JUNE 1ST AGAIN
I sat beside Rob’s bed just holding on to his hand. When he began to take long deep breaths his face became distorted and I knew that each breath could be the last. I began to cry and kept saying no not yet, not now. A nurse heard my crying and came into the room to check his pulse then left. Rob finally stopped breathing and Adriano was half smiling and half crying and talking about how beautiful Rob looked. I could not see the beauty in that moment. All I could feel was pain stronger than any pain I had ever felt before. I stood up and looked into Rob’s eyes. Those beautiful blue eyes were lifeless now. I remember thinking how strange it is that the energy we call life can be so powerful, but invisible without the body to represent it. I reached over to close Rob’s eyes but they kept coming open again. I held them down for a few moments until they remained closed. I walked over to the doorway to the bathroom and leaned against the doorframe. My body slid down to the floor and every tear I had held back for three weeks came pouring out. I just kept sobbing uncontrollably, saying, “He was my whole life, what am I going to do now?”
“Adriano sat next to me. He said ‘Please go out of this body’. I still had the mask in my hand. I felt pain, pain, pain. Rob had almost stopped breathing when Adriano said ‘He is above the bed, can you feel it?’ I looked up and suddenly the pain is over. I almost felt joy and I felt peace. Rob had stopped breathing. I turned off the oxygen and left the room. I told the nurse who first came in that he is dead. She came in and hugged all of us. Then the black nurse you called Big Mama came in and hugged us too. She said something to you and you said ‘But he has been my whole life!’ Later I remember you sitting holding Rob’s feet, and you have been crying. You said that no one should say to you that you should be strong. You went downstairs to call his family. I went with you, partly because I feared that you would kill yourself.”
As I sat in the doorway to the bathroom and looked up at Rob’s body it was the first time he resembled a person with AIDS. It was as though his body had been deflated when the breath left his lungs. His face was now sunken to the outline of his scull bone. I remembered that day in 1959 when I walked up to the casket of my friend Sandy when I was 10 years old. I looked at her body and thought to myself, “That is not Sandy. I do not recognize the person in the casket.” Now I had the same feeling about the body lying on this bed in front of me. It was not Rob! Rob was still alive somewhere, somehow. He had escaped the confines of the temporal prison and was free from all the anguish and pain it had sometimes caused him. Now I was confident that he would come to me. But I sat on the floor still confined in my body and very much in pain and anguish.
Stefan and I went to the first floor where I called Rob’s family from the pay phone in the entrance lobby. At first all the phones were being used and I was impatient. I just wanted to get it over before I passed out on the floor or had a total nervous breakdown. When I finally dialed the number, Rob’s sister Lisa answered the phone. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but when she repeated it I could hear Rob’s mother crying in the background. It was very difficult for me to retain control. I just kept thinking if there was anybody in the world who could understand me in that moment it was probably Rob’s mother. When I hung up I called my mother and this was my chance to cry. The third call was to Gary in San Francisco.
“You and Adriano washed Rob, and dressed him. You had no other clothes so you dressed him with what you could find. I remember him in shorts and warm stockings. And I recognized that now he had no oxygen mask. I asked you if I could have the copies of his drawings. You said yes, then I left the hospital. In the evening you took your things from the hotel and went to Adriano’s. While you packed your things Adriano read Rob’s last words from his diary.”
Adriano and I spent, I think four or five hours in the room with Rob’s body. We had dressed him in a pair of shorts and wool socks that Adriano’s mother had knitted. Adriano was concerned that Rob was not properly dressed, that perhaps we should go to get some clothes. I assured him that Rob was dressed appropriately, for he was dressed the way he would dress for a yoga class in the castle above Loutro. I could even imagine that he was there at that moment. If he had a choice of where to go when free of his body I knew he would go home to Loutro.
That evening when we arrived at Adriano’s I went into the bedroom and went through Rob’s bags. I knew there were certain things I had to do immediately. I took all of Rob’s contact lens solutions and his contact lenses and gave them to Adriano to throw into the garbage. They were too personal for me to deal with, and on another level it was a way of admitting that he was really gone. I looked at all of his art and drawing supplies and wondered where all of that talent and creativity was now. I thought of his education at Georgetown University and the different languages he spoke and I thought, “why, for what purpose?” because it all seemed useless that night. Richard from the Hillingdon AIDS Response Trust came to give me a massage before I went to bed. It really made me relaxed and I was able to rest for the first time in quite a while.
I wasn’t able to go right to sleep, even though I was exhausted both emotionally and physically. I laid in the bed with a million thoughts swirling through my head. Suddenly Rob was standing beside my bed. I had the same experience in 1969 in the room where my first partner’s mother had died. When she came to me, I screamed and moved my bed to another room the next day. This time I was expecting it though. It was somehow the most expected and normal thing which had happened that day. Rob stood beside my bed demanding that I give him his contact lenses. Perhaps that was his way of using humor to prepare me for what came next.
A faint iridescent glowing cloud of multi-colored smoke began to swirl above my bed. I had the feeling of being carried into the cosmos or falling into a black hole. I was witnessing something so beautiful it left me consumed in peace. I focused on the colors in this swirling mass of energy and realized it was my life with Rob. Each part was there in its entirety and when I focused on something it became real again. I could taste and feel and smell everything as if it were real in that moment. Then I found a secret to release myself from the confines of the illusion of time and I began to become the swirling mass of color. I began to experience every moment of our life together in one single moment, then I fell into a deep sleep.
The next morning I began to call more friends to let them know that Rob had died. I dialed the number to the Hotel Porto Loutro on Crete and handed the phone to Steven and told him to ask for Alison. He explained to her that he was a friend of Rob and Bob in London and then told her that Rob had died the day before. She immediately asked to talk with me but I didn’t think I was able. It felt like I was notifying another part of our family. I tried to imagine her walking through the village telling everyone that Rob had died. I tried to imagine going back there alone and staying in our room at Pandalitza’s without Rob. Alison was very compassionate and sympathetic and I was glad I talked with her. Now we had to deal with the cremation of Rob’s body.
Adriano and I met Stefan at the hospital where we had to sign papers to release Rob’s body for cremation. Then we had to go to the office of the Borough of Wandsworth to sign the death certificate. Stefan waited outside in the lobby while Adriano and I met with the Deputy Registrar. When the registrar just casually mentioned that my relationship with Rob as his spouse was not valid for listing on the death certificate, I think she was surprised when I jumped out of my chair and began to scream at her. Adriano had to push me back into my chair and calm me down. The compromise was to list Adriano as present at death, to which he replied, “A fly on the wall could be present at death”. I wasn’t surprised that the insensitive, vindictive religious myth extended its arm even into my time of grief. At this moment I was in no mood to compromise to make things “easy”. My pain was just as great as any man who had just lost his wife, or as any woman who had just lost her husband. I told myself that I would use this anger to demand equality from this moment on. I had stood in the entrance of the tower above Loutro and witnessed a vision of Christ that left me feeling love for every molecule of every living thing. So I found it difficult to believe anyone who claimed to be a “Christian” and preached hatred and judged other people.
“You really exploded and I almost shivered with fear because of your anger. You mentioned that some, who lived together with their partner for 30 years have not been allowed to see their spouse when they died, because their relatives prohibited it.”
Stefan went back to Austria the next morning and I prepared for the trip home to the U.S. With the help of The Hillingdon AIDS Response Trust I made a letter with Rob’s picture and an announcement of his death and sent to our friends around the world. At one point I needed to have a day alone to allow myself to understand what had happened. I took the tube to the West End early in the morning. As I was changing trains in the Oxford Circus station I had this overwhelming urge to jump in front of the train. I kept thinking it would only take one second and it would be over. I asked myself why? Did I really want to stay around for more struggle against a world of self-righteous religious bigots who stalk me in every step of my life. Did I want to stay for one more day of this incredible pain of missing Rob and feeling lonely, even in a crowd. I guess the answer was yes, because the train arrived and I got in.
I first went to Green Park and walked through the park to the gate to Buckingham Palace. I stared at the Queen Victoria Memorial and I thought about the legacy she left behind. I walked to Hyde Park and through Kensington Gardens. Everywhere I went there were men and women lying on blankets in the sunshine. Some of the women were lying on top of the men kissing them or with one leg wrapped around the waist of their boyfriend. They displayed their love and affection for the whole world to see, with no shame and no apprehension. I suddenly lost my ability to be just an observer. I wanted to scream at them as I stood in the middle of the meadow. I wanted them to know what happens to same sex couples in London who show such affection in the parks.
On the 7th of June Rob was cremated and Adriano’s roommate Steven went to pick up the urn with his ashes. When he returned to the apartment with the ashes I think Adriano was the first to hold them. We both began to cry for it was difficult to imagine that this was what was left of Rob’s body. The weight of the ashes is the first thing that’s surprising. It is almost impossible to guess the weight, because your mind is so busy struggling with the concept that this is your loved one. Holding the ashes is another exercise in accepting that he is gone. I decided in this moment that I should embrace all that is sent to me in my time of grieving. My body was protecting me by providing the state of shock and I should use this protected time to face all my fears.