Thursday, July 24, 2008

In Memoriam: "I Love My Life!"

When I looked at the calendar today, it wasn't immediately apparent why it seemed like there was something about the significance of the date that kept gently nagging at me. And then I remembered…ah, yes, that was it. A year ago today he died. A week after that, he came to me in a dream, the memory of which I recorded in my journal at the time: I was in the living room and heard a knock on the door. Before I could answer it, I saw him in the entryway or—to be more exact—I saw through him. In that lucid-dream moment, there was no mistaking that he was dead. He appeared not as a ghost, exactly, but not as someone of this dimension, either. He strode purposefully across the room, making his way from one end of the house to the other. He spoke no words, but turned toward me in slow motion, acknowledging my presence with only a nod and continuing on until he was out of my sight. He carried a briefcase, which is a puzzling detail because, although we had been work colleagues, I don't ever recall seeing him with a briefcase at the office…

He had been diagnosed with brain cancer that January and had been given only three to six months to live, managing to almost make it to his 37th birthday last summer. Although his time on earth was tragically short, I personally can think of no one who even came close to cramming as many experiences and as much joy into that brief a lifetime. Perhaps, some of us even speculated, it was almost as if he had known on some unconscious level that there was a reason he needed to live his life at warp speed.

One of the two cruel ironies about his diagnosis was that he was an intellectual who was curious about everything. Having been double-promoted in school, he began college at the age of 15. When he graduated, though, having already been kicked out of his home after revealing to his parents that he was gay, he left the rural, small-town bigotry of his West Virginia family and surroundings to begin a new life and career in the big city. Because his mental acuity played such a large role in his self-identity (after all, this was a person who solved math theorems online for fun), it was painful to see his brain fail him. As his illness progressed, he had to resort to applying post-it notes all over his condo to remind himself of not only the names of objects, but of other aspects of his life, as well.

After receiving his diagnosis, he made the decision not to pursue any radical or invasive treatment, opting only for medication to manage the pain. He quit his job as membership director at the New Thought church we attended and where I had worked with him until the year before. He had been a tireless advocate both for members of the congregation and for dozens of organizations in the community outreach program that he oversaw. But at that time, when the Chicago winter was at its harshest, his greatest wish, he said, was to spend a few weeks in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. In an email sent to friends before he left, he wrote: "I am preparing for my trip to the ocean; to swim with the dolphins, to take pictures of the sunset, to lie in the sun, to read, to write, to just be. My intuition tells me that this journey is not my last but that it is significant."

Well, he sure was right about that—which leads me to note the second great irony of his illness. Although he had made many attempts in his last year to find that special partner with whom he could create a long-term relationship, true love had managed to elude him—until he went to Mexico, that is. I'm sure no one was more surprised than he when he met and fell madly in love with a wonderful, handsome, smart and caring French-Canadian vacationing at the same resort. And not only that, but this new man in his life—who could have easily chosen to just enjoy the couple weeks they had together and gone his separate way—instead decided that he wanted to spend with my friend whatever time he had left. I was both thrilled for him and furious with the utter injustice of it all—I mean, what the hell kind of cruel trick was the universe playing on him, anyway? In the months that followed, though, he and his new lover would fly back and forth from Chicago and Montreal, as time and health would allow, until they finally announced that they decided to get married in Canada.

One of the most amazing things about his final journey was the incredible grace and humor with which he faced his rapidly approaching death. While he definitely suffered many dark moments of the soul, he was able to give his husband, friends and colleagues the gift of a valuable life lesson. By speaking freely of the mental, physical and spiritual challenges that his illness presented, he opened up the possibilities of us having authentic conversations with him, rather than relying on empty platitudes or attempting to ignore or deny the inevitability of his demise.

Typically, our conversations began with him telling me something funny that recently happened to him, followed up with an exuberant "I love my life!" Then he would pause and ask me, "but how are you doing?" Admittedly, I had been experiencing a serious financial crisis at the time, but I responded, "Yeah, right, like I'm going to whine to a person with terminal cancer about my problems—I don't think so!" And then we'd laugh.

Although he had told us that he did not wish to have a memorial service after he was gone, we were able to talk him into letting us throw him a "Celebration of Life" party—and what a celebration it was! With 300 people in attendance, he shared with us his favorite stories, songs, poems, cartoons and quotes, while we reciprocated with our appreciation and thanks for his contributions to and presence in our lives.

In a special message he prepared for the occasion, he wrote: "I love my life" has been my mantra for a very long, long time, and it is true. It is also true that you are the reason. Every one of you has touched my life in amazing and remarkable ways, and there are no words to thank you enough…This is not goodbye, just so long. We were attracted to one another in this life for a reason and, while I don't know why, I do know that this is not the end of our relationship with one another, it is just part of the journey. It has been my pleasure to have shared this life with you.

At the end of this celebration, he bestowed upon those of us with whom he had worked the gift of a small globe. It had special meaning to him, he said, dating back to when he was a small child on his first day of school in that small Appalachian town. He had become excited, he went on to explain, when his teacher took out a map of the world. First, she showed the class the tiny dot that represented where they lived, and then went on to explain where they were located in relation to their state, country and the rest of the world. Even at that young age, he came to the sudden realization that he was not destined to stay there—some day he would be able to leave to pursue adventures in other places! He rushed home to tell his mother of his epiphany and was crestfallen when she wasn't able to comprehend the importance of what he was trying to convey.

Early last July, he called me for what I clearly understood at the time was to be our final conversation. What was remarkable about it was that it was perhaps the longest talk we had ever had. Prior to his illness, he had been such a whirling dervish that the idea of him sitting still long enough for a two-hour chat would have been unthinkable. Although he was in severe pain, he chose a time to call during a rare window of lucidity, and he spoke with his usual candidness. He confided to me that he had been having recurring dreams of his twin brother who had died when they were 12 years old and surmised that he was waiting for him. In some dreams, he said, his brother appeared as the child he was at the time of his death; yet, at other times, his image was that of an adult. In sharing a belief not of heaven or hell, but of an afterlife nonetheless, we also talked of his expectations of what he thought it would be like after he made his transition. He promised to communicate with me, too, if it were possible.

Two weeks later, his unbearable pain came to a merciful end.

The little globe he gave me now sits on my desk in my bedroom, a daily reminder of not only a special person who graced my life for too short a time, but also of the adventures that may yet still be in store for me. On this, the first anniversary of his death, I just want to tell him that I love him, I miss him and, oh—by the way? I figured out the meaning of the briefcase…

Submitted by Constant Comment.

About the author: Constant Comment, a Chicago-area resident and longtime commenter and occasional contributor at Shakesville, has spent 36 years in various incarnations as a writer, editor, researcher and proofreader. While she is currently employed as a writer/analyst at a legal publishing company, working in the area of labor and employment law, she is grateful for the opportunity here at Shakesquill to stretch a little more creatively than she is used to.

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