This is the seventh 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, and Part 5 here, and Part 6 here.
The beginning of January brought a heavy and unusual series of snowstorms to Virginia. One right after another, they rolled in at night as we slept. Robert had been staying with me since Christmas, going home only to check on his niece every once in a while. During the day we would lip-sync to Madonna tapes, alternating between playing Madonna and her team of backup singers. In the evenings I would serve some Lean Cuisines with freshly baked chocolate chunk cookies. Then we would fall asleep on the sectional watching TV, waking up only to carry ourselves upstairs to bed, and then fall asleep again, waking late the next morning. "This is all normal stuff that normal people do," I would think to myself.
I was getting a little anxious to get out of the house, though. They had announced on the radio that school was going to be closed for the rest of the week, and after double-checking at least a half dozen TV and radio stations to confirm the news, I came to the conclusion that I was ready for a vacation. Robert was not weathering the cold well. He would get chilled just standing in the open doorway checking on his car. He, too, wanted some warmth, so that night we decided to pack up the car and head to South Carolina, where Tia, Robert's younger sister, lived.
The next morning the sun came out and revealed a web of salt stains and mud on the windshield.
"Let's get this clean. You want to see the road, don't you? I'll take care of it. Let me do it," pleaded Robert.
Of course, I was thrilled to have finally found someone who shared my neurotic passion for cleaning and having things done a certain way. It was amazing to me how we both liked to have the dish cloth folded and draped over the middle wall of the sink, and the wall-to-wall carpet vacuumed "fan style," leaving a fan pattern so beautiful that you couldn't bring yourself to walk on it. Two compulsive divas under the same roof, forging a bond. How could anyone see trouble coming?
We drove straight through to Charleston, only stopping for gas and the necessities. The balmy weather was a relief, and we rolled down the windows as the car slowed to adjust to city driving.
"She lives close to some of the bars, and she'll probably want us to take her out tonight, get a break from her kids," Robert told me.
With five kids and all that comes with them, the three-bedroom townhouse looked a little cramped as we greeted Tia and her motley crew, so we elected to stay at the Hampton Inn near her house. As we checked in, I noticed Robert's shallow breathing. When we got up to the room, he plopped himself down on the bed, and within minutes he had fallen asleep. I watched him. There's something very intimate and sweet about watching someone fall asleep. Maybe it's because they trust you enough to let their guard down. Parents do it at night after they think their kids are asleep. It's one of those peculiar things humans do that always brings us closer together, even after a spat with each other.
The days spent with Tia and her kids wore Robert down, but he never let on that he wasn't feeling well.
"I just can't wait to exhale," he would always say.
On our last night in Charleston, we hit the gay bars one more time. Tia and I danced while Robert entertained himself watching everyone "make a fool of themselves." His mood had changed, and he was a little cranky. I thought it was the cough that had bothered him all day. It was beginning to sound like he had something caught in his throat.
When we arrived at Tia's, he told me he would spend his last night in Charleston with his family.
"I don't know when I'll be back here again. Better enjoy them while I'm here," he announced.
That left a nagging question in my head: Did he mean "here" as in Charleston, or as in this place we inhabit called Earth? The next morning, when I went to Tia's place to gather Robert and his stuff, Tia shared with me that he had had a bad night. The coughing continued even after several doses of Nyquil. So, instead of sleeping, they'd spent the night talking. When I arrived, Robert was still in bed, complaining of pains in his chest and sides.
"I'll be OK. Help me to the car so we can get on the road," he ordered.
After some coffee and two cigarettes smoked to a stub, he was ready to leave. We said our goodbyes to Tia and her family, the passenger seat was lowered, and Robert fell asleep again. He barely said a word until we reached the Virginia border. Finally, he spoke:
"You're too good. Just too good."
Boy, have I heard that before. It was always followed with something like, "You can do better than me. It's my fault, not yours."
We finally pulled into town late at night. The next morning I had to report to work, so I went right to bed. Robert was in bed before me, and I found that he had his entire body, including his head, covered under blankets.
"Hold me. Just hold me, please," he said.
I cuddled up to him and told him a macabre bedtime story that was told to me years ago by my first male babysitter. It was a story about a man sleeping under the bed who had plucked all the filling out of the mattress so that he could get to the people sleeping on top of him. It was so ridiculous that we couldn't stop laughing.
When I awoke the next morning, I found Robert asleep in the wing chair. I tiptoed out the door and went to work. Calls home that day went unanswered.
That afternoon, when I got home, there was a napkin taped to the kitchen table. It read,
"Gary, I'm so sorry. Thanks for everything. I love you. Robert."
To be continued...