There must have been a first time that we met since a warm wash of familiarity would rain over me every time I saw him. I was so sure that I knew him from somewhere that the sense of sharing a past life became the only possible answer as the why I could not place our first introductions, The white mane of his rumpled head of hair made him immediately recognizable as he walked around the city, a book bag hung over his shoulder, the good one, not the shrunken one. Not the one eaten by the polio he had had as a child, marked at birth with a port wine stain. Without a doubt, there was always a notebook in that bag, ready for him to write down notes. All of the thoughts and the images, the sights and sounds he collected as he traipsed across the city, climbing up and down the steep hills, saved in storage to be used for his next poem or short story.
We met officially when we served on the board of an organization that had an archive of poetry and experimental prose. Some of it was on shelves but the collection rarely sold anything from the small storefront bookstore, now gentrified out of the Mission. None of that writing would normally be found on the shelves of Barnes and Noble. But nowadays one can find anything on the internet, even the obscure; who knows where old experimental literature exists.
I would drive him home after meetings to his hidden paradise, also in the Mission district. A small red brick house, behind a cobbled garden patio. The narrow walkway from the entrance on the street was filled with black, green and blue plastic bins for garbage recycling and compost, and the expected odor accompanied them. We would squeeze past the greyed wooden stairs to the portal that led to the garden, filled with lush plants, a black wrought iron table and various objets d’art he’d collected on his travels. Pottery and masks and good luck trinkets. Across the street from the entrance to the walkway was a Church with a neon sign blasting the message “JESUS IS THE ANSWER” and every time he would respond, “But what is the question? “
Then he would burst out with a roaring laugh. A lapsed Irish Catholic, he had no guilt over leaving an institution with a history rooted in corruption, often abusing its’ power in the name of God. Often, he would cite evidence of these facts to me, facts he had gathered through reading and studying, always rooted in heartfelt truth.
We became friends over the years. He confided in me about his past relationships, and was excited to tell me when he had met Anne.
“We love each other, Gloria,” he said to me in the direct and decisive tone which was his trademark.
It was an 18 year relationship at the end and they only got married so that she could have easy access to his estate once he passed.
“All these years as a bohemian, artistic couple and one day I wake up married, soon after, I am a widow. So strange, so strange,” she would say eventually.
We met for coffee sometimes, or lunch or dinner. He walked all over the city and instructed me on the virtues of using ones feet rather than a car.
“Walk as often as possible, and carry some fruit, “he’d say. No one could argue with his advice, yet he remained a large man, his belly expanding and receding depending upon his current strategy for physical well- being.
Then the day came when he sent out a mass email; it was melanoma and treatable, the message said. He had gone in for a simple skin check. There was a spot on his forehead that had been bothering him. The result was as you might expect, much more serious than just a spot. But he got treatment and he got better. In fact he went into remission and he was declared cancer free. But when we met for lunch, not long after he sent that announcement, he had bandages around his leg that were not attached well. They looked a bit dirty and hung off his ankles in a way that reminded me of the gout infested homeless people I passed by downtown on Market Street. Something was off, he was not himself any longer. His normal rumpled style had turned into one of self-neglect. I felt ashamed when I caught myself pulling away from the visual experience of him. I could see some bald spots in his normally full of hair scalp, and it was too hard for him to carry his bag of books on his shoulder. It was simply too much weight for him.
Will I be recognizable when I am older and my decline takes on a life of its own? When my nightly beauty rituals will no longer have impact even if I continue to practice them in order to fight off the inevitable fate that awaits us all?
Months passed and I had less free time. One day the next mass email came. It was back. The melanoma had returned with a vengeance and it did not look good. A meeting was called. Some of his closest friends gathered to talk about help and the future, at least what was left of it. That was just after he and Anne had married. He would make sure to care for her. She was caring for him. There had been moments when he had thought of running off with the wild Romanian poet with a voracious sexual appetite. But he didn’t; he stayed longer with Anne. There had been no deceit. He had told Anne everything.
“She has been a saint,” he would tell me as he lay dying.
At that meeting, in Anne’s small kitchen filled with flowers and serving dishes with French writing on them, the focus was on John. Many of us in the circle were cancer survivors, eager to share our secrets of what had saved us. Don’t eat this, do eat that, meditate and visualize. Listen to tapes. Keep a positive outlook. Shit. He has cancer and we all knew it was a deadly version of those dividing cells. He was not on the down turn of the roller coaster ride yet although he seemed quite clear that he knew he would not survive.
That would change as the time drew nearer. One Sunday morning he fell off the toilet. Anne could not lift him. She called 911 and an ambulance took him to the hospital.
He was there for a few weeks and as he eventually got weaker he lost his ability to stand up. They moved him to the Jewish Home for the Aged to help him gain muscle strength. To me, he looked like a dying man but until that day would actually come, everyone worked hard to keep him alive. That’s what we do until there is no hope left. I was reluctant to talk to him about death. I knew it was near but I did not sense permission to enter a deeper exploration of what was imminent. This left me conflicted. Shouldn’t I push a little, I thought to myself. Not my place, I decided.
“John, I want to come see you this weekend. Is there anything I can bring you?”
He still had his voice that day.
“Just call first and I’ll let you know. But I think I have everything I need.”
“How are you doing John?”
“I know how close I was. I was very close. But I am grateful that I am still here. I am not ready yet. I am just trying to accept where I am.”
He spoke with emphasis on the last three words. An aware man, he had used his rugged childhood with an abusive, alcoholic father to write his prose poems. His healing had been a tool to navigate the world and to keep his own rage in check. He told me about those feelings but I never saw the anger. Most of the time, he joked, even when we spoke of the dire political perspective we both shared.
“Yes, it seems you know what is happening,” I said
“Yes, but I want a longer middle part of the story.”
“ I love you John.”
“I love you too, Gloria.”
On Saturday morning, Anne called
“It’s not a good day, he’s had a bad night,” she said in her voice mail.
My husband and I looked at each other and silently agreed to a knowledge we did not speak of. We knew we had to go. With cello in hand, my musician husband and I drove to the foggy neighborhood where the Jewish Home for the Aged held my friend.
His insurance would cover his care there.
“John, at last, you’ve seen the light. When is the conversion happening?”
He laughed at my joke.
“I hope they are not demanding circumcision!” He laughed again and shook his head.
In his whispered voice, which was on the verge of being silenced, he said, “Christ was a very good Jew!” We all laughed again.
After a short concert of Brahms and Schumann, he was too tired for more. Using his hands to communicate, he told us he had had enough.
The next day, I checked in with Anne to see how John was doing.
“ He nodded off to sleep and went out like a whisper,” she said.
Story by: Gloria Saltzman
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