced: “Hi, it’s Barclay. I promised you an update. I just returned from the hospital and the doctors have decided there is nothing more they can do, and I’m not going to do any more treatments. I’m just going to manage the symptoms with the pain doctor and with home health care, which will eventually become hospice. I’ll be surrounded by my close friends and my animals and my pretty things. I don’t want people to be upset, like a friend of mine has been all week. I love you. I’ve had so many people be nice to me and lovely to me.” He paused here and his voice quavered as he continued more slowly, “I know it’s hard to say this, but it’s been a very nice period, even though it’s been a bad period. And I just wanted to share that news with you.”
The cancer had spread. The doctors gave my dear Barks two weeks to two months to live. His own best cancer cheerleader, Barclay did not dive off the top of the pyramid in dismay. He slowly dismounted and placed his rather swollen size-13 feet firmly on the ground. From there he would complete his final design project: the plans for a dignified, stylish, full final chapter on Earth and, of course, a fabulous after-party (both here, for the mortals, and in the afterlife).
The gift and the curse of cancer is that you often know when the end is coming. You can say goodbye to friends. You can wrap up loose ends. You can dwell on death, fret, sweat, careen into depression. There will be none of that latter part for Barclay, at least not that he will reveal to the “angels” who care for him and the friends who come to visit him in his cozy and carefully curated apartment in downtown Meridian.
I booked my flight for a week after I saw Barclay’s post. I didn’t want to stall. I’ve been on one of these journeys before, when my grandmother lost her battle with stomach (and then bone) cancer. She was skeletal but lucid when I, at age 19, said good-bye. Entering the halls of a hospital always brings back that memory: the tender, heart-wrenching final embrace with my frail Grammie, amidst the harsh antiseptic smell and sterile furnishings of a 1980s hospital room. A week later she did not know anyone. Two weeks later she was gone.
In Barclay’s Facebook posts, optimism continued to beat out suffering: “Good morning world!” or “Oo la la . . . Looking forward to a WONDERFUL DAY! Nothing will get in my way of having the best day possible!” Although there were some of these: “Having a horrific day. Please pray.” I prayed he would keep his strength for many “wonderful” days to come, though I was sure it was a Barclay-ism (i.e., euphemism) for bearable. I braced myself for my visit.
I needn’t have. My day with Barclay was inspiring, fascinating, warm, revelatory. I learned about his challenging childhood, his days in DC with the politicos, Paris and Greenwich with the fashion elite. How he handled a homophobic father, an HIV diagnosis, a cancer diagnosis. How he formed his brigade of angels who care for him now. I met two of them and learned how much he does for them in their visits, not just how much they do for him.
Susie Womack Cannon (“Choo” to Barclay, who is fond of bestowing nicknames), his first babysitter and his first crush, explained it this way on Facebook: “It is Sunday morning and I am sitting here with Barclay enjoying his company. He is amazing, being determined to make something positive from all this. I'm one of three that have the privilege of caring for Barclay and he never ceases to amaze me in that we, who come to love on and encourage him, always leave feeling encouraged by him.”
I talked by phone to his closest friend from his college years at Ole Miss. He shared funny stories about preppy, Republican Barclay and his immaculate dorm room. I spoke to his friend Lauren in Greenwich, who has followed Barclay’s fight with cancer on Facebook, and calls him every single day. They have never met in person.
I recorded my 8-hour interview with Barclay because it was clear that Barclay has wisdom about the end—not to mention the beginning and the middle—that we all can learn from. This book is a gift from Barclay to you. It contains simple tips for infusing joy into a sorrowful time, deeper reflections on overcoming life’s challenges, and a good dose of magical memories, too. Enjoy.