Weekly feature by: Steve Slavin
When we’re dying, we can’t pack a suitcase. As they say, “You can’t take it with you.”
Let’s consider a somewhat less drastic decision. If you had to give up every person or thing in your life but one, who or what would that be? For me, the answer to that question was a no-brainer.
When we got home from the doctor’s office, Robert needed to lie down for a while. I made some tea, but Robert didn’t want any. I sat at the edge of the bed, and reflexively placed his hand on his forehead.
“You know, Craig, you don’t get a fever just from visiting the doctor.”
I smiled. “Well, I’m certainly glad to see that you haven’t lost your sense of humor.”
“No, not at all! They say you keep it right up to the end.”
“Please, Robert. Spare me the melodramatics.”
“Can we have a serious conversation?”
“You heard what the doctor said. If the lump is malignant, she’ll operate, and then she’ll do more tests. That’s not exactly a death sentence.”
“No, but then, in a couple of weeks, we’ll be back in her office, and she’ll tell us a few cells were found in my lymph nodes. And then ….”
“Yeah, I know. You’ll need chemo and radiation.”
I waited, but Robert didn’t reply. He had a far-off look. Finally, he rolled over to one side to face me more directly. “I don’t think I can go through that again.”
“Are you saying that that wasn’t as much fun for you as it was for me?”
This got a smile.
“I know I’m over-reacting. Maybe they can just cut out the tumor and that will be the end of it. But this time I’m expecting the worst.”
“No, the worst – the absolute worst, was the third time.”
“Agreed. But in retrospect, had I known how awful the treatment would be, I think I would have chosen to die instead.”
“Maybe. But that was before they prescribed medical marijuana.”
That got a chuckle out of him.
“Seriously, Robert – and I am being selfish about this …”
“Yeah, I know: You never want to lose me.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear that even you listen some of the time.”
Robert didn’t answer. When I noticed his regular breathing, I got up, tiptoed out of the room, and shut the door.
An hour later, I found myself lying on a couch in the living room, a book on my chest. It had grown dark outside, and I could hear the rush hour traffic.
I thought about how Robert and I had met at a ridiculous dinner party in Brooklyn Heights. I could not remember who invited me, but after a few glasses of wine, it felt like we all had become great friends. We decided to drive across the bridge into Manhattan. There was a piano bar on Grove Street in the Village. It was called The Five Oaks.
Anyone could go in there and sing his heart out. No matter how good or bad you were, everyone generously applauded. You could walk in alone, with another guy, or maybe with a whole party of friendly people – and you would quickly feel right at home.
Robert was with someone else, but he and I had been eying each other all evening. When his date went to the bathroom, he slipped me his phone number. As I took it, I squeezed his hand and he blew me a kiss.
That was thirty-seven years ago. Who knows? We might have saved each other lives. We had met just when AIDS was beginning to reach epidemic proportions. We lost dozens of friends, but like other monogamous couples, we were spared.
We had our fights, but who didn’t? Since the early nineties, we’ve been living in Chelsea, where the you-know-who have practically taken over. I guess you know that’s happened when no one notices you strolling around the neighborhood.
I wondered if Robert intuited something – something that even the doctor couldn’t know. Maybe this time he would not be able to dodge the bullet. Perhaps he was just tired of trying.
I tried to picture life without him. Would I expect him to be there when I got home? Would I imagine crawling into bed with him — and waking up in the morning expecting to see his face?
Just then, I heard the toilet flush, and then Robert’s feet padding down the hall. He looked a lot better. He was even smiling.
A week later his doctor operated. After she finished, and Robert’s chest was stitched up, she asked me to join them in the recovery room. She explained that because he was coming out of sedation, he might not remember everything she said.
The entire tumor did not need to be removed – just the malignant part. So, while Robert lay on the operating table, slices of tissue were sent to the hospital’s pathology lab. That’s why the operation took almost four hours.
While she was confident that they had gotten everything, the lymph node test would be crucial. If no cancer cells were found, we would be home free.
A few weeks later, it was time for the test. That morning, I had a revelation. Did it really matter how the test came out? Would Robert get a new lease on life, or perhaps a conditional death sentence? Would we be able to go back to how things were, or would we see our life together coming to an end?
It was just then that I realized an important truth. You know those “crazy people” holding signs proclaiming, “The end is coming”? Well, they’ve got that right!
One day, the end will come. But in the here and now, while we still have each other, we have everything that life could offer.