I first posted this essay five years ago and I’m posting it again, as this day marks the 25th anniversary of the death of one my closest friends at the time. It’s hard to believe so much time has passed – a quarter century. Now my father is gone, and my mother may not be far behind. Other people – friends, acquaintances, coworkers, etc. – have come and gone as well. That’s to be expected from living more than fifty years on Earth.
There are those moments or events that settle into our lives, take root in our minds and never leave. For me this is one such event.
September 12th fell on a Sunday in 1993, and I was sick. I lay in bed that night, listless and fatigued, when the phone rang at 10:12 P.M. Curiously, I hadn’t turned on the answering machine, as I always did before going to bed. But, I knew who lingered on the other end – even before I answered. It was Linda*, the mother of one of my best friends, Daniel.
“He’s gone,” she whispered, her voice raspy and quivering. She’d walked into his bedroom earlier that evening and found him with his eyes half-open.
We talked for quite a while, although I don’t remember all that was said. But, I do recall telling her, “It’s over. It’s finally over.” Then, I went to sleep. But, I wasn’t sad. In fact, I was – not happy – but relieved. Daniel had stopped suffering – and maybe so would his mother.
That night, though, I wondered why I was so sick. Just allergies, I kept thinking; that’s all it was. I’d realized years earlier how my allergies usually coincided with the Atlantic / Caribbean hurricane season, becoming most severe in August and September. In reality, it’s the change from summer to autumn, when mountain cedar and ragweed blossom with impunity. But, I have this obsession – almost a fetish – with tropical storm systems, so I make that odd comparison. Yet, that year was different. The infection seemed to have settled in my stomach, instead of my sinuses.
I’d felt fine the preceding weekend. I’d visited Daniel and Linda that Monday, Labor Day. I gave Daniel a much-needed bath and shave, trimmed his nails and put him back to bed. I also vacuumed and mopped the kitchen floor. I chatted with Linda for a while. Her hands trembled, as she sat on a couch; as much from growing arthritis as dealing with Daniel.
“I don’t know how much longer I can go on,” she mumbled, staring at the floor.
“You’ll make it,” I said, trying to reassure her. What else could I say?
I’d met Daniel at birthday party for a mutual friend four years earlier. We were two completely different people, but had a few things in common: dogs, cars and rock n’ roll. Like me, he also had been born and raised in the Dallas area. He was the third of four children to parents who were mixed Irish and Cherokee Indian extraction. He didn’t have a happy home life. When his father wasn’t working, sometimes six days a week, he was drinking booze; occasionally, he’d burst into drunken rages, a stereotypical drunk-ass Irishman or Indian and lash out at anyone nearby. Linda often bore the brunt of his attacks, until the night her oldest son lunged into his father. For Linda, that was the proverbial last straw; the catalyst that prompted her to pack up the kids and leave. By the time I met Daniel, his father had died.
As I’d planned, I took the day after Labor Day off from work. I visited my gym to lift weights, worked on a short story and partook in a Tae Kwon Do class that evening. The Tae Kwon Do session exhausted me, even though it wasn’t particularly intense. I thought nothing of it until the next night, when I returned to the gym and left after less than an hour. Fatigue settled over me like a ton of hot, wet blankets.
I awoke the next morning feeling awful; body aches and chills and a stomach that was churning like – well – like a hurricane. My supervisor sent me home just after noon. I sat near the building, waiting for the bus. The late summer sun warmed me up, and I stopped shivering. I felt well enough to stop by a fast food place on the way back to my apartment – and regurgitated the food that night. I stayed home the next day, but returned to work on Friday. I spent most of Saturday in bed; no energy, no strength. Damn allergies, I kept telling myself.
On Sunday, I visited my parents for lunch as usual. My father grilled steaks – their thick, juicy aromas wafting throughout the house, intermingling with the scent of the butter-saturated mashed potatoes my mother made. But, I couldn’t eat. I was still nauseous. My dad suggested I visit their family doctor, if I didn’t feel better by the next day. He even offered to pay, since my finances were strained at the time.
I had just purchased my truck six months earlier and was still paying off credit card bills for repairing my previous vehicle. I had health insurance at work – with a $1,000 deductible. I told them I’d be fine. It was just those goddamned allergies.
I had been anticipating that call from Linda for months. I knew somehow it would come at night. She called me because I was one of the last friends Daniel had remaining; one who didn’t turn his back on him. That’s just not my nature. I didn’t have many friends back then and I still don’t. But, the people I do consider friends mean a lot to me.
It’s amazing, though, the number of friends people lose when they fall on hard times – even when they become terminally ill. Some time in the 1970s, my mother’s hair dresser became seriously ill and had to be hospitalized. When my parents visited him, he mentioned they were among the few who’d made the effort. All the people who were quick to accept his party invitations where mounds of food and alcohol would be served were curiously absent as he lay in a hospital bed hooked up to an IV.
I think Daniel had known he was HIV for at least two years, but he didn’t start getting sick until the spring of 1992. By then, he was unemployed and uninsured; he could no longer afford his suburban Dallas apartment. In May, I and another friend moved him back into his mother’s home in another Dallas suburb. Daniel’s health deteriorated throughout that summer, but unexpectedly – almost miraculously – began rejuvenating by fall. He gained weight and color returned to his face. He actually looked pretty good when I spent Christmas Day with his family, including his two older siblings; younger sister, Andrea; sister-in-law; and a niece and nephew. I took a photo of them as they gathered around a couch; one that Linda placed on her refrigerator, beside another picture of her beloved mother.
We all thought – if only for a moment – he would make it. In less than six months, however, Daniel’s health began crumbling again. And, one by one, his gallery of friends slipped into anonymity.
I took my father up on his offer. After a cursory exam, the doctor stepped back into the room and asked, “Have you ever had hepatitis?”
“Well, I think that’s what you have.”
Hepatitis! If he had told me I was pregnant, I would have believed him sooner. Hepatitis! Wasn’t that an old world disease – like small pox or typhoid? No one got that shit anymore. But, that’s what I had – Hepatitis A, the contagious kind, and a particularly vicious strain of it, too. The doctor hospitalized me – almost against my will. I stayed there through the following Wednesday – the day they buried Daniel.
“Where’d you go?!” Linda cried that Wednesday night on the phone, a sense of betrayal coating her voice.
I told her what happened.
Her anguish shifted to empathy. “Why didn’t you call me?! I would’ve come visit you!”
“But, Daniel had just died, Linda. And, I was in the hospital.”
“But, you’re my other son!”
I had helped Daniel pick out his burial suit in the spring of 1992. He hadn’t bought a new suit in years. He must have scoured through a hundred of them before he latched onto that one. He zipped it up and stored it in the back of his closet, complete with a matching tie and a new white dress shirt. He was proud of the ensemble; he wanted to be buried in style.
“You are going to be a pallbearer,” he asked me, “aren’t you?”
“Of course,” I said. What a silly question.
Watching a loved one die and not being able to do anything about it is the most frustrating emotion anyone can ever experience. I’d seen cancer consume my Aunt Mariana, my mother’s older sister, a few years earlier. It just wouldn’t let her go, until one rainy Tuesday morning in June of 1989. She’d already known tragedy. Her first husband died in a freak car crash in 1968; practically leaving her to raise their six kids alone. In January of 1983, one of her daughters took her own life. Mariana had entered into a brief marriage with a man who – later on, as she fell ill – didn’t seem to understand she was in no mood for sex while undergoing chemotherapy. What, I beseeched God, did she ever do to deserve all that?
I asked God the same of Daniel and Linda. What did they ever do to bring this upon themselves? God remained silent. He / She always does. But, it made me angry nonetheless, and I finally just blurted out, “Fuck you, God!,” into my darkened bedroom.
Daniel was especially close to Andrea who’d completed nursing school about two years before he passed away. She had moved into an apartment complex across the street from him and became involved with a truck driver named Jimmy. Jimmy was part Cherokee, too, and unfortunately, fed into the stereotype of the same drunk-ass Indian as Daniel’s father. One night Jimmy returned to the apartment he shared with Andrea and attacked her. She managed to call Daniel before Jimmy snatched the phone from her. Daniel had been asleep, but donned a pair of exercise shorts, charged across the street and barreled into his sister’s apartment – where he beat Jimmy into a bloody, shriveling mess. The police took both of them to jail, but released Daniel almost immediately.
Recollecting what his father did to his mother, Daniel was unrepentant about Jimmy. “Now, he’s going to have to tell the guys in prison that an AIDS-infected fag beat his ass!”
In November of 1992, I happened upon the obituary for a guy I’d known in grade school. He was 29 and had died after a “brief illness” – code words, a friend told me, for AIDS. I revealed the true nature of Daniel’s death to only a select few people. Even in the early 1990s, the affliction bore a terrifying stigma. I told most everyone else – my parents, my colleagues – he’d succumbed to cancer. I just didn’t want my folks to worry anymore about me than necessary. My workplace, on the other hand, was populated with evangelical homophobes – the kind who preach forgiveness and compassion, but practice hate and bigotry.
Daniel always introduced me as a “true friend” to people he knew. I was embarrassed, since I felt I was doing nothing extraordinary. But, to Daniel, I was someone who gave my compassion and generosity, asking for nothing in return except trust and respect. I promised him I would stay with him through the end. And, I did – until the night he died.
For anyone who’s ever lost a relative or friend, there’s always something that triggers thoughts of that person; something relatively small and insignificant – a color, a sound…something that literally makes us stop and think about the better times we had together. In 1992, a group called Snap! came out with a song entitled “Rhythm Is a Dancer.” Both Daniel and I really liked that tune. We’d visited a nightclub together in late 1992 where the deejay played it. I don’t know what it is about that song, but it bridges a connection to Daniel and how good life was for me in the early 1990s. So, I listen to it now, and all the feelings of friendship and those carefree days flood my subconscious. It’s just one of those things that transport me to ‘Way Back When.’
Daniel had two dogs when he returned to his mother’s home – a male named Alan and a female named Veronica, both Lhasa Apsos. The male was fiercely protective of him. The female was spoiled; Daniel had the habit of carrying her wherever they went, instead of letting her walk. As Daniel’s health waned in the summer of 1993, he and his mother made the painful decision to turn them over to the local animal shelter. Two years after Daniel died I seriously thought of purchasing a dog and just happened to peruse the ads of the local newspaper for animals, when I saw a blurb about an “adorable white Lhasa Apso named Alan.” I almost fell off my easy chair. Is it…no, it couldn’t be! Surely, it’s not… I didn’t know what to think. I realized, though, that I couldn’t afford a dog at the time. I could only hope some good families adopted Alan and Veronica.
We measure the important events of our lives in the increments of time we know: one week, one year, five years, ten years. Seven weeks after Daniel died I turned 30. My colleagues at the bank bought me an ivy plant – which I still have – and treated me to lunch. They also bought me a mechanical red crab emblazoned with the words ‘30 AND STILL CRABBY.’ You wind it up and it marches along the surface in the standard sideways crab walk. I still have that crab, too, buried among my slew of possessions. In seven weeks I’ll turn 50. Life keeps moving, no matter who lives or dies.
I’ve always wondered why I never dreamed of Daniel. I didn’t expect his ghostly apparition to appear before me one dark and stormy night – albeit something like that wouldn’t have frightened me. But, I kept thinking he should at least visit me in a dream to tell me he’s alright. Or, I hoped he would – just for my own peace. Is he mad at me? Did he think that I’d abandoned him at the last moment? But then, I realized I’d never dreamed of my Aunt Mariana either. And, we were family. When I was a child, she’d sit me down at her dining room table and feed me. Was she mad at me, too?
No – of course not. I finally understood that I’ve never dreamed of them because they didn’t need me anymore; me or anyone else. They’ve gone on to another and hopefully better life. My job was done, as far as they’re concerned.
I did for Daniel what few people – friends or relatives – would do: I took care of him at the worst possible moments of his life. I bathed him, I fed him, I took him shopping for that suit, I gave him all the undivided love and attention I could muster. I even cared for his mother because her own body – racked with arthritis and emphysema – allowed her to do only so much. Some people do good just to send a get-well card.
September 12th fell on a Sunday in 1993, and I was sick. I couldn’t do anything about it then and I can’t do anything about it now. I did what I could for my friend – the first friend I’ve ever had who died. My last wish for him and everyone else who has gone before me is to know that they’re safe and happy.
I’ve finally convinced myself they are.
*All names have been changed.