This is the ninth installment in a series of blog posts chronicling life with my partner, Robert, who died of AIDS March 21, 2002. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here, Part 5 here, Part 6 here, Part 7 here, and Part 8 here.
Fevers, an occasional brush with bronchitis, and thrush were common occurrences for Robert over the next few years. Not knowing what was around the corner could be frightful for some, but Robert seemed to take it all in stride.
"I'm alive until I'm dead, right? That's what you always tell me," he would say.
My response was always a pause, and then I would repeat a phrase I heard him tell me more than 100 times. "The more you talk about dying, the more rain there'll be in those clouds you walk under."
A chuckle. A look in each other's direction. All those gestures that uncover our very basic pleasure of being able to love someone, and knowing that they love us in return. That's all we needed for the time being.
There was one problem, though. It was harder than hell to get Robert to go to the doctor. One evening, after one of those boring PTA meetings, I came home to find him in bed under several blankets, with the space heater in the room turned up full blast. Once he got out of bed, I saw that he was still wearing the same jeans and sweatshirt that he had been wearing when I left the house that morning. I told Robert I was about to faint if I stayed in the bedroom any longer. He had already taken his temperature and told me, "You don't need to know my personal business."
Not being one to back down, I told him, "It's the fever talking, not you, and it's time for some Tylenol to bring that fever down."
"Get off my back," he told me. "You take the Tylenol."
He gave up this time and took the Tylenol. An hour later, the fever was still hitting 104o with no sign of abating. I hit a wall. The Tylenol had always worked for me, so why wasn't it working for him? I was also confused, because he didn't seem to be the least bit concerned about the fever raging out of control. I concluded that he was sick and therefore not in his right mind. It was up to me to act. The very thought that I was responsible for another person's well-being nearly sent me into a panic.
Then I remembered a time when I was running a fever. I couldn't have been any more than 7 years old. The fever was so bad; all kinds of crazy thoughts were running through my head. My parents seemed so far away from me, and everyone was moving in slow motion. My detachment from reality was just beginning to feel good when all of a sudden I was jarred out of a semiconscious bliss. My mom had covered my face and upper body with an ice-cold towel. The sudden temperature change made my heart start beating in my ears. I don't remember anything after that, but the fever broke, and the wet-towel intervention marked my ascent from sickness to health.
I looked at Robert and wondered if I could get away with wrapping his head in a cold, wet towel. He was waving his hands in the air as if he was conducting a symphony. My aversion to getting hit by one of those hands dashed any thoughts of applying the cold, wet towel.
"Robert, we have to go to the ER," I said with certainty. "I only do bandages and treatment for diarrhea, headaches, and stomach aches. Your ailments go beyond my sphere of influence. Let's go to the hospital." I knew it wouldn't be easy, but after much bickering and needling, I eventually talked Robert into going to the ER. But first he had to get ready.
"Draw my bath, Beulah," he ordered.
Knowing that there might be a chance that he could see his new doctor, a short, nebbish, Jewish man with allergies, was a cause for primping and preening so that he could look his best. After lathering in the shower with peach-scented body wash and drying off with his oversized and overpriced bath towel, it was time to apply the baby powder in all the places where he wanted to maintain a sweet fragrance. The overflow of powder that didn't reach his body was left all over the bathroom mirror and floor. Then he ran the ChapStick over his eyebrows, giving them a polished look. I helped him put on his jeans and pulled a starched white shirt out of the closet for him.
Finally, after a couple of hours spent getting ready, he announced that he was ready to go to the hospital. "Well, let's go," he said, "and don't hold me up by telling me that you have to go the bathroom." He chuckled all the way to the hospital and kept punching me in the arm. I told him I was tired and just not in the mood for fun.
"I think you're the one who needs help, not me," he shared.
The ER waiting room was empty, so we didn't have to wait long for the triage team. Then we sat for what seemed like hours so that the attending physician could see us. In my head I started writing a letter to the editor about the abysmal state of health care in America. I was taking mental notes of all the things I perceived to be wrong with the whole process of checking patients in, which was carried out like we were customers in a deli where the loud and bossy people get taken care of first. I had just come up with an opening sentence when a small Vietnamese man poked his head through the curtain.
"I am the doctor today," said the nameless physician. "How are you feeling? Is there any pain?"
After Robert had had two more doses of Tylenol and I was finishing up my third cup of coffee, the temperature returned to normal. Robert was discharged.
"Just keep an eye on him," the nurse told me. "Have him call his doctor in the morning."
When we got home, Robert went immediately to bed. I told him I'd be up after I took care of the blinking red light on my answering machine. It was Frankie.
"I'm heading out for London this weekend," Frankie's voice announced. "A bunch of us are going to get together with Princess Caroline of Monaco for a lunch. I might be able to take you along."
Robert yelled out to me, "Who is it?"
"Nobody," I answered. Then I hit the erase button.