I was sixteen and in high school when I first encountered death. My grandmother’s third husband died at a time when I was being a pain in the ass. I was in the principal’s office, and worried that I was in real trouble this time. But then the principal said to me, “Are you acting this way because you are upset over your grandfather’s death?” I had no idea they kept this close tabs on us, but I saw my chance.
“Yes,” I said, putting a puppy dog look into my eyes and letting my head droop. I thought of tears, but I at sixteen, while death was still new to me, I already knew the best performance was the understated one. “OK,” he said. “You go be with your family now, but I can’t let you get away in the future with disrespect for your teachers.” It was an act of deliciously pure deceit on my part and it worked. “Uncle Pete,” as I called my grandmother’s Number 3 husband, was not somebody I would miss all that much.
I went to my after school job at the shoe store and my grandmother came in. She was shopping for black shoes. She already had the black patent leather purse. I thought she was being theatrical, too, but I saw the sadness in her eyes and when Mrs. Campbell, my boss, stood at the cash register beside me and her eyes welled up with tears as well, I realized I was on a different wave length.
For years I wondered about this gap between my understanding of death and that of the old people. It was an old folk’s problem. My friends didn’t die; theirs did. Death at my level was not only new to me at the time, it was inconceivable. And why would I know anything about it? Nobody had ever mentioned it. Nobody ever spoke about its pain and suffering. Nice people didn’t talk about unpleasant things in my world, and death, the inconceivable, was therefore unmentionable. People on television wept and carried on when somebody died, but they were TV personalities. Carrying on was what they did. I never saw anybody do it for real.
I went all the way into my 20s before it touched me for real. Almost, for real. My great aunt, the one we all called Mutti, died in Southern California, the land of “The Loved One.” Jessica Mitford absurdity country, where the departed live in gardens and the theme is serenity. I felt the jolt of death this time, but it was quickly dissipated by a swim in the pool and the tackiness of piped in hymns. The pastor talked about what a good wife and mother Mutti was, how much she loved the movie, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and we went to look at the marble mausoleum where her ashes were going to be boxed in and marveled at how much this place must cost.
There were other deaths. I had a surfeit of grandparents and they all went in their turn. There was always a tinge of sadness, but the events quickly passed and we got on with life as quickly as possible. Then my grandmother herself died, and I got a real dose of death at last. This was my mother’s mother, the one I called Großmutter. She had been left at the end of World War I in Germany at the age of twenty with a daughter and no way to care for her and had given her over to her sister (the one we called Mutti) and never stopped feeling guilty about it. She was clearly determined to make up for it by adoring me. It helped enormously that she had a reputation for being unorthodox. They tried to cover it up, but it leaked out she was a little on the wild side.
Everybody should have one person in their lives, I think, who loves them unconditionally. She was it for me. As an added bonus, she also knew how to cook and even as a teenager I loved good food. My mother would open a can of peas and boil them for twenty minutes to serve along with leftover mashed potatoes and whatever meat we might have had on Sunday, but her mother’s kitchen had a savory German home-cooking smell that I still try to imitate nearly a half a century later when I want comfort food. I spent a lot of time at her house. When I would come home from high school, she would take a bottle of Liebfraumilch out of the refrigerator and she and I would talk about my day over a glass of wine. How could a kid of sixteen not adore a woman like that. Even though I hate the stuff today, I still drink it once in a while for the memories.
I went to live in Japan in March of 1970, and she died that November. I couldn’t get back for the funeral, and in those days I thought funerals were phony anyway, so even if I could have scratched up the money, I probably wouldn’t have. Instead, Roberto, the guy I was living with, and I managed to find a bottle of Liebfraumilch, lit a couple candles at the hour I knew the funeral was being held, and toasted my Großmutter on her passing.
Yukio Mishima had just climbed onto the front of the Self-Defence Forces Building in Tokyo and committed seppuku (harakiri, they call it abroad) and people were sitting around talking about his impact on the young people of Japan. There was a lot of talk about restoring traditional values, about the victory over death that was achieved when you chose your own moment to die, and the glory of the “good death.” I was sitting in a coffee shop with some friends and I heard myself say, “I think you’re all full of shit. There’s nothing glorious about death. ” Bunch of fools, I thought. It didn’t occur to me till much later that my anger was a mask for grief, so far removed were my own emotions from my understanding of them. I just got angry, that’s all. Didn’t see how it had anything to do with my grandmother’s death.
Five years later, my mother died. I was in Japan again, and all I could think about was how typical this was of my mother to pick the most inconvenient moment. I was out in the country. My sister had managed to find my friend Tom in Yokohama who had managed to find my friend Yusuke in Tokyo who knew I was in Fukuyama somewhere with somebody named Yochan. The police managed to find his birth records, even though he had changed his name to Momotani to escape the yakuza, and located his house. When he wasn’t there, they found his sister’s address. I was engrossed in the job of tying bamboo scaffolding together, helping Yochan build his mother a house, when a policeman rode up on a motor scooter. He was looking for me. “You need to call your friend Yusuke in Tokyo,” he said. No further explanation. He just delivered his message and rode off.
When I got the news that my mother had died and called my sister, I asked her whether it was necessary for me to come home. It was a real question. My mother and I had become quite estranged since she wrote me how proud she was that “all three McCornick boys were wearing the uniform of their country.” I wrote back that if she said anything that stupid ever again I’d return all her mail unopened. “Yes, come home,” my sister said, and I borrowed the money and stopped over in San Francisco to get a suit on this long trek from Hiroshima to Tokyo to Hartford, Connecticut to do this funeral thing.
Harriet met me at the airport, with a long embrace and with tears in her eyes. She had never heard me say anything good about my mother. This was the seventies, but we were still living the sixties. We were young, we didn’t trust anybody over 30, even though we were by now 35 ourselves, and we sure as hell did not want to be dictated to by the absurd practices of our incompetent parents. What the hell was Harriet going on about, I wondered. “She’s still your mother,” she said, and the tears suddenly started down my cheeks. How the hell did she know to say that? Where did that insight come from?
I had never seen my father so sobered. Almost zombie-like, he went through the motions. My sister had made all the funeral arrangements. My mother would be buried next to her mother on a hillside in Torrington, Connecticut, just half a mile from where I was born. And Grandfather Number 2, the one whose line connected me to my Aunt Frieda in Berlin, the person who had taken over the task of keeping alive my belief that old ladies were the main source of love, savory and dill, and a pride in German culture. For perhaps the first time since I left them behind, I began to see them not merely as folks to provide me with mistakes to learn from, but as part of a structured life that I could hold myself up with, if I wanted to. I didn’t, but I saw that I could.
At the funeral, my father took the first chair; I took the second next to my mother’s coffin. My sister took the third. Next to her came her son, then her daughter, then her husband. After that came my father’s older brother, then his younger brother. As we sat there and watched the town stream in, I became fascinated with this sense of order. Where did it all come from? Nobody had told these people where to sit. How come there was such a sense of hierarchy here and nobody needed coaxing. Then I became aware that the people streaming past the coffin were old familiar faces. I had not seen many of them in twenty years, but when they came close it was I who whispered to my father, “That’s Mrs. Crandlemeyer; that’s mom’s friend Vickie she used to work with at the hosiery; that’s Mrs. Sweet’s oldest daughter, the one who used to live in the house at the end of Walnut Street.”
My nephew and niece got bored quickly. My mother looked ridiculous. She had mascara and red lipstick on and her cheeks were rouged. She never made her face up like that and would have been horrified. It was a travesty, but nobody apparently knew how to counter the artwork of the mortician. Funeral director, I believe he called himself. Undertaker, I insisted on calling him even after he pursed his lips into an admonishing silent “No, no,” and wagged his finger at my insult. It wasn’t a time to argue, so I compromised with mortician. He didn’t think it was a compromise, but he realized I was going to be difficult and became part of the furniture without making a sound.
“Doesn’t she look beautiful,” somebody commented. “She looks like a tart,” I thought. And then my nephew says suddenly, “She looks more like silly putty.” “Joey!” my sister shouts, and he knows not to push it. Then my ten-year old niece runs out of the room and my sister goes after her. My niece is upset, it turns out, because she thinks my mother is going to hell. She had heard my sister talking about my mother’s resistance to being born again. I suddenly find some more respect for this cold tarted up lady who was my mother, and I feel an anger welling up in me over what I’m inclined to think of as child abuse. Goddam Christians. They really know how to fuck up a funeral.
The days of sitting and waking pass and we ride through town with the lights on to the cemetery. The grave is dug, the canopy is set up and we do the last bit at the grave. I wonder if we are going to drop dirt on the coffin. I’ve been living abroad and forget this is an American scene. The service ends and we all say goodbye to the coffin. My sister and I linger. She wants to know about my grandfather. She was only a year old when he died and even though I was only six myself, she somehow expects me to have memories of him. I do, actually, and we stand at my mother’s grave with a six-year-old’s reminiscences and suddenly two guys in overalls start cranking my mother’s coffin down into the ground. “Sorry,” says Morticio, whose job in this small town apparently extends to the cemetery, “you weren’t supposed to see that.”
I wanted to go peer into the grave, maybe even shout out “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well.” It’s a dumb thing that makes no sense to anyone, but I doubt they would have laughed even at a good joke. It wasn’t the place. Death, it was perfectly clear to me, was both completely sanitary and completely dull and humorless.
My experience, all of it, from the town in Hiroshima prefecture to the gravediggers’ impatience, made clear how out of touch I am with death and dying. I marvel at each piece of it, at the efforts the Japanese bureaucracy go to locate family, at Harriet’s wisdom at seeing through the surface of things, at the order that people reach out for, the ritual familiarity and how it helps them to manage grief. I stop sneering at flowers and condolences as empty gestures. In fact, I now appreciate having rules to follow and things to do. I become aware that my reaction to each death is different, that the reaction reflects my relationships. All obvious things, it strikes me now, once you give them the least bit of thought, but I had to learn them like a child learns to walk.
Death was less of a stranger, but it still was not something I could understand. For that to happen, it took the AIDS crisis. Probably because I hated Reagan so much and he was doing such a nasty number of avoiding the national crisis and gay bashing all at once, I got actively incensed and needed to do something. So I went to the AIDS March on Washington. I didn’t have it in me to volunteer for one of the hospice organizations, or otherwise do front line work with people with AIDS, but I could add my body to the numbers making their presence felt in Washington. I was prepared to be counted. But I was not prepared for what I would learn there.
My friends and I went our separate ways much of the time, and I wandered about Washington alone. The quilt had been laid out across from the White House and I wandered in to a reading of the names. I sat down on the grass, not knowing what else to do, and I listened as one by one people would come up and read a list of ten names, always ending with something like, “And my beloved brother Paul. I will never ever forget you.” Or “And my son Johnny, the most precious gift God ever gave me.”
I had been to the Gay March on Washington in 1979, and I hadn’t given any thought at all to the possibility this might be anything other than a repeat event. We were still in the mindset which made us see AIDS as a gay-related phenomenon – it wasn’t long before that it was called a gay-related syndrome. But these people weren’t gay! They were overwhelmingly straight, in fact, these people who were grieving for gay “victims” of a sinful disease. It was then still mainly gay people dying, at least in America, and it still took a supreme effort to shake off the construction of a sex-related disease as a sin-related disease.
But the thought was a flash of new knowledge for me. Mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and colleagues and friends of gay people, the majority of them reflecting the majority population. Instead of being assuaged by being directed into social action, my anger surged as I realized the degree of the stupidity abroad. The folly of politicians calling this a gay disease. The suffering was widespread. It was like being on a battlefield after a massacre, and there were greater numbers of wounded among families and friends than among the designated victims. Death was every bit as much about them as it was about the individual sick and dying. The political solution was to isolate the victims and create an illusion that the numbers were too small for alarm. But this would only work if we were isolated individuals. We are not. We live in families and we share our fates.
Nothing ever made me feel closer to the gay community than those days in Washington looking at the suffering of straight people. I got a look at the divide-and-conquer mechanism used by practical minded politicians for diminishing responsibility, and an equally good look at the solution. Gay people – or anybody else, for that matter – needed to insist (some would do it loudly and in your face, some quietly) that we live in families, that our families are chosen, that it does not matter whether we choose to include members of groups we are born into or others, only that we choose our families and accept that we can’t live without them. Without them we wither and die; with them, death loses some of its sting.
This is a hard lesson for me. I didn’t fit as a kid in my natural family. I didn’t fit anyplace very well. My father was a hunter who took me hunting at the age of four and thought it was a joke that I cried when he killed a deer in front of me. My friends’ idea of a good time was getting a look up girls’ dresses, mine was studying grammar. They wanted to go fishing; I wanted to sing in the choir. In time, I firmed up an early conviction that I would live in this world alone. I was my own American dream: the arch individualist who forged a life and made himself distinctive. I didn’t need anybody else.
I would get no training at an early age in how to live with others. I could be polite, but I couldn’t share my life very well. There was another taboo, besides the taboo against looking at death, and that was becoming too emotionally involved with friends of the same sex. When I realized I was passionately in love with one man after another, I had no way of coping with the strange repellant emotions.
Because the emotions were not socially acceptable, they were delayed until I was in the army, when I could control them no longer. I had had a crush on Tom D’Amore in high school, but I could only tag along on his dates and listen to him think aloud about getting married at night, “…so we can go right to bed.” I did not know it was possible to act on same-sex feelings until I met Craig and admitted to him that I was in love with him.
Craig’s response was what I came to know as classic Craig. “If we do it, it will be good for you, but it won’t be good for me.” I still hadn’t learned not to fall in love with straight men. But I now had a friend who took me for what I was. It was only years later that I realized I had started my own chosen family with this man. At the time I only knew I wanted to be his friend forever.
I had another friend in the army in Berlin who I told this story to. “I guess I will never have anybody to love,” I told him. I love the Barbara Cartland feel of it all now, but then, I was speaking in dead seriousness. “Sure you will,” Merrill said, and he took me to my first gay bar. I didn’t want the guys in the bar; I wanted Merrill. How come when I finally fall in love with a gay guy, he doesn’t want me either!? Just not my type, he would say, and then grin and let me know we would always be around for each other. My family was growing.
Merrill and I would later become roommates in San Francisco. He and Craig were only two members of the Berlin world; there were others, including Jerry, now also firmly a member of my lifelong family. Merrill was out of the closet and back in again alternatingly until one day when he went to his brother’s house in Texas, took his brother’s rifle while the family was at church, and blew his brains out.
No reason given. His sister’s explanation was “a combination of drugs and the Mormon Church,” but we didn’t know for sure. To add salt to the wound, he killed himself on Harriet’s birthday and for ten years afterwards we avoided mention of the horror. When we did talk it out, it was clear we were still filled with anger. How could he do this to us? He clearly did not know what this would do to all of us, or could not afford the luxury of caring. But it devastated everybody who knew him. I have never seen his sister since. “Don’t call me,” she said. “I will not be able to watch you over the years without seeing what Merrill might have become.” I have lost track of her, but am thinking increasingly about going to Ogden, Utah, to see if I can find her. To tell her again how much her brother, whom she raised as a child, mattered to me. How glad I was that he had become family to me, even if it was only five or six years.
The anger took at least ten years to dissipate, and I had a hard time understanding why. I think I know now that it is because I have embraced the notion that my life is not lived in isolation, but that it is inextricably interlaced with the lives of others in my chosen family. This admission must make me a fool to those for whom this worldview was never questioned, but I was born at a time and in a place where being your own man, doing your own thing, doing it “my way,” finding yourself, and similar expressions of the value of the individual pepper the rhetoric that informs us of the meanings of life, where television ads tell you to spend a little more on yourself “because you’re worth it,” and appeal to the part of you that is “uniquely you.” Like the taboos against being homosexual and against facing death head on, the taboo against admitting a need for others has been a strong one. Love songs go on about not being able to live without love, but the word in my subculture corner of the American way of life is that only fools and children really believe that.
I am no longer sixteen and death is no longer a stranger. Death has now swung in closer. It is striking me at the level of my own chosen family and where once death was inconceivable, avoiding death is now inconceivable. It is here to stay. It has joined the family at the table, and is not going to leave the house anymore. I’ve reached the place in life the old folks all knew when I was a kid and kept from me. I’m determined to make peace with it. Like any other potential enemy, it is easy to see my own virtue growing as I arm myself to fight it, and to recoil in shame and horror at the apparent cowardice of surrender, but its increasing familiarity is having another effect. It is shaking loose many preconceived notions of the order of things.
Growing up gay can kill you if you let the homophobes into your psyche. If you allow them to teach you self-hatred and buy into a worldview that suggests those who seek your destruction are justifiably in authority over you. If it doesn’t kill you, it can teach you to appreciate the absurd and laugh at the world in its folly. To laugh at fundamentalist arrogance and play creatively with the roles your are given and told to take seriously.
Growing up in a Republican household with the narrative of carving out a great nation in the wilderness can make you lose sight of the facts of American genocide and slavery. And growing up in the fear and denial of death can make you believe you must fight it with all your might. But the blessing of age is the time to come to your senses and throw away the lies. Knowing, not truth – that’s too hard – but what is true includes knowing that it matters not how you love but that you love; it includes knowing that Americans, among others, have savaged the world, but the opportunity remains if we take it to learn from history. And it involves knowing that death can join the family, sit up at the table, and be a friend.
Craig died suddenly of a heart attack five years ago this November. Jerry called me and sobbed into the phone, “Craig’s dead,” and I hung up, threw some clothes into a bag and flew home from Japan to Berkeley before any of the other out-of-town guests got there. It was an instinctive reaction. A call to be answered instantly, without question.
From a place of relative quiet, I was thrown into a world of people I had known for years as friends and chosen family. Not the family of my parents in the town of my birth this time, but the one I have made with others in response to love and caring and a mutual sense of belonging in the world. Craig and Harriet had become the center of my universe, and it was the place to be. Harriet and Amy would now go it alone; Amy had just left for college in New York and Craig and Harriet were putting together a new life they hoped would be like the old one when they were first in love, long before Amy came along. The timing seemed unusually cruel.
There were other pieces of the story which challenged out ability to bear the loss. Craig’s mother is still alive and despite their ages making us realize the pain a parent feels when losing a child. But without a whole lot of thought, the weekend after Craig died, a party got put together at the house, and the house filled, as it had so many times before, with good food, with wine and champagne, and the sound of familiar voices and laughter. We stood around the table and told stories. Everybody who talked had a memory, and the depiction of Craig struck us all as both familiar and original. We were each hearing pieces of his life we had not known before, and together we were putting together a holographic picture of a man we could not generate alone. It took the collective to get at the whole of him. The energy was electric, and we waited with greater and greater eagerness for the next story.
Last Christmas, Harriet had the usual suspects to dinner. It took two tables and trays all over the living room to get us all in, but we had a tradition now established over nearly three decades of putting the family together in this way at every opportunity. As we were toasting each other, the occasion and the memories, Amy suddenly spoke up. “Does anybody mind if I drink a toast to my father?”
“To Craig,” we said, and we started the story-telling again. And again it struck me that no matter how much my own memories of him matter to me, how I treasure this man who died too young on me, that I cannot construct the picture that we can construct if we put our experiences together. Craig came alive again that night. Amy learned more about her father, she said, than she had expected. But so had we, who knew him longer.
On April 7 of this year, the phone rang one morning. It was Harriet. “I have lung cancer,” she said. She didn’t say the words, but I heard them. “I’m dying.”
Too much. Too much. My apartment isn’t big enough to handle this information. I pace and lie down and get up and pace again. I get on the phone and the connections start with the family. Harriet goes into the hospital. More phone calls. E-mail messages become the center of my life. Harriet begins to fail precipitously, and I decide to fly home. There is little I can do; I’m not going for her, I think, but for me. But I can’t stay here. I can’t face getting up at 7 and going to the phone for the latest report, reading the e-mail and grasping for understanding of what happens with pleuralcentisis, and getting a crash course on the effects of steroids, and learning what it means when hospice agrees to accept your case.
I find myself wondering whether to go home. Should I wait till she dies? I can’t afford to fly home twice, I think. Do I go back now to say good-bye? How do I say good-bye if she lives another six months? My head fills with this and similar nonsense and I go off on an overnight trip with a colleague and 22 freshmen kids – my annual exercise in pain and anguish which justifies taking my salary without ever doubting that I earn it. “I’m having a hard time,” I tell him. “I don’t know when to go home!” “That’s easy,” he says. “You go home now. Leave right now. I’ll take the kids from here. Just go.”
Where did he get this wisdom? How come I didn’t know this was the right answer? What happens to the head that makes you do things as if you had had a seizure. As if your brain had simply shut down. I didn’t leave that very night, but I did the next morning.
By the time I got home, the caring troops were well in place. Amy was taking charge. Michael and Carla were worried Amy was too young for this responsibility and might not do it right; Amy was being firm but worrying about not being able to keep it up. There was every opportunity for the camp that was into accepting the impending death and focusing on care to come to blows with the camp that felt giving up on life too soon was a betrayal, but it didn’t happen. There was a remarkable lack of friction and the caring attitude prevailed.
Gigi was there when I arrived. Then Marta. Then Elly. Then Valerie. Carla was trying to put some structure on the evolving reality that Harriet was dying but not immediately and we could not go on depending on volunteers to sit by the bedside; we needed full time caretakers. Then Monique. Jane and Paul stayed up all night. In between were Harriet’s sisters Neel and Lizanne. Harriet’s mother was there alternatingly attempting to direct the troops and being ignored and making the troops feel the pain, once more, of a parent losing a child. Friends from the Ecole Bilingue, from work, from thirty years of living in town. Neighbors. Former friends. Would be friends. Sometimes it felt we would be overwhelmed. We worked out a way to limit the visitors and to limit their length of stay. All a massive exercise in management of bodies and minds. I saw a job and snatched it up. I could go with Harriet every day in the ambulance to her radiation treatment, and eventually joined with the others at the hospital in the waiting room, watching how they, like me, would reveal we were dealing with death but acting as if the tomorrows would keep coming.
Anthony came over and showed us how an Italian housewife can put any kitchen back together in no time. Jerry took up the responsibility of feeding the troops. Dov came. Harriet sent him back for the baby. “Cancer isn’t catching,” she says. Sharmon and Luis come and take Amy to the theater; others do the same to relieve her of the unrelenting responsibility for caring. She’s young; it’s all new. But she wants to do it and we are learning how to let her do it.
The stress overwhelms her at times but she always regains control. There are moments to reflect on what’s happening, and we bring up the question of talking directly about death. Luis suggests to me that we ought to “talk about death in the presence of death,” as he puts it, but when he comes to see Harriet, they talk about how the plant on her dresser looks like a penis, Luis joking with her as he always did and Harriet using the opportunity to get risqué. She does it with the ambulance crew too. “Good girl,” one of them says to her, when she gets herself onto the guerney under her own power. “I wasn’t always a good girl,” she says to this beautiful man.
What are we to do? Do we take it as it comes? If so, we will never talk about death. Do we listen and let Harriet direct the tone and the talk? Loyalty to her and respect for her situation seems to suggest that is the best course of action. But I am afraid we are missing something.
So I ask her. Finally I get a moment with her alone. Her mother is on the phone. “Harriet,” I say, “Is there anything we should be saying that we aren’t?” “So much to say,” she answers, “but there’s nothing we need to say.” I am relieved. She agrees with me. We’ve had thirty years to say things and apparently we have not held back. We don’t need to rush to finish. Our relationship is on-going. I don’t feel there is stuff I should have talked over with Craig. We did the best, I think, with the time we had. And I’m feeling the same sense of all-in-its-time with Harriet. All that’s left is to say good-bye. I will save that for the last day. And if I don’t say it, she will not be missing anything.
I’m putting the cart before the horse here. Actually, the day before I pulled Selena aside and asked her how I stop all the activity and talk with Harriet about the fact that she is dying. “Why don’t you go inside yourself,” she suggests, “and find out exactly what it is you need to say. Then maybe you’ll find a way to say it.” It only took a second. It came with a rush of tears. I don’t need to say anything, I realized. But I do want to reassure her – I don’t think I can say this often enough; it’s something she so much wants to hear – but whenever Amy opens my front door, she’s home. I say it to her, then, just as her mother is getting off the phone, and it’s done. Now we are done.
“Why was I so lucky?” Amy asks me. “My parents were such good parents and they’re dying young. It’s as if they had to get in all the goodness in a short time, so they did.” It’s one of those delightful things people say sometimes, a little gift of a remark. Totally illogical. So easy to contradict, to laugh off. And so good to hear. We are talking about death, now, and its imminence. In time, we are even joking about it.
Harriet is on steroids and they, the morphine, or the brain tumor are making her hallucinate. She talks to people who aren’t there, fades in an out of conversations. “My mind isn’t right, is it?” she says to me one day while waiting for the ambulance to take us home from the radiation center. “I’m goofy, aren’t I?” “My word has been dingy,” I tell her and we both smile.
At first I was terrified of looking at her frail body. I remember the terror that looking at my once powerful father raised in me as I saw what looked like a survivor from Auschwitz. When I got off the plane from Tokyo and went to see Harriet for the first time, I delayed for two hours, in fear I would see her like that. She was thin and her eyes were wild. I was afraid to touch her. But eventually I did, and the fear went away. The next hurdle was dealing with dementia. I’ll never handle that, I thought. But now here we were making jokes about what to call it. And when the time came to go, I went into her room and said, “I have to leave.” “I don’t want you to leave.” “I know, but I have to.” We both cried a bit, hugged and said we loved each other. I told her how much she mattered to me. “I want to give you something to take back,” she said. “But they won’t let you take flowers in, will they?” “No. And all I want I’ve already got, I told her. The thirty years of memories.” “That’s not enough,” she said. “It’s enough,” I insisted. And I said good-bye.
I left and went back to Japan on a high. A sense I’d participated in the dying, had spent my time with her and with all the other caretakers, and it was time to let it happen. It was difficult to remember that she was still alive, that the other caretakers were still there with her and they were going now to watch her get worse before she died. I was conscious of how I kept making this my event, and not hers, and not theirs. But I think now that I have to make it my event. To do otherwise is to bury the impact of this loss on me in some trivial detail of the process and in an insincere self-sacrifice.
To counter this selfishness, I am trying to convince the other caring members of the community for whom this event is now central in their lives to do the same. It is Amy’s event. She lost one parent as she started college, is losing the other just before finishing. It is Carla’s event. Harriet was her best friend. Carla lost her father and then her mother in the last year, and now her best friend. Carla has to mourn openly and loudly if the pain is not to overwhelm her. It’s Harriet’s mother’s event. I have resented this woman’s inclination to make all events her events, but I cannot deny this is indeed her event.
Like the creation of a reality larger than any of us alone can make reconstructing Craig at Christmas, this event is happening to us collectively, and the sense of belonging washes over us all. Even in America, it appears, the community picks up the significance and the significance is in the community of sufferers.
Once years ago I came to the terrible realization that my lover of the time and I were in our last days of a relationship when I said to him, without any prior reflection, “You know when I’m with Craig and Harriet, or Luis and Sharmon, or with others I call my family, I always come away feeling smarter, better looking, and more interesting than I believe I actually am. With you, I feel less than I believe I am.” I’ve remembered the formula. I stick now with people who bring out the best in me. This latest encounter with death is turning out to be a good one, not because I don’t mourn the loss of a member of my immediate family, but because it draws out in sharp relief the ways I matter to life and the ways life matters to me. When I was just starting out, I toyed with the thought of suicide. Life was too much to bear. Not now, and I doubt ever again. Such pain as I feel now can only come because there is so much I care for. The pain marks the boundaries of things worth living for, and to care this much for people is to value life itself. I’ve never felt more alive.
February 27, 1999