I hadn’t been home from the hospital more than a couple of hours when Jim’s mother phoned.
“Kenn, the nurses’ station just called and they thought we’d better head back.” she nearly shouted.
“Okay, well let’s not wait for a cab. We could probably hail one faster,” I replied.
I met A., and Jim’s dad B., in the lobby. (They were staying in Jim’s apartment a couple of flights down from me.)
It was bitterly cold as we headed out the door and across the parking lot to Sherbourne Street.
Soon enough a cab came along and we climbed into the back seat, A. between B. and me. Holding hands we did not speak much during the five minute drive through the quiet, late night streets. We knew that the call from the hospital was probably the last we would receive.
I cannot recall, these years later, how many visitors were in Jim’s room – one of the small private rooms in the now-demolished Bell Wing at Toronto General Hospital. Many certainly joined us over the next few hours, well into the wee, pre-dawn hours of the morning. Jim’s partner of just about a year, R., was there, our mutual friend and co-op neighbour, B.C., Jim’s two sisters, and, before the night was over probably at least ten other friends.
Jim seemed to hear us, although we could not be certain of that all the time. His breathing had taken on the death rattle, however, and he needed a near-constant flow of oxygen.
“We love you, Jim” someone said softly, to which we each responded with affirmations of our own. He mouthed “I love you” back once in awhile. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. A cassette of lullabies, which Jim had compiled for his ex Terry when he was dying a couple of years earlier, played in a Walkman rigged with speakers set up on the shelf which covered the fluorescent light over the head of Jim’s bed.
I said something, the stupidity of which I have never quite forgiven myself for.
Quite certain that my advanced AIDS would be killing me shortly – remember this was 1994 – I said, “Save me a seat in the smoking section, Jim”. What I would not give to take those few seconds back.
The only reaction I noticed came from one of Jim’s sisters who clucked out a sigh and a ‘tsk tsk’.
The fact that I no longer smoke notwithstanding, I still feel – these thirteen years later – like such a cake-hole for that lame attempt at empathetic humour. Those feelings of shame have prevented me from writing, in narrative form, the events of that night up to now.
I tried to make up for it though when, a day or so later, I crafted the death notice for the Toronto Star (surnames deleted):
______, Jim (William James) – With a smile, in the company of R., family and friends, Jim let go with trust and drifted peacefully to Heaven on Friday, January 14, 1994. Beloved son of A. and B. ______, loving brother of A. and D., favourite uncle of D. and M., Jim was loved by everyone he met and reserved a special place in his heart for each of us. A farewell service will be held Saturday, January 22 at 11:00 a.m. at the St. James Crematorium Chapel, 635 Parliament Street, Toronto. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to The Hospital for Sick Children AIDS Research Fund; the Women and AIDS Program c/o ACT (AIDS Committee of Toronto); and the Canadian Cancer Society. Arrangements under the direction of Basic Funeral Alternatives.
It took me awhile to dig this up but I eventually found it in a letter I used to write semi-annually or so to a former co-worker in Niagara. I noted, to her, that the notice appeared – fittingly enough – on the inside back page of the Star’s Entertainment section.
Later that week, a couple of days before the memorial service, I journalled:
“Was I morbid or vulture-like to be hanging around the hospital all week once it was clear Jim could die at any moment? The fact is I did want to see his death, if it was inevitable, to reinforce my sense of peace with the process. It just so happened that my being there proved to be a gesture of support to R. and Jim’s family and friends. My serenity with Jim’s transition is surely a powerful example of the many options one faces at the time of a loved one’s death. I make no apologies for my physical response to Jim’s passing. I shed tears, I sobbed on my knees at his bed-side, I miss his physical presence, his welcoming home, his beautiful face, his baritone voice, his masculinity, his femininity, his alert sense of humour, his inquisitive facial expressions, his breathless wonder, his impromptu visits, his poetic story-telling, his laughter, his vulnerability, his deceiving self-assurance, and on and on I could go – and am sure to for a long time to come.”
These many years since I have referred to Jim – when speaking of him to people who did not know him – as “the best friend I never had”, a double entendre meaning that, since elementary school days, I had only had one “best friend” and we had lost touch quite some time ago. I also meant it in the more carnal sense in that, despite my undeniable physical attraction to Jim, the feelings were not mutual and – besides – I was in a position of trust as a mentor of sorts.
Plus, as I wrote a couple of years ago in this account of the death of another friend, Terry, Jim and I shared some very precious memories:
Monday, March 15, 2004
- 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, April 22-23, 1992. (Terry was the former partner of my dear friend, Jim, who succumbed to AIDS-related pneumonia. 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.
I met Jim only in the early fall of 1990. Yet it seems, in so many ways, like we shared a life together before his death thirteen years ago now, on that bitterly cold morning of January 14, 1994.
I was standing at Jim’s shoulder when his breathing stopped and, after a respectful few seconds of quiet and tears, I slipped my hand over his eyes to close them. I recalled our special, albeit painful, time of silence – alone, together – the morning, a couple of years before, when Terry died.
A version of this story has been published as “A Sense of Peace After Thirteen Years” in Still Here: A Post-Cocktail AIDS Anthology , Collected and Edited by Allan Peterkin, MD and Julie Hann, OT, Copyright 2008 by Life Rattle Press, Toronto, and the contributing authors.