Editor's note: These are the first two chapters of a longer story. If you like what you read, contact the author (information below) and he will keep you up to date on the status of the story.
"I'll be just a few minutes, don't worry. I'll be right back." His soft brown eyes were calm, his grip on my hand unfaltering, and his voice sweet. If he weren't in a hospital, the last thing somebody would think he was facing was death. But he was in a hospital, and he was facing death. He spoke as if he were going to the store at the corner to buy some bread. His death was just another little trip he was going to take, as far as he was concerned.
I looked at it somewhat differently. Here he was, my lover of fifteen years, lying on his death bed, talking as if it were just another 'partly-sunny with cool breezes' Sunday afternoon. I knew my time would be soon, too, but his health had failed him much more quickly. His immune system should have fought it off and he should be at home with me, just taking it easy and having some soup, getting ready for work the next day, but AIDS doesn't work that way. It tears apart your immune system so that even a common cold can wreak havoc on your body. It wasn't a cold that was killing him; he'd brought in a virus for the flu with one of his countless daily breaths.
That night, his temperature shot up to 103.2 degrees Fahrenheit and he started suffering dizzy-spells constantly. At one point, when he and I had finished dinner, he stood up from the table and just couldn't hold himself up. He fell, spraining his left wrist and cutting his left arm terribly with the plate as it shattered on the floor. He had avoided going to the doctor, but with his wrist and arm injured as they were, he conceded. When the doctor saw his condition, he was transferred immediately to the same room he would die in a week later.
There was almost nothing the hospital could do for him. His T-Cell count was practically nil and his fever was rising; slowly but steadily. There was no cure for AIDS, there still isn't, and he had resisted treatment for so long -- we had both known we were infected with the HIV virus for at least four years -- that there was literally nothing to stop this case of influenza from killing him.
The room was comfortable to me, but his fever was so out of control it must have felt like someone had stuffed him in a microwave and turned it on high. Even with his body sweating every ounce of moisture from his system, he maintained an air of calmness and acceptance that only the most peaceful beings could attain. He had always been a spiritual person and had introduced me to the Eastern philosophies he guided his life by. I had never become so immersed in them as he was, but still found them fairly interesting. Whatever it was that he truly believed in, that belief was doing wonders as I held his hand and cried on his damp shoulder that night. I was having a much worse time with this than he was, and he was the one dying!
We talked about various things, whatever he wanted to bring up. He mentioned our first encounter, which we both laughed at. We had both worked at the same bookstore, a terribly straight establishment, in northwest Washington state when we met. For months we danced around what we both wanted to say. Neither of us were flaming queens; we wouldn't have kept our jobs there if we had been -- like I said, it was a terribly straight establishment. But both of us had caught the other's eye that first day. We dropped hints, used slang we were pretty sure was only used in the still largely underground gay community of the town, and did whatever else we could think of, no matter how ridiculous it was, to try and let the other know without having to actually come out and say it.
We didn't even say the word 'gay' around each other until we found ourselves at a gay club on the same night. We had both been in love for months before then, but we finally were able to let the other know.
The discussion moved on to other things, such as the spray-painting on the front of the building we lived in together. We came back from an evening on the town once and found bright green words sprayed on the front of the apartment building. "KILL ALL THE FAGGOTS!" Now, I don't know why people insist on killing bundles of sticks, but apparently whoever sprayed this on the walls was really offended by the grouping together of twigs and branches. There must be a chapter in some scripture making it an abomination to make such an arrangement of dead wood; "Thou shalt not group together thy twigs and thy branches, nor thy driftwood, for, ye, it shall be an abomination before the Lord." Funny, never read that one.
After a little while of talking, he started to quiet down. He seemed to be breathing a little heavier than he had been, but his grip on my hand was still as firm as ever. My cheeks were wet from all the tears that had streamed down my face since I had first been allowed in the room to see him lying in the bed, connected to all sorts of machines. I didn't even notice the sounds the machines made; they had become so monotonous that they were just background noise now.
He let out a deep sigh. I'm not sure if it was from relief of not having to suffer any longer or if it was from some fear that just cropped up. "Well, it's almost that time. I'll look for you in the next life; just don't get fooled by some no-brains joker, hon," he mockingly chided. He laughed softly and brought his other hand over to put on top of my hand that held his first. More tears burst forth and I buried my face in his chest.
As I was crying, I could feel his fingers running through my hair slowly. He leaned his head forward and kissed the top of my head. I wanted to hug him and never let go, but the tubes and wires kept me from doing so. I couldn't stand to see him leave, but there was nothing that could be done to restore his health. It had degraded so much, just in the past week, that a full recovery would come about only through a miracle. I continued to cry on his chest, and he continued to run his fingers through my hair.
After I had cried more than he had sweated, I turned my face to his. Seeing that calm, peaceful smile on his lips planted the seeds of strength in my own mind that were to keep me alive for the next several years. He brought his hand around to my chin and pulled my face closer to his.
That final kiss brought the rain that watered those seeds of strength his smile had planted. When our lips parted, very reluctantly I might add, we both smiled in a way only two committed lovers could.
"I'm already late for my appointment. I love you," and only then did his grip loosen. I watched his chest lower as his last breath left his body. That moment in my life was the toughest moment to survive. The physical violence that had been directed at me throughout my life for being different, for loving another man, was absolutely nothing. The emotional suffering from the taunts, the jeers, the slurs from my high school years, had no impact on me compared to the loss of him.
I laid my head back down on his unmoving chest and cried every remaining tear in my body.
He wasn't dead, that just wasn't something that could happen. He had always been the stronger of the two of us. Not by a wide margin, but we both could see it. I had been ushered out of the room where he was, and where I had cried uncontrollably, by one the chaplains in the building. One of them was always on call. I wasn't particularly religious, but truly spiritual people have always, to me, seemed to evoke an air of peace and calmness; like my lover always had. The chaplain was similar, though his 'aura' was not as strong, nor reassuring, as my lover's had been.
The chaplain consoled me in the waiting room while we waited for one of the doctors. My lover had already written a will which had been given the go ahead by his lawyer. In it, he stated that his body was to be cremated. I wasn't sure if I would be able to survive that ceremony. I was even less sure about how seeing the urn would affect me afterward.
The arrangements had all been made and it was time for the ceremony. My breakfast that morning was meager; a bowl of some wheatflakes with skim milk. Not even a full bowl. I waded through the meal slowly, afraid of what I was going to have to face once I was done. I had never attended a cremation ceremony for a Buddhist before, so not only was it going to be a new experience, it was probably going to be the next most painful one beside watching him die. I had already cleared the top shelf in the main room of all the books so that I would have a place to keep the urn.
I was afraid. Afraid of having to watch his body be burned to ashes right before me. It was tradition and there was no way I was going to interfere with that, but I wasn't sure if I would make it through the whole ordeal. I really had no set ideas of how a ceremony commemorating one's death should be carried out, but I wasn't too sure that it needed to be in any way elaborate. I didn't see anything wrong with the way my family had been doing it; a very small, private ceremony where the casket was lowered into the ground and the closest relative threw the first bit of dirt on the top. Quick and less painful than sitting through a drawn-out ceremony involving the burning of a loved one's body. I was not ready for that.
I put the bowl and spoon in the sink, along with all the other dishes that had been sitting in there since he went into the hospital -- he was the stronger one, and the cleaner one. Without him around, the apartment was going to be a disaster within a couple days. It was already terrible; a pile of unwashed dishes, a dirty clothes hamper overflowing, a stack of half-read newspapers and magazines, and a heaping trashcan underneath the sink.
I sighed heavily, slipped on my shoes, and walked out the door. I was so distracted, I don't even remember if I had locked the door when I left. I headed for the subway station two blocks to the left from the front of the apartment building and caught the train headed in the direction of the crematorium. I really didn't know what to expect. Was it going to be a simple, casket-into-the-furnace event or was there something more elaborate planned? I knew he attended services with a group of Buddhists in the city, so maybe some of them would be there doing whatever Buddhists do at a cremation ceremony. I slouched back into the seat of the subway train and let the countless thoughts in my mind collide with each naturally.
I got there a couple minutes later, the cool autumn breeze nipping at me playfully through the cotton shirt I was wearing. That and the slacks I was wearing were the most formal clothes I had. None of this was real. I looked around at the other people on the street; some were laughing, some were whispering, others yelling. I wondered if my lover's death would matter to any of them, or if they would try to feel sympathetic by uttering a condolence and then move on without a second thought. I wondered if any of them had lost a partner.
I entered the building and gave my name to the lady at the desk. Shortly after that, another person came into the lobby from behind the desk and ushered me into the room he'd just left.
"We know this can be very tough for some people," he said. "If at any time you begin to feel sick or uncomfortable, you can leave. I'm sure everybody else will understand. You wouldn't be the first that it has happened to." With his words out of the way, he led me into the room where several others were already gathered. I noticed a small group sitting on the floor to one side that wore the orange robes of Buddhist monks. One of my questions from breakfast was answered. Now that I thought about it, I had seen a couple of them in the hospital when I had been visiting my lover throughout the week. I hadn't given a second thought about it then, but I suppose they were probably there visiting him.
His entire family was there, standing peacefully and mournfully a couple meters from the monks. Of course, no one from my side of the family was in attendance; they probably wouldn't have been if it was my funeral.
In the middle of the room was his casket, sitting on a table in front of a small door in the wall that lead into the furnace. There were a couple chairs along one wall. As I was wondering whether I should start out near the chairs or just make my way to them as I started to faint -- because I knew I would at least do that, probably -- his father came up to me.
"We are all very sad, see him go. But he will have better life, he was great person." He had an accent and left out the definite articles; but my lover had told me that common mistake by English-speaking Japanese was because in the Japanese language, there are no definite articles. "Hon" can mean 'book,' 'the book,' or even 'books.'
I turned slightly to look at him more directly to make my reply, but as the first syllable started forming, I began to cry. He put his arms around me while I let at least some of my emotions out. It was startling how accepting he was. In this day and age, it was not uncommon for parents to kick their gay children out of the family. Those who didn't do something quite as drastic were not unusual to create a very condescending and oppressive environment for their gay children. The least common response was for parents to fully embrace their children. My parents didn't kick me out of the house only because I had already moved out. They sent a reply to the letter I wrote telling them I was gay to let me know that they would never approve of my 'choice' to be a 'sick, immoral parasite of society.' So much for loving parents. My sister, who was in college at the time, was a little better, but she stressed that she could never see herself making the 'choice' to be a lesbian.
I put my arms around him and cried for a couple minutes more. He didn't say anything, but I noticed that he was breathing consciously. That was something my lover had demonstrated to me once. He told me that whenever I hugged someone, to make the hug countless times more enjoyable, to breath consciously, or as he put it, "be mindful of my breaths," while I was hugging. I tried to remember to do that everytime I hugged someone, especially my lover, and it definitely made the experience even more intimate and deep. I stood there, crying in my lover's father's arms and tried to be mindful of my own breaths. Almost immediately a peace washed over me, clearing away, temporarily, the emotional trauma I was going through.
We let go of each other and he offered me a small handkerchief to wipe my face. I tried to remain mindful of my breaths, My tears had stopped but I was still feeling horrible. The peace offered by my breathing helped alleviate some of the suffering, but there was far too much for it to just disappear.
The ceremony began soon after with the monks reciting something in what I guessed was Japanese. Their voices were so calm, their very presence exuded a deep, spiritual peace. The words they were chanting softly were neither sad nor celebrative. They seemed to have a positive tone underneath them, and it was my guess that it had something to do with rebirth, the afterlife, or something similar.
When their calming chant was finished, they stood up and stepped over to the casket, at which point the door to the furnace was opened and they rolled the casket in. The door was closed and one by one, they bowed and left the room. His parents bowed as well and left quietly. The monks had moved so smoothly, like the water in a river that moves gently over the water-polished face of a rock just underneath the surface. I didn't even fully realize what they were doing until the furnace door had been shut.
I walked in a half-daze over to the chairs against the other wall and sat down harshly in one of them. I opened my eyes to see my lover's father's face looking at mine. He was asking if I was alright; we were out in the lobby. Tears burst forth again. I just couldn't understand that this was happening. My emotions were extremely scattered. One moment I was dealing with his death well, the next I was in shambles. How long this would last, I didn't know.