25 May 2009

It Continues On Memorial Day

Around noon, I went out for a bike ride. How couldn't I?: The day was gorgeous and I was going to a barbeque at Millie's, where I expected to take in more than a few calories.

I got home around 1:45, took a shower and dried my hair. Then I heard the signal on my cell phone that indicates someone left a message. Someone turned out to be Mom, who sounded even more distressed than she has lately. However, her message was equally disturbing: Dad wanted to talk to me.

I called. He answered and said he wanted to ask about withdrawal from drugs, about which I know a bit. It seems that one doctor doesn't know what the other has prescribed for him, and every doctor he visits prescribes something else. He decided to stop taking all of the prescriptions except one.

He's spiralling even deeper into his depression. Just before he called, he'd written notes to Mom, me, my brothers and other people, and called the VA hotline. Now he's worried that because the counselor recorded the call, as she is required to do, that record could harm him. How, he couldn't say. If anything, I advised him, it might help him to get the help he actually needs.

But he lapses into the same monologue I've been hearing for weeks: He "doesn't see an end to it" and that he has "nothing to look forward to, no motivation to do anything." He admits he is "driving people away" and "destroying" Mom with stress. I haven't seen her since Christmastime, but I would not be surprised to see that she's aged another ten years since then. She sounds that way over the phone.

She and Dad insisted that my impending surgery has "absolutely nothing" to do with their current emotional states. Dad even said, "It's what you need to do to be happy; don't feel guilty."

Yesterday, he told me, "I foresee a tragedy coming." I pointed out to him--and, afterward, Mom, that it was the first time I had ever heard him use the word "tragedy." I tried to get him to talk more about this, but he claimed he didn't know what it was or even what it might look like. "Does it involve death?" I asked.

He hedged. "I dunno."

"Well, that's what a tragedy is: a death. Is that what you mean?"

"It'll be a disaster."

"Well, you can survive a disaster, overcome it, even come out better for it. That's not a tragedy."

"But I don't know how to get out of it."

"That's why you need help."

"But nothing's helped."

"You've been to the wrong doctors. They're not equipped to help you in the ways you need. Whatever it is, wherever you have to go, keep trying."

He repeated something he said yesterday: "I want to kill myself. But the reason I don't is that I'm chicken."

"No, it's because you're not."

"What do you mean?"

"As long as you choose to live, you have a chance to heal. If you don't..."

"What would be the difference?"

I mentioned something I've never told him before. "I used to think about killing myself all the time."

"Until your change."

"Yes. But I'm not going to tell you that it's what you need. I don't know exactly what your change will look like. But I know this: You have to choose to live."


"Because I want you. Because Mom wants you. Because my brothers--your sons--and your grandchildren want you."

"For what?"

Another revelation: "Five people in my life have committed suicide. All of them, for problems that could have been solved. It would have taken time, and work. But they could have found a way to work things out. "

"And what difference would it have made?"

"They'd be here. I don't know what their lives would be like, but I can tell you they would all be worthwhile. And--all right, I'm being selfish--I wouldn't've had to carry the wounds they left me. And other people wouldn't have those wounds, either."

Then he lapsed into a lament that's become all too familiar to me and everyone else in the family: He was a bad son, husband and father. I reminded him, as Mom and others have, that he can't do anything about the kind of son he was--although, I continued, he was probably a better son than he realizes, given the kind of father he had. And there's still a chance for him to be a good husband and father. "I, for one, don't care about what you did, or might have done, to me thirty years ago, forty years ago. There's now. And, to tell you the truth, you've been better to me than I ever imagined you would be. "

"Well, thank you."

"No, I thank you. "

"But I'm not like your mother."

"Who is? So why do you have to be like her? After all, I already have her in my life."

"So what can I do?"

"Care. About yourself. About seeing your grandchildren grow up. About your children. About Mom, especially. That's all you have to do. Nobody expects you to start a new career and make lots of money. But, you have to care."

I don't think I had any effect on him, for the conversation ended with his refrain about being a bad son, husband and father, and feeling that he can do nothing about it.

Well, I guess I shouldn't be surprised. It seems that this date, 25 May, and today's holiday, Memorial Day, have often been significant for me. (It also just happens to be the birthdate of Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy!) Wonderful, terrible but important things seem to happen for me on this date, and on this holiday.

To wit: This date two years ago was a Friday and the weather unusually hot for the time of year. I'd had lunch with Bruce and, having no place where I had to be, decided to take the D train out to Bensonhurst. I wanted to capture the light and heat of a day like it in that neighborhood: They come without warning, which doesn't allow shadows to form and provide their refuge from the refulgent, relentless sun. The bricks and shingles of the houses trap that light inside them and cling to the heat, which made the sandstone-dry streets of that neighbood seem like ovens.

After spending a couple of hours wandering that neighborhood, at its edge, I came to the Holy Spirit church, where I was an altar boy. I had not stopped for, much less entered, it since 1971. Though it wasn't on my itinearary (as if I had one!), I needed to go there and confront the "ghost" of the priest who sexually abused me.

Four years before that, this date fell on a rainy Sunday that was unusually cold for the time of year. Ruth, a woman with whom I became friendly when I was volunteering at the LGBT Community Center of New York, called and asked whether I wanted to accompany her to PS 1, a gallery and performance space not far from where I live. "Of course," I said. I replied in the same way when she asked whether one of her friends could accompany us.

I was coming to the end of that year when I was going to work as Nick but socializing away from my neighborhood as Justine. So Ruth had only seen me "as" Justine. Her friend, however, turned out to be a colleague at work! Of all co-workers I could have chosen to be the first to learn about my identity, there hardly could have been anyone better than Alice. As long as you're not napalming babies, she can understand and accept just about anything you might do.

After that day, I knew I had no choice but to "come out" to everyone I saw regularly. I had planned to return to work the following semester as Justine, so of course "coming out" was inevitable. I guess that that day, I realized for the first time the inevitability of the life I would come to lead: the one that has led me here. After our visit to PS 1, we walked to a since-closed fish- and -chips restaurant and a movie theatre where we saw some silly flick. On the way, we walked by LaGuardia Community College, where Alice and I worked. No one except a few security guards were there. One of them glanced at us as we walked by the main entrance. He didn't give us a second look; I would bet that as best as he could tell, we were just three women in early middle age. I took that as a good omen.

Let's see...I could choose about seven or eight other May 25ths and Memorial Days that were significant, for better and worse. for me. Here's one: In 1998, when this date fell on a Monday (as it did today) and was Memorial Day, I had set into motion the most desperate series of acts in my life. They comprised the relationship I would come to have with Tammy.

We had spent that weekend together and we took our first "roadtrip" together: to Wave Hill, one of the most beautiful places in New York City, which served as the inspiration and home to a number of artists. It overlooks the Hudson and its many trees and flowers were in full bloom or about to reach that state. It was a great place to spend a late-spring day and to make some attempt to "get myself together" as I understood doing that in those days. I was nearing forty, and clinging on to that last hope that I could live as a heterosexual man. Tammy had no idea that day of what she'd gotten herself into.

As I recall, I met some of Tammy's friends for the first time that weekend. She would later tell me that they remained silent as they knew her ex-husband was sleeping with her female friends. In fact, one of those friends was one of her ex's sexual dalliances. I have not spoken with any of them since Tammy and I split up; I can only imagine what they might have been thinking when they met me.

Two more years when this date fell on a Monday and was Memorial Day: 1992 and 1981. In the former year, I had the first tremors within me that would culminate in the quake, of you will, of having my first flashbacks to my childhood sexual molestations. About three weeks later, I would have a sort of low-grade breakdown and soon afterward, I would talk about those long-ago experiences for the first time. Sometimes I think it's the second step (getting clean and sober was the first) toward recovering my self.

And in 1981, I had come back from France to take care of some business and see family and freinds. That day, I went to Philadelphia with a couple of friends I had at that time and accompanied them back to New Brunswick, NJ (where I attended Rutgers) for a party with some of our common friends and acquaintances.

At that party were, among other people, four of my Rutgers friends: Robert, Amy, Tony and William. That would be the last time I would see any of them alive. Within a few years, all of them would die from AIDS-related illnesses: the first people I knew who suffered such a fate. Sometimes I think of that day, that Memorial Day, as the beginning of "The Last Summer."

Then there was this date in 1991: I had gone to Middletown, NJ, where my parents were living, for a family barbecue. That night, after I got home, I went to an AA meeting, where I saw Kevin in person for the last time. I knew he had various ailments brought on by his then-recently-diagnosed AIDS, and on that day he wasn't looking well at all. Still, he insisted on remaining my sponsor, as long as I wanted him. Bruce advised me to take him up on it, for it would probably help him keep his spirits up, he said.

Two days after that meeting--on Memorial Day-- Robert, whom I last saw at the 1981 party, died. I found this out a few days later, from friends of common friends. By that Christmas, I would lose four other people in my life to AIDS, including Kevin on the day before Christmas Eve. And the younger brother of a woman I dated would be stabbed to death in the hallway of the buiding in which I was living.

And now today. And now this. I suppose that I should be thankful that after experiencing, among friends and other people who've been in my life, fourteen deaths by AIDS and five by suicide, that I have not grown numb at the prospect of facing another pointless, needless death. This is the first time in a very long time that I'm facing the prospect of a family member dying, and the first time I am looking at the possibilty of a family member's death by his own hand. At least I'm doing what I can to keep it from happening. I'll be continuing it today, on Memorial Day, and beyond.