Saturday, December 26, 2009

Life on Mars

May God bless Arash Karami, who had archived the following, which I thought I'd lost years ago.
We re-connected on Facebook (for we are, indeed, children, living in an age of miracles and wonders) and I recently asked him if he might (oh, please, please, please) have kept a copy of the five-page e-mail I'd sent about an hour before Robert died.
Lo and behold, he had:

"Sorry for the length of this letter. I didn't have time to write a short one."
     ~~ attributed to Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), American writer

“When a rocket is launched into space, 
     there is a point when it passes a zone of severe stress -- a time when all the forces 
            acting upon the rocket are at their peak. This passage is called "Max Q."

Dear Friends:
To begin with, if you're receiving this, you fall into the category of friend . . . to a greater or lesser extent.  We will have known each other intimately for years . . . or we will simply have done a show together and you are down on my list as "good people" . . . or our relationship is somewhere in between the two extremes.  The common factor with all of you is that we somehow continue to remain informed of the various goings-on in our lives . . . either directly, or through the odd e-mail
grapevine that springs up when artists, writers, actors, directors, producers, and designers come together.
Welcome to my own "Max Q" passage (or, as I usually refer to it, "Life on Mars").   I've told some of you about the contents of this e-mail in person.  Rather than go through that emotionally-exhausting process with everyone, I'm convinced that sending a mass e-mail is the best solution.
So . . . (Rod Serling voice) . . . "Submitted for your consideration . . . Mr. Reed Boyer . . . somewhere in  . . . 'The Twilight Zone.'"

LIFE ON MARS ... or ... "Here, There be Dragons"

"Hello to all my friends on shore" (it's an old expression . . . the title of a vintage teleplay . . . I am NOT living on a boat . . . and this is NOT about life on our neighbor planet):
Most of you receiving this haven't heard from me in ages.  Sometimes our lives can be so busy that, one day at a time, we take care of a multitude of tasks -- yet always think there will be time to do those one or two things that somehow slip from one day's "To Do" list onto the next day's . . . and so it goes.  I have a dozen "Thank You" letters to write that have been ageing since early December, and here I am with Groundhog Day looming like an oncoming freight train. 
What we need, of course, is a 27-hour day.  Those extra three hours would allow all the tasks to be completed and still give us some extra time for rest, meditation, sleep, etc.
In my own case, I'd opt to sleep.  The past few months have been filled with "Interesting Times" (to use the words of the Old Chinese Curse).  Robert and I observed our 18th anniversary this past July 14.  He is my other half (Registered Domestic Partner of more than eighteen years, longtime companion
. . . or "roommate" or "PSSSLQ" or "lover" or "life partner" or whatever euphemism is current this season).  I also call him the "spousal unit" (sometimes "my spousal equivalent."  

It was an odd time.   In May, after nearly two years of struggling to deal with the side effects of his various AIDS medications, he had had opted todiscontinue anti-viral treatment. He continued to take meds to prevent him from getting various opportunistic infections, but the change meant that he would be officially considered "terminally ill;" i.e., he would probably die within six months.
I supported his decision one hundred percent, much as I hated it personally.   And so we blasted off for our trip to a brave new world as Robert entered hospice mode.   He is not in a hospice facility: he is receiving hospice care at home.  
He wishes to die "at home, in my own bed, with my kitty."
It is like living life on Mars
. . . it's very close to what we remember back on Terra, but it is a fascinating new frontier where one is beset by challenges and dazzled by the unearthly beauty of the alien landscape.  And I continue to stagger forward, sleep deprivation making me either viciously cranky or maudlin by turns; held together and propelled onward by a whim of iron.

The experience has contained some moments of sheer, black comedy that would delight the heart of any fan of absurdist thought; e.g., Wells House Hospice's eight-page handout of "Signs of Approaching Death" includes the suggestions that one should respond to the dying in a way that tells them that . . . "you accept whatever they say or 'see'" and  . . . I am NOT making this up . . . "Follow up in a gentle way.  Ask questions and offer sensitively probing insights that might encourage them to keep talking."   I respect the sincerity of the notion, but this particular "suggestion" has had me giggling like an ether-fiend for a week now.  I am a bad, wicked, insensitive, swine, for I will NOT comply.
Because they don't know Robert.  For years, it has been a standing (and frustrating) household joke that Robert can be sleeping and answer a phone call, take a message, have a short and pleasant conversation, and be sound asleep the entire time. He doesn't remember a word of it later
. . . nor, alas, what message he took.   (And THAT, children, is how Daddy invented "voice-mail.")
Nope, nope, nope.  I will not go along.  I will not tell Robert that I accept any of the following (all of them blurted out as he woke, panicked, from a fitful sleep or muttered quietly and intensely to me as he drifted in and out of a doze):  "the bad witches will put a curse on me if I eat any more;" "there's a monkey man over there on the wall;" "those people are downstairs outside" (he wanted to get his pants on so he could get out quick if "they" got in); and "the Nazis are coming for me."
After this last statement I "followed up in a gentle way" and learned that Robert believed it was 1942.
So, I did what any right-thinking person would do:  I said, "I accept what you say."
No, of COURSE I didn't do that.   Because the next step is to agree that it IS 1942, and the Nazis are coming, and "those people" are downstairs and we should prepare to flee, and the witches and the monkey men will be upon us any moment for the world is flat and let us cry "Havoc!" and let slip the dogs of war for all's dark and comfortless here upon this bank and shoal of time
. . .
Instead, I flatly contradicted him
. . . oh, I am a bad, wicked, insensitive swine I tell you (again) . . . for my "gentle follow-up" was to tell him, "Honey, you're dreaming.  You just woke up from a bad
dream.  It's okay.   Everything is fine.   It was just a bad dream.  I love you."
And then, of course, his eyes stopped searching to and fro, and his face relaxed as he drifted back to sleep, murmuring, "Love you."  And I gently assured him that I was just going to go wash my hands and would be right back, stepped into the bathroom, closed the door, turned on the water, and fell apart into about three dozen pieces of assorted sizes and dimensions. 
And then I gathered up the pieces and re-assembled them as I scrubbed the toilet and changed the cat's litter box, muttering to myself, "Anybody tries to come near him or hurt him I'll rip them a new
. . . get in my way and I'll flatten you . . . I can do anything . . . because I AM Superman, dammit."   (Obviously, I've cleaned up my language to present myself in the best light . . . toilets aren't the only things that get sanitized for the consumer's protection . . . the full, unedited
version blistered the paint on the ceiling and caused dogs three blocks away to howl at the alien stars for an hour).

Other than moments like that, I don't clean things up with Robert.  With Robert, you see, it is necessary to tell the truth.   He was dreaming.  There are no bad people
. . . despite the ones that I personally loathe . . . so I continue to contradict him and then tell him the truth.

Well, no
. . . not the entire truth.  I don't tell him that "Signs of Approaching Death" seems to be accurate about his physical symptoms.  I don't tell him that his time seems to be running out.  I don't tell him that in a week or two, it's likely he'll be dead . . . or will have "passed on" or "gone home" or "joined the church triumphant" . . . or whatever euphemism we're using this season. I don't mention that.

Especially, I don't mention "the church triumphant."  Robert's a pagan
. . . something the hospice chaplain respects, bless her.   She's especially interested in his personal pantheon of deities, which
includes dragons
. . . especially dragons, which are his personal totemic motif.  Robert will not be joining "the church triumphant" . . . he will go over to the summer land, where Titania, our late cat, is waiting for him patiently, underneath a particular tree.   
Later on (after one of his sisters has scattered half his ashes in the Pocono mountains), I will work through the dazzling array of bequests that he has left to a huge circle of friends . . . and will dispose of the remaining ashes in backyards of my mother and three other friends, and the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and Kensington Gardens, and St. Paul's Covent Garden, and Elfreth's Alley in Philadelphia (among others).  
And later yet, Robert will be coming back as a panther.

With Robert, it is necessary to tell the truth because he tells the truth. He has known, since the day I met him, that he was going to die. He has known it in the marrow of his bones; not in a morbid way, but through a complete acceptance of the one fact of life that we all would like to deny: we are going to die. 
We are all, in the world according to Garp, "terminal cases." We're all going to snuff it some day or other, so we'd best just get that idea into our heads, accept it, and get on with living this life.

For nearly 19 years, he has refused to be pompous about death, insisting on the truth of the matter. He has joked about the ridiculous truth of it and he has cried about the heart-breaking truth of it.  He wept bitterly when his father died more than 10 years ago and grieved terribly when Titania died.  She was an extraordinary cat, small and fine-boned, with velvety black fur and a distinct vocabulary whose vowel sounds corresponded to English words:  her politely inquisitive "mew" for "food," her stately "miaow" for "out," and her "mRowR" for "Robert" were only three of some dozen variations.
It is almost two years later, and he misses her and is looking forward to seeing her again.   
Her successor, Oberon, is still a young cat, but he is large and rambunctious, showing little sign of developing anything but a loud and insistent chatter ... the cat equivalent of surfer-speak.
Nonetheless, he is a cat . . . and cats are psychopomps ("soul-conductors," from the Greek), as are sparrows and whippoorwills . . . and dragons.

And when Robert told me years ago that Titania would be waiting for him in the summer land, I knew he was telling me the truth.  And I have agreed, all the time of his illness, to tell him the truth about things, but I did not tell him the entire truth, my own personal truth: when it is his time to go I will be listening closely
. . . and I will not be surprised to hear the wing-beats of the dragon bearing a small, fine-boned black cat whose loving "mRowR" will welcome him as she escorts him to his summer land.
And that, children, is what Daddy has been up to lately
. . .

I know that you'll be tempted to call, to offer support, to drop by, etc., but please
. . . DON'T.  I need to get some sleep ... and most of you know that rousing me from sleep only results in having to deal with the unpleasant after-effects of mass murder (the carnage, the body parts dangling from neighboring apartment balconies, the sight of me with freshly bed-tousled bad hair, etc. . . . the latter alone has been known to transform viewers into crumbling pillars of sandstone).   I also know that you WILL call any way . . . and I'll be delighted to hear from you, but I'll probably want to keep things brief.
The other things this past year have been extraordinary and wonderful:  
  • going to London for the first time, 
  • being in the West Coast premiere of the Ken Ludwig re-scripted "20th Century" at Newport Theater Arts Center (so when Shashin Desai advertises his International City Theater production later this year as the "West Coast Premiere," you may all be assured that he is either ignorant of, or in denial of, the facts),  
  • attending a rent party on our behalf in December (where I got to read some Dickens to a captive audience of friends who will allow that kind of shameless self-indulgence . . . it was the only chance to do "the Dickens thing" this year, things being what they are), 
  • learning that my cousin Tom and his wife Mary had their second child (a healthy baby girl) last week,
  • and stage-managing the just-opened production of "And Then There Was Nun" at the Long Beach Playhouse's Studio Theater (with the wonderful Martie Ramm directing a delightful, wickedly-talented cast of truly nice actors).  
And the nicest thing of all:   realizing what I've known all along was true . . . actors and theater people are NOT the self-absorbed selfish people of the popular cliche; my greatest support outside my blood family has been my "larger family" of friends I've met doing one production or another over the years.
As I said at the beginning of this, I'm sending this to friends . . . and now you know what's been going on with me.
That said, there's nothing else to say except . . .

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