This is the 12th 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, Part 8 here, Part 9 here, Part 10 here and Part 11 here.
"It's my bad blood," Robert said. "Look under my arms. There's no muscle." He took off his shirt and showed me his swollen lymph glands.
Changing his clothes had become a private ritual for Robert when his health began to fail. He didn't want me to notice the changes in his body. I had too many questions and concerns about things that he would rather keep private. Looking at his naked torso now, I noticed how much weight he had lost. A brain chill, then a choir of nerves buzzed through me, affirming that Robert was indeed dying. My stomach gurgled and churned away at that morning's bowl of Cheerios and bananas. Once thriving, Robert now looked more like one of those hollow-eyed children from the Save the Children ads on FOX.
"It's lymphoma, the kind that AIDS patients get," he told me. "I might have six months. Hospice is coming tomorrow." He was using the same tone of voice he used to recite the grocery list.
I looked over at him. He was looking into the mirror, examining his complexion. "You know, it feels smooth to the touch, but it doesn't look like it is smooth," he said. "It's kind of ashy." Then he looked over at me and mumbled, "Sorry."
I stopped myself from blurting out something that the drama queen in me would have said, rather than a heartfelt statement. All I could come up with was the most imitated line from the '70s movie Love Story: "Love means never having to say you're sorry," which seemed wholly inappropriate. When it comes right down to it, we are so unprepared for these moments in life.
"Let's have a yard sale," Robert said. "And then go on vacation. FAHASS" -- an HIV/AIDS service organization -- "is having one next Saturday. I have some paintings and special things that might be worth some money."
Over the next week he put up flyers of what he wanted to sell at the YMCA he had just joined, and at various places around town. What wasn't sold was taken to the yard sale at FAHASS. The money Robert made wasn't enough for a vacation. So, instead, it went for the frivolous needs of his family. Karen always wanted to get her nails done. His nieces wanted the latest Hair Magic contraptions. There was always a brother who owed money to someone. The list went on and on. So, one by one, they would come to "the house" to collect their benefits. Having a gay brother who wanted to prove that he had his family's back was most profitable.
Robert fussed about going to the yard sale, and after much needling on my part, we drove over to FAHASS to socialize and deter the hagglers who always show up at these events. Robert found a place in the sun and a black-laced parasol for $2.50 and began to accept the company of others. His friends Kevin and David joined him. They gossiped, traded secrets and talked about the deplorable things their families did when visiting their homes.
"Mine put their feet on the sofa," said Kevin. "It's just trashy."
Robert glanced over at me to see if I was listening, and then he whispered, "He's not as nice to me as he is to everyone else. You don't really know someone until you live with them, but I put up with it. What's a girl to do?"
Kevin added, "Fred loves me. I have him eating out of my hand. He'll do anything for me. Now, let me hold that parasol."
"I know what you mean," Robert said. "Same here."
As the afternoon progressed, the parasol queens were starting to look haggard after being in the sun. I think it was David who suggested that we all go to our house, get a pizza and have a festival of movies. Fred picked up some of his favorites: Torch Song Trilogy, Longtime Companion, Lady Sings the Blues and Robert's favorite of all the tearjerkers, Brian's Song. Pizza was ordered, picked up and eaten over a six-hour period, during which time there were tears, laughter and quite possibly even some boredom. I remember Robert telling everyone that this was his "best day." Fred, as usual, told us all how much he loved us. David starting crying, and Kevin, for once in his life, was quiet. We shared some of the greatest lines from Torch Song, or at least the ones we could remember. Robert had fallen asleep in the leather wing chair sometime after sundown, so the others used that as a cue to say their own goodbyes.
Now, when Fred and I think back about that day, we see it as a treasure. During those hours that we were together, no one was sick, no one was dying, and no one was in any pain. We were just a bunch of guys enjoying each other. In the months to come, I would try to recreate the magic of that day, but I was always unsuccessful. Then it occurred to me that I was going about my life with Robert all wrong. I began to look at life through his eyes. One day at a time. If he was feeling good, we would take a drive. If he had a string of good days, we would make immediate arrangements to travel somewhere. If he had a bad day, he would stay in bed. All that really mattered to him was that he had someone to talk and laugh with every day. It's the simple things he liked, such as a good laugh, but those things were also elusive when he was sick. Nevertheless, no matter how bad things got, we laughed at Death.
Miraculously, Robert lived another five years.
To be continued...