The assignment for today, at Mount Sinai’s “Narrative Group”, was simply “change”.My first idea was to describe the day I learned that I was HIV-positive but reverse everything, including the results. For some reason I just couldn’t ‘go there’.
The change I, instead, wrote about describes the last evening of Terry’s life. (Terry was the former partner of my dear friend, Jim, who succumbed to AIDS-related pneumonia in the spring of 1992. Jim followed in 1994.)
Obviously the conversation has been recreated, based solely on twelve-year old memories.
I bounded up the stairwell to Terry’s apartment, almost directly above mine, my legs feeling a little heavy with anticipation of the night ahead. Although not the first “night-shift” I had spent with Terry this was the first one since I moved into the same building mid-month.
As I walked in Jim was in the kitchen, talking quietly on the telephone. He waved his greetings, signaled to be quiet – that Terry was sleeping – and then continued to listen to his caller. It was soon obvious that Jim was speaking to our doctor, Pat.
I quickly glanced around. Terry was in bed, which had been moved in to the living room a week or so earlier. Odours in the room seemed to be competing with one another – harsh cleansers, cigarette smoke and shit.
“So, do you think you’ll be coming over?” Jim inquired. “Uh huh, uh huh,” he continued, “so I should call you first, right?” he asked. “Okay, well Kenn’s here now so we’ll have his company for the night. Will do,” he continued, mouthing “Hi Kenn” to me, grinning and nodding to the phone receiver. “Thanks Pat,” he concluded. “Bye.”
As Jim hung up the phone his smile fell. He looked at me, heaved a deep sigh, and then grabbed me for a hug as he began to sob.
“I’m so glad it’s you that’s here with us tonight,” he said, wiping tears with his sleeve.
“What’s up?” I asked, wondering for a moment what specifically he and Pat had been talking about.
“It’s Terry’s breathing,” Jim said, his voice quivering. “You’ll hear for yourself – it sounds terrible. Pat doesn’t think he’ll even make it through the night,” clutching me.
My mind raced between wondering what I had gotten myself into and a sense that this was a momentous occasion to be with Jim – thoughts too difficult to sort out.
“Have you eaten yet?” I asked, self-conscious that I might be changing the subject too quickly.
“Yes, thanks,” replied Jim. “Terry’s sister brought something over on her way to work.”
We walked into the bedroom, which had been switched into a small den. The television was on quietly.
“We could watch some ‘Ab Fab’ tapes later if you want,” Jim said. Not waiting for a response he shoved a videotape into the VCR, picked up the remote, and sat on the edge of the couch.
Minutes passed. We periodically looked in on Terry. He still slept, his breathing raspy. Little did I know how familiar I would become with that “death rattle” in the coming years.
Jim chuckled out loud at the television. We both did. Sometimes we looked at each other, silently wondering if we should be laughing, then shrugged our shoulders as if to say, “Who knows?”
A couple of hours passed, as we took turns checking on Terry. He was not very responsive, although once or twice a heavy cough would wake him up briefly. That brought us to our feet. Terry would glance around, his head still on the pillows, see us both there, then shut his eyes again.
“I wish I knew what to do,” Jim said, breaking a long silence. We had turned off the television and were now playing a cassette of lullabies that Jim had put together. The music drifted throughout the apartment.
“Well”, I began, “remember that scene in ‘Long Time Companion’,” I said, “where the guy sat with his lover and told him…”
“Let go,” Jim interrupted, nodding, “just let go.”
“Maybe you could have that sort of talk with Terry,” I said. “Maybe he just needs to hear it from you – that you will be okay.”
With that, Jim stood up, asked me for a hug and then walked towards the other room.
“I’ll join you in a few minutes,” I whispered.
The den to myself now, I broke down and sobbed, hours of tension flooding out. I had shut the door but I could hear the muffled tones of Jim’s voice as he talked to Terry. I reached somewhere deep within and prayed for help.
A few minutes later I heard Jim in the kitchen, filling the kettle with water. I opened the door quietly and walked out to join him. Again we hugged; again we cried.
“I don’t know why I’m doing this,” Jim laughed, nodding at the kettle. “I really just want to get some sleep.”
We rolled foam mattresses out on the living room floor, one on either side of Terry’s bed.
As the music continued to play we fell asleep.
Suddenly – it seemed like just a moment later – Jim and I both sat up quickly. The rising sun was streaming into the apartment, telling us that we had been asleep for a few hours. We looked at Terry and then at each other.
He was gone. The change in his breathing had awakened us.