After learning that you have a serious disease, what follows is much like beginning a beautiful piece of art. Suddenly, you have a blank canvas. The slap-in-the-face reminder that indeed you are mortal and will not last forever makes you think about what you need to do before the paint dries. There are some new brushstrokes you're going to try so that you can get used to living with this unwelcome stranger. You look ahead only to tomorrow. Walking ahead too far into the future leaves you with an empty depression. So you play with time. You learn to look back in the past only for strength, never the regrets. Such was my walk with Robert for several years.
Even though it has been more than 10 years since Robert's death, I still find myself missing him. Sometimes I think I see him walking on a downtown sidewalk. It's amazing how many people there are who have his swagger and his smile. We think we're so unique, but little pieces of us -- our voice, our body language, our scent -- are scattered around the spectrum of humanity. I see myself in others every day.
This will not be a heroic melodrama about a man living with AIDS. Instead, it's a story about a man who navigates the world of health care, family ties, and faith and ultimately comes to a place of acceptance. Most of all, this is a story about all of us, how we love and how we hate, our triumphs and our failures, and the unforeseen strength that lives in us all.
* * * * *
After about eight weeks in hospice, Jim, Robert's previous lover, passed on. The days before had borne a lonely routine of going to work at Filene's, then heading out to hospice to sit with Jim. Unable to communicate, they sat there in silence, holding hands for hours. There was a tear on Jim's cheek as he took his last breath, and the chill in the room made it look like ice. Robert, given to histrionics, wept loudly and exclaimed, "Why, Jim? Why? Don't leave me here. Don't go without me."
The certificate listed AIDS as the cause of death. Robert put it in a shoebox, along with some birthday cards from Jim, photos of their last trip to Europe, and some silver dollars from a slot machine in Las Vegas. As he began to put his life back together, Robert decided to move from the tiny one-bedroom condo in Dupont Circle to a larger townhouse in the southwest quadrant of Washington, D.C. The insurance money that Jim left him was able to pay for new furniture purchased from a discount mart on Route One, and a year's worth of rent. The rest of the money he was going to "sit on."
Once settled, the next step was to leave the gray winter skies of the mid-Atlantic region and go on one of those gay cruises. It was something Robert had always wanted to do, but he was never able to make the arrangements. Jim had always done that.
The warm, tropical climate was a respite for Robert, but reminders of grief were with him. Many of the passengers were either widowers or guys who saw themselves as victims of ill-fated romantic encounters. Still, everyone was looking for someone to talk with, and if everything went well, maybe they'd have a teddy bear to take to bed with them. Some asked Robert back to their cabin to play, but Robert said he was just not in the mood. With a wad of money in his pocket, he thought he could buy anything, including some solitude.
One evening, Robert woke in a cold sweat. His bed sheets were soaking wet. He couldn't remember being sick the night before, except having a slight headache. Maybe it will pass, he thought, whatever it is. Better to not think about it, as that will make things even worse, even put a hex on it.
Sharing drinks with others, flirting, and making snide comments about the "lurking trolls" on board were favorite pastimes for Robert and his new friends. In fact, according to Robert, those were about the only worthwhile activities on board for many, unless, of course, you were one of the trolls. Then it wasn't so much fun.
There were two stops left on the itinerary. The first of those stops was an overnighter in St. Croix. Boozing it up on the island was fairly commonplace with the cruising interlopers, so a bar with upstairs hotel rooms was a perfect place to spend the night. The others in Robert's party opted for their more familiar cabin on the ship. The next morning, a rooster belonging to the bar owner started crowing about three hours after the cruise ship had left port, headed for St. Thomas. Robert had overslept, a condition that affected him both in sickness and in health.
An island hopper was hired to ferry Robert to the last port before home. Once back on board the cruise ship, Robert returned to his chair on deck, fresh with tales of his latest adventure, involving getting drunk, a recalcitrant rooster, and an island pilot who refused to speak English to him. However, he left out the part about waking up in a bed soaked with his own urine that morning. That would not be cool. In addition, the 102-degree temperature he had been carrying with him felt like it spiked whenever he considered the thought that he might be sick. He also was wondering why there was so much mucous sticking to his tongue. Maybe it was the complimentary mouthwash he had used aboard the ship. A mental note was made to get some Listerine when he returned home.
Follow Gary Nelson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/morrobayborn