Farewell, My Love|
So here's an interesting tidbit: I'm thirty-three years old and have never known anyone who died.
Really. My grandfather died six months before I was born, and all of my extant relatives have survived, unchecked, for as long as I've been alive. That's better than twenty people, some pretty damn old, surviving over thirty years without a stutter. Only one of my friends cacked off - and he was an acquaintance who died of a heroin overdose in Mexico.
That's an amazing run - but I know how statistics work. The thin end of the bell curve gets handed to someone, and that man is me. My experiences in all other aspects of life run deep; I've known hundreds of people intimately, I think I have a pretty vast cross-section of life within me...
But I've never seen death. And when I went back home for Thanksgiving and found myself cloaked in it, I realized how little I knew.
My uncle is shrinking.
Now, you have to understand how much my Uncle Tommy means to me; when I was growing up, he was essentially my father, but without all the responsibility attached to the role. My parents were having traumatic upheaval during the first eleven years of my life as the corpse of their marriage stopped twitching and began to cool on the slab - and Tommy was the one who picked up the slack.
My father says that he spent time with me as a child, but I don't really remember that; I remember Tommy, stick-thin and dressed in blue jeans and godawful Dexter-style plastic glasses that I only liked because they were, well, Tommy. I remember Tommy buying me comics at the Corner Store. Lots of comics. (I was a Spider-Man fan; Tommy preferred Archie and Veronica.) I remember him bringing me into New York when he went drinking with his friends - the long car rides there, talking about anything I wanted, and then him giving me a roll full of quarters to play Donkey Kong Jr. on the tabletop machine at the bar while he drank and tried to pick up chicks.
I remember Tommy and I, bored in the middle of a raging hurricane that was dousing the East Coast, walking out in the storm to go buy some comics from the Corner Store because it was something to do. The two of us slogged through literal rivers of runoff water that came up to my knees, whooping and hollering as the rain pelted us so hard that it stung like bees, and finally opening the door in complete triumph, so waterlogged we actually left about a gallon of water on the floor, revealing a surprised clerk looking up from a National Enquirer.
We bought comics. And somehow, we kept them dry on the way back.
Tommy got me my first date, in New York. Tommy was always willing to lend an ear when I wanted to talk, but could be quiet when I needed simple silence and the drone of MTV. Tommy always had a good word; he wasn't always right, particularly when it came to matters of the heart - that was Mom's domain - but he knew people. He did well. He warned me about drugs.
When I sucked my first (and only) dick in a moment of orgy-fueled experimentation and felt the immediate wave of panic that came after it - fuck, people get beaten for being gay, what would they say if they knew? - Tommy was the only person I told about it. Because he was the only person who deserved to know.
When I'm raising Erin and Amy, I'm not trying to be their father; in a very large sense, I don't know how. I'm trying to be Tommy.
And there's one other thing that you should know about Tommy; he's a hemophiliac. His blood? Doesn't clot - well, it does, but slowly. He gets terrible bruises at the slightest bumps. The blood that's leaked into his joints has eroded his cartilage; imagine a dry car, not a drop of oil anywhere in it, clanking and grinding along a bumpy road. When he was 35, he had the crippling arthritis of an 85-year-old; he's about 55 now.
I don't think there's a comparison for what Tommy goes through. Daily.
On one night in New York, Tommy and I had a deep discussion; it was the night he told me that he had gotten AIDS from a perfectly normal blood transfusion, before they'd started checking for it. (I had known he had something for about two years, and suspected it was AIDS, but they were trying to shield me - but I knew about AIDS long before it became public knowledge, thanks to my continual book reports on hemophilia. I believe that I may well have been the first child in history to insult someone by telling them they had AIDS, way back in 1981 when I was in fifth grade - needless to say, they didn't get the insult, which was probably for the best.)
Anyway. We stayed in a hotel, one of those nights where you drink down beer by the gallon but it never seems to affect you because you're talking. And I got a glimpse of Tommy's life that's never worn off:
Imagine living your entire life, having just one year to live.
That's what it was like for Tommy; hemophilia was deadly in the 1940s and pretty much meant you were morguefood within a year... But Tommy rode the curve of medical advances like a champ. Just when he was about to succumb to something that was going to do him in, new technology found an answer to keep him afloat.
It wasn't cheap; my grandmother's scrapbooks are filled with yellowed newspaper scraps of local celebrities holding Tommy aloft, usually in cowboy outfits - he loved cowboy flicks - at fundraisers for "Little Tommy Lucas." He was a poster boy, but the poster lied.
He spent about a third of his life in the hospital. Every time he fell off a swing, he'd get a three-day ER stay. Tommy got so good at taking injections that eventually, at ten years' old, the nurses began to come to Tommy asking him for lessons. He was ushered into the children's ward where he lovingly slid needles, painlessly, into the veins of quaking children.
They were scared. Tommy wasn't. He was there all the time.
Just as advances in cryogenic blood storage caught up with him, he got AIDS from a bad bag - and then, just as AIDS got to be treatable (though not easily), he caught hepatitis.
Uncle Tom has never expected to be alive for his next birthday. Not one birthday in fifty-five years.
Try to put yourself in those shoes. You fucking can't. Nobody can.
And when it turned out he had AIDS - and remember, this was in the first flurry of AIDS hysteria, when nobody really knew how you got it, condoms weren't necessarily safe but toilet seats and kissing could mean AIDS death, when celebrities filed lawsuits to prevent anyone knowing that they had it - Tommy withdrew gracefully from the dating scene, giving up a fairly fulfilling life to quietly exit in peace.
That was twenty years ago.
He's been waiting, quietly, ever since, his living room a slow coffin. And it's killing me.
You see, Tommy taught me how to fight. I grew up a lemming; I was slapped around by kids, too nervous to date, too unfocused to do well in school despite my prodigious intellect. Tommy was the one who inspired me - who taught me that you just didn't give in. You fucking fight it, all the way down the line. It doesn't matter what you're facing - you have to at least try to stand up to it, at least if you wanna keep your self-respect.
Tommy isn't the same man I knew.
He's content to sit in his living room with my dying grandmother - and she's fought the good fight for as long as I can remember, but is slowly riding the pine now - taking care of each other, ticking off the days until he dies. He doesn't do anything. He has no interests. He has no friends, no connections. He's been that way for fifteen years now, and his condition is as stable as his silent deathwish is.
It hurts to know that when my uncle dies, the only hole he will leave is in my heart.
He deserves so much more.
And he's not happy. I know this. I see him, and I see that quiet despair on his face - that face that used to be so animated with life, and which comes briefly and maddeningly alive when I talk to him sometimes - as he watches the television, a steam engine banked and stored neatly away.
And two days before Thanksgiving, we had a fight. It wasn't a big one - maybe two minutes' total, and nobody screamed - but it was huge; a subtle earthquake.
The issue was this: I gave Tommy my LiveJournal address - the only one in my family who got that privilege - and it turns out that he's never been. Why? Because his knees are so shot that he can't go downstairs, where his PC is.
Fine, said I. I'll move your computer upstairs. I'll even buy you a desk for it - that's a good Christmas present, right?
Wrong. Tommy didn't want it upstairs. He thought it would be ugly - and on a deeper level, I think he knew what I was trying to do. If the computer was up there, he'd have no excuse for not writing to me, for avoiding the way that I would get him to forge connections with others, and trying to get another community.
There I was, offering to share with him the intimacy that he'd said he missed with me - my most private writings. My deepest thoughts; the ones I can share with strangers and close friends, but no one in between.
He said that the internet was crap, that you could never know anybody on it - hello? Gini? - and the phone was worthless, too.
Then what do you have, Tommy? You have a fine excuse to sit in here in rot. I said that, and walked out, too pissed to even hug my ferret goodnight.
I seriously thought about handing my uncle an ultimatum: Either try to find some support group so you don't sit here in quiet despair, or I go. Steamed and confused, I walked next door to my mother's house, where I was staying.
Gini and my mother screamed at me for a very long time, telling me how selfish and naïve I was. "You're just making him uncomfortable," they said. "He wants to be there. What you want is the old Tommy back. That's not happening. What the fuck is he going to fight for? He's going to die soon. He doesn't have anything left!"
The argument was, essentially, he's made up his mind. Support him. Tell him you love him. Anything else will just make him miserable.
How can I do that when this is the man who taught me that life was worth it? That I could have - and deserve - more?
And you know, to a large extent both my mom and my wife are full of shit.
Tommy's on the verge of death only because he chooses to be there. There is a large amount of self-fulfilling prophecy there; yes, he is in horrible, soul-killing pain, and yes, he's in bad shape... But he could live for another twenty years if he wanted. He's banged up, but he's got a couple of miles left for him.
But ever since he pulled away from humanity almost fifteen years ago, he's isolated himself. He doesn't have anyone to touch him - and he doesn't want anyone to, because he's grumpy and hell, he's gonna die, so why bother? Tommy, my favorite uncle and possibly my favorite person in the whole world (he can battle it out with Gini and Bryan later), has put himself in the worst place he can be:
He's made himself helpless.
Gini and Mom say that he has no other choice, that when you have so little left you might as well not try any more - and that's fucked up. You always have a choice. That's what Tommy taught me. By that standard, I could still be in emotional high school, trembling at the opinions of others and waiting for that trip in the hallway.
They say he's close to death, and I don't know what it's like. That I can't judge him because I'm not in his shoes. And you know, that's always a convinenient excuse, isn't it? I've discussed the concept of "You can't judge me! You don't know me!" before, and hopefully blown it to pieces.
No, I've never been in soulkilling pain before - and I admit it probably makes things a lot tougher. On the other hand, you've never walked in my shoes of affective seasonal disorder... And I hope that if I ever start using that as an excuse to do fucking nothing, that you do blow my goddamned head off. You've never been in the marriage I was in with Gini - and I could have used that as an excuse to blow her off, right? I've been a thousand places that you've never been...
But in the end, there are choices that make you happy and choices that make you miserable.
Circumstances don't matter. Choices do.
Travel far or travel short, but you can always find a circumstance, unique to only you and your life, that you can use as an excuse to stay miserable. Because it's comfortable.
Rage, rage, my friends - it's all we have.
But the argument they did use - which is a valid one - is that I'm not going to change Tommy's mind....And wow, is that true. Years of living under the shadow (if not the fear) of death have made Tommy the stubbornest man alive: Why should I listen to you? Fuck you, I'll be dead in a year. They say that all I'll do is make him even more miserable as he digs his own grave with a spork, one tiny spoonful at a time.
And that is the correct choice. If I can't change his mind and make him better, I can at least not fuck up his life more.
So that's what I'm doing: Watching my uncle die. Watching my uncle be lonely. Watching him reap the fruits of the decision he made fifteen years ago - to isolate himself and wait for a death that, like a New York train, is always a little later than you'd think.
If he had made the choice fifteen years ago, back when it was still salvageable, that he was going to live until he died, he could be truly happy. He could still have friends. He could still go out. He could still be alive...
But he's told himself that he doesn't want that. He's settled. And worse, he's convinced himself that there are no other choices - that this is the only way things can be. He's built his cage, and he'll never break out.
And the sad thing is that he might live another fifteen years like this. Fifteen years ago, Gini and my mother would have been screaming at me for the exact same reason - "He has AIDS! It's incurable! What does he have left?" - except that the real horror is that none of us really know when we're going to die. Tommy had fifteen years left. Those fifteen years are gone, the potential inherent in them given up like the wrists of a suicide.
Tommy gave up hope at the wrong time.
Tommy's not really sad, but he'll never really be happy, either. He's chosen the comfort of a man in a snowbank, settling down and feeling sleepy as that tempting death by ice sinks in. It's not the worst way to go.
But I find that a terrible, terrible loss. He doesn't. And that makes me even sadder.
So I'll hold my uncle's hand, and I'll talk to him, and I'll tell him I love him - because I do. I'll watch him slowly suffocate, because that's the deepest form of love I have - the acceptance of resignation. Watching someone go down a path, a path that you would do anything to get them off of - and yet still staying by their side, because you love them, and it will be worse without you.
I love you. All of you. And I hope that somewhere, you know that you'll always be the truest love that I've ever had.
Current Music: Silence. Just... Silence.