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.