würzburg (ghost of christmas past)

Würzburg, Germany, Christmas 1954.  I am nearly two years old and it appears that I am the New Year being ushered in or the steam heat in the apartment is out of control and everyone else not pictured is in their underwear too (my preferred version).   What strikes me about this photo is how much of my character is on display; the tilt of the head, the smile (pasted on for the camera, had I been screaming just before the bulb went off, we’ll never know); the provocative dishabille, the hand on the chest’s handle as if I might fall off at any moment or like the pony of my dreams it might gallop away with me astride.

And the tree off the floor, as if I were a pet that needed minding (not a cat, though, a table a cat’s domain as much as the floor,) you know it’s partly that and partly to make it fill the space and look like a proper tree and not as if it were the top lopped off a taller, more graciously proportioned one.  If you’ve ever been to our home for the holidays (when we were still decorating a tree,) it’s possible that you may have seen many of the ornaments that are adorning this pagan fetish.  My mother carefully wrapped each glass bauble and sparkle and the birds with the horse-hair feather tails in toilet paper (a ritual that has endured for as long as I can remember.)

What I wish I could retrieve are the actual memories of this time (or at least I think I would like that, it’s hard to say whether or not I would be prepared or willing to relive those times were it possible to dredge them up from the sandy bottom of my temporal lobe).  What would I learn?  It appears that I was loved and taken care of (please note the perfectly parted hair); I am not underfed, my eyes sparkle with the glint of the tinsel on the tree, but those are all outward signs of love and are now the only clues I have left to the actual events that passed for life in post-war Germany for American soldiers and their families.

But here in this photo we are in the mid-point of my parent’s marriage; is it the apex or the nadir?   Will there be moments, such as this one, where the love between them glimmers with the spirit of their first love?  My mother was 10 years older than my father and they both made a decision to bring me into their family (a rescue, if ever there were one — how thankful I still am these many years later.)  That was a gift, was it not?  An irrevocable gift, wrapped in love, tied off with the bow of family (however imperfect or small) tightly knotted at the top.




world a.i.d.s. day, december 1, 2016

This is how memory works.  One winter day, in February I believe, we were sitting in his room at Northwestern Hospital looking out at the cold Chicago winter sky, that slate gray, monochromatic wash that some mad set decorator had applied to absolutely everything, even the coats of the doormen at the Drake Hotel just down the street are bathed in it. That is the backdrop to our conversation.

He was in color, as I was, but the rest of the room was that sickly gray. Our heads are close together; he’s really struggling to breathe. You can hear the fluid gurgling in his lungs as he reaches up for air and it’s hard for him to speak out loud, so I’m sitting on the chair next to his bed, leaning in, my eyes memorizing the star pattern of his hospital gown and how skinny his arms look sticking out from the cap sleeves, pale and slightly cold to the touch. I had reached out to hold him with one hand and I notice that my blood is so close to the surface of the back of my hand that my pulse is throbbing in the veins coming down from my fingers, a tattoo of life so far away from his right now.  I can only look in his eyes for short periods—1/24th of a second, like a frame of film—and then I must look at anything else, the truth too hard to bear for any longer, its weight heavy, a lead apron trying to protect you from the x-planation, the reality.


Memory makes me an idiot.  I do not remember why I have this photo of him; he’s at O’Hare waiting for a plane to take him to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, one of his favorite times of year and a ritual for him and one that we never shared.  He would return days later, debauched and exhausted and vivid with detail.  Over several days, maybe even a few weeks, his time down there would be revealed in bits, in snatches, in pieces, in the car, on the ‘el’, at the bar.  But that hardly matters now; I look at this photo daily—it sits on my dresser—and I think about the leather motorcycle jacket that was as much a part of him as his skin and how much he loved sex.  I’m sure you’ve met them yourself, those men (gay or straight) who’s sole purpose in life is tending their sexuality.  He wasn’t brazen about it, you wouldn’t call him a slut (he was the soul of discretion) but he exuded sex, it seeped out of his pores and men (and women) couldn’t get enough of it. I believe this photograph helps me remember that vitality, that exuberance, that life.

It took me 2 and 1/2 years to settle his estate.  Not that I couldn’t have done it faster had I wanted to, but I was afraid that if I finished that legal process I would lose him forever. I could not let go, even when his family asked why it was taking so long, I would prevaricate or not answer at all.  Kindly, and thankfully, they did not press me, their love flame flickering in the wind.

He grabbed my wrist as he lay in the hospital bed and pulled me close to his lips so I could hear him “you are my executor,” he whispered/rasped/coughed into my ear.  I cried “you won’t die, we’ll save you,” but I knew that was not true.  I called his family in Nebraska and Texas, they made the journey to Chicago as soon as they had heard from me and stayed with us.  His widowed mother, his two sisters and brother-in-law: we had never met, but our love for Michael bonded us together, sharp like Velcro.

I wept for days.  I still do when the light is streaming in the windows and the wind is rustling the pine trees and the whoosh of cars fades down the canyon’s road bed.  He died with all of us around his bed, quietly quitting this life, he just stopped breathing.  I don’t know how I managed to arrange a funeral service (so many friends to contact, I asked some of our closer friends to make calls for me, it was all I could do.)  It took me a few days to find a funeral home that would handle the body and the cremation because of the nature of his death; my anger rising as I received one “I’m sorry we can’t assist you at this time,” after another.

We loved each other like brothers (as I imagine brothers would love each other; neither of us had one of our own, he with sisters, me alone.)  We fell together at our first meeting and were hardly apart (psychically) for the next 12 years.  We never lived together, we never had sex (so common among our circle) we just enjoyed one another’s company completely and without question.  Do you know that kind of friendship?  I’ve yet to have it again (with M. it’s different, you know.)  Its faint aura still makes me ache with want.

After the funeral service I spent the next couple of months distributing his belongings according to his will.  I hadn’t expected him to be so organized. I don’t know why it surprised me, he was, after all, the only gay man I knew who had followed the Midwestern watershed and ended up in Chicago with a car, which put him in a class unto himself, the rest of us traveling via public transit or cabs.

The birdcage to Jimmy. who was dying also, his lover dead just a few weeks before Michael.  The well-worn black leather motorcycle jacket to Chrissie. Everyone called Michael ‘Dixie’, I was one of a very few who never used his diminutive, it was always Michael. The plants to another friend, the car went back with his Nebraska sister and her husband and his mother—they sold it.  The trip to Chicago city hall to file the death certificate and the notarized copies mailed to his accounts. He left no debt, a tidy, neat bundle of nothing.  A little ceramic pot and his cherished ‘Four Seasons’ prints by Alphonse Mucha to so-and-so.  I wish I could remember all the names, but I can’t, the process was so difficult emotionally that I’ve lost much of the detail, only the pain remains.

He was just a year older than I; I’ve never felt so comfortable and accepted and protected than I did with him.  We shared everything, it seemed as if there wasn’t a day that went by that we didn’t talk, but yet time would pass without seeing each other and always, always the next meeting was as fresh as ever.  We did not need to speak to each other to enjoy the other’s company.  How many friends can you say that about?  I think that’s one of the greatest pinnacles of friendship, not-speaking and happy with it.

I cannot guarantee that this will be the last you’ll hear about this time of my life, but it will always be the most important.

More information about World AIDS Day is here and here.






…be counted on to stand up.


Although this quote by Chuck Jones was written  in January of 1961, it is particularly pertinent to today.

“Today, we cannot envisage a protected world that does not include them all, and so [my] hope this year to all people everywhere is for a future–sheltered by the stars, sweetened by clean air, and above all fostering a climate in which no man can be commanded to stand up and be counted–but where every man can be counted on to stand up.” –Chuck Jones


Billy Blue Eye, a Good-bye

I found you online, a “tweenie” dachshund with one blue eye and one brown.  A few days later, we met in front of the Ralph Lauren outlet store in Carlsbad, you on a string leash, no collar, walking two humans, anxious to let you go. You and Joey didn’t seem to mind each other and so I said, “I’ll take him,” and the string leash was handed to me. We walked, and you, well-trained dog that you were, stepped to my left and stayed there while Joey, still being trained, pulled and jerked his leach, his “must smell everything” at full operating mode. You didn’t seem to care.


Until we got in the car. Then there was a minor dispute about who would occupy the front seat and who the rear. You claimed the front as if it was rightfully yours, and this time, Joey didn’t seem to mind. No growling, no snapping, just as it always was between the two of you, brothers in spirit if not in breed.


Billy Blue Eye, little Billy two-shoes, Billy of the Wild Niguel, always available to be petted and admired, loved and stroked. The softest of fur as if you  were put on this earth just to be petted. And so everyone you met automatically reached out to touch you, even in your last days, carried in my arms, friends and strangers would stretch out their arms and wiggle their fingers behind your ears, stroke your snout, kiss you.

A couple of years in, you popped a disc and had to have back surgery. You never complained. A year after that, another disc popped and you had a second surgery and suddenly you were our “$9000 free dog”. What was to be done, though? We loved you and you loved us back.


You loved to go for walks almost as much as you liked to curl up by the back door in the late afternoon sunshine for a siesta. You and Joey were inseparable. We traveled together; up the coast a couple of times to stay in Carmel and no matter where we went you were the star attraction.

There’s so much more, after all we spent almost 16 years together, but this last year, your 20th, was rough and today was the roughest. We had to say goodbye. But you had one last little surprise for us, didn’t you? Driving down the freeway this afternoon, after our last good-bye, Michael said, “look, a rainbow!” And sure enough, there you were, one last doggie kiss in red, orange, blue, green, and violet.




flowers (and rhetorical questions)

what  becomes of the broken-hearted?


how can we be lovers if we can’t be friends?


where is the love?


how do i live without you?


what’s love got to do with it?


how can you mend a broken heart?


wouldn’t it be nice?


who do you think you are?


who’s zoomin’ who?



use a bigger brush

met an esteemed doctor of neurology the other day when we interviewed him for a work project about creativity.


after we were through, he asked me if i painted. when i demurred and said, “not often, i have to think too hard about it.” he said, “use a bigger brush.”

a piece of advice that i just can’t seem to forget.


this work is something i have painted for an upcoming silent auction. when it goes online for pre-bidding, i’ll let you know.

let’s all remember, when things get rough, complicated, difficult, or seem out-of-reach, just “use a bigger brush.”


spring flowers (cyclamen, daisies, and patience)

what do i know about spring? (did you know that many cyclamen species in their native range–the mediterranean basin–are severely depleted and endangered because of the horticultural trade? nor did i. that makes my two little pots of pink cyclamen that much more precious.) but, spring, yes, what do i know about spring?


when i was younger and living in the north, i know spring was highly anticipated. a break in the cold, gray, drabness of winter, just the hint of water running as the ice and snow melted on a warm day in march. (march is tricky up north, it’s end is the beginning of spring, but also the end of winter. your chances for comfort or disappointment equally elusive), but you take what you’re given.


as i grew older and fled the plains for the chicago lakefront, spring took on a whole new meaning for me. it offered hope, or at least a modicum of aspiration, growth, renewal. of course, that came in fits and starts, much like spring weather. dry and cold, wet and warm, snow up to your ankles accompanied by that faint green aura that surrounds deciduous trees as they leaf out, a little darker green each day, hour, minute, second, pushing out as the snow and cold recede, a time-lapse photograph.


but spring in the southwest is an entirely different experience. it happens suddenly and without warning. plants are blooming, new growth is sprouting on the trees and the shrubs. if you did your homework, the roses are beginning to leaf out fully and some may even have little tiny buds, the first rose to bloom since late last year just a few weeks away. i find that i can wait.


patience, now, a surprise gift of spring and growing older.



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© Robert Patrick, and Cultivar, 2008-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts, photographs and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Patrick and Cultivar with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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