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Robert's Walk With AIDS (Part 15): There's a Witch on My Back

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This is the conclusion to the 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, Part 11 here, Part 12 here, Part 13 here and Part 14 here.

After Charlie's death there was still some talk of the crows in the side yard coming and going. Tootie also complained about waking up in the middle of the night "with a witch on my back that scared the pee out of me." She was convinced that it was Charlie's spirit caught between the two worlds. No stranger to anxiety myself, I wondered if, in the near future, I was going to end up with one of those witches on my back, as well. By summer the crows left to parts unknown.

From the beginning of the summer through the holidays, Robert was in and out of the hospital a total of seven times. Infections from the various ports embedded in his body were taking a toll on his already-compromised immune system. Food didn't taste the same, either, but when Dr. Bernstein asked Robert if he wanted yet another port in his body, this time a feeding tube, the answer was "no." Neither Robert nor Tootie could make that decision, so I spoke for them. We had talked about all the end-of-life care in a series of conversations over the years, most of them with my hands over my ears, admittedly.

In mid-December Robert was released from the hospital and sent home. He was able to get around with the help of a fashionable cane and a wheelchair. It was the wheelchair that caused him the most distress, because, according to him, I was the worst wheelchair driver this side of Nurse Ratched. It all came to a head on a Christmas shopping trip to Kohl's.

"I want to buy something for my aunt, maybe a necklace," he said.

By now we had already been up and down each aisle of the store at least a dozen times, and when this caregiver hasn't had any sleep for a string of days and nights, I can get a little testy. Add to that equation the paranoia, memory loss and irritability that had plagued Robert for several months and you have the potential for an explosion.

"Aunt?" I asked. "Which one?"

"Shut up!" he yelled. "Just shut up! Why do you always have to be in my business? Leave me alone, damn it!"

I took a look around at the stares from the other shoppers, with the hands over their mouths. "Fine," I said. "I'll leave. No problem. It'll be a relief not to have to look at your ass 24/7." I stomped off, leaving Robert, the wheelchair and years of worry behind me.

The car was still warm from the engine running, so I didn't have to waste any time clearing the windshield of the ice that had started falling shortly after we got there. I left the parking lot with the radio turned up full-blast, sucking on a full-strength Marlboro. About halfway home a sore throat that had been with me for a month started to disappear, but my eyes were having trouble focusing. By the time I reached the light at Route 1, cars, buildings and street life all seemed to blend into a weird, impressionist landscape. I felt a tear roll down my cheek. When I put my hand up to rub my eyes, there were more. Soon, I was gasping trying to catch my breath.

One U-turn later, I was headed back to Kohl's. When I turned into the parking lot, there he was, sitting in the wheelchair on the sidewalk with a scarf wrapped around his head. His brown eyes caught mine as I pulled the car into the fire lane.

"Sorry," he mouthed.

I got out and helped him into the passenger seat. We didn't say much to each other on the way home, except that we both promised to make it up to each other. I caught him staring at me and smiling. I asked him if he was checking me out.

He told me, "No, you're not my type. Too emotional."

"Well, let's just be friends then," I said. "How about we go to the Log Cabin for some crab and shrimp tonight?"

"OK, as friends, nothing more."

Later I called the restaurant and made a reservation for our date. Accommodations were made for Robert's wheelchair. Once we got there, I wheeled him in ever so carefully. "How's my driving?" I asked.

"You're good at this," he said. "Much better than the last guy who helped me."

We were starting over again, this time putting more distance between us. Robert wanted it that way, and as hard as it was for me to disengage, I obliged. We protect the ones we love, even if it hurts them. It's just better that way.

The last few months of Robert's life were spent at the family home. Tootie balked at first, having buried her husband a year earlier, but in the end she took in her favorite son. The crows returned to the side yard. This time there were two of them. Tootie told me that one was Charlie, and the other one was Nanny Bird, Robert's beloved grandmother.

He died March 21, 2002. That evening I called my mom to wish her a happy 80th birthday, and to tell her that Robert had died.

That was over 10 years ago. Now I'm saying goodbye to Robert again as I close this series. I will miss writing about him, because in a weird kind of way, I lived our life over again. But it was easier this time. At least I don't have a witch on my back.

I think I can spread his ashes now.

Epilogue to follow...