April 27, 2019

UAB Hospital

A year ago tonight. It was warm. I had stayed with Tommy at the hospital until after ten. We watched a couple of episodes of the Great British Baking show and then I helped the nurse with his bed bath. He complained how I was doing it wrong. It was a familiar refrain. He loved to hold up how impractical my physician’s training was when compared to his nursing training. I never won those arguments and had learned long ago to tune him out when he was in that mode. It was hospital day thirty-one. He had been bounced around from floor to cardiac care unit to ICU and back again and he had finally improved enough to have all of his assist pumps removed. Physical therapy was to start with him in the morning and he was going to be allowed to stand for the first time in more than three weeks. What did I say to him when I left his room that night? I don’t remember. Probably something innocuous and double checking on what he wanted me to get him for breakfast.

I drove home, wrote a quick update on Facebook to all our friends about his improvement and his beginning cardiac rehab in the morning, and then I have no recollection. Most of the last month I was operating in a sort of fog; trying to keep some semblance of our normal life going while spending what hours I could with him and heading home late at night to feed the cats and get a few hours sleep. Did I read a chapter or two of something? Watch an episode of some series on Netflix? (I can’t even remember what I was working my way through at that point). I dropped off to sleep about midnight and was wakened a few hours later by the house phone ringing. Without picking it up, I knew who it was going to be and what they were going to tell me. I’d been dreading that call since I had figured out just how sick Tommy was some weeks earlier, hoping that it wasn’t going to come too soon, that we would get him home and he would go back to his irascible self. Slower, and with his activities somewhat curtailed, but still throwing himself into life. Having had to make those calls myself in residency, I was polite to the on call doc who had to tell me that Tommy was gone, hung the phone up like an automaton, and went into autopilot, calling his family, heading down to the hospital and embarking on the business of death.

Here we are a year later and I’m trying to figure out how I feel about it. I’ve never been comfortable with my own emotions. They always feel messy and uncomfortable to me. Perhaps that’s why I like acting. It allows me to experience them in a neater way, and I can hang them up at the end of the evening. The last few weeks have been full of them. I can feel them roiling deep in my gut. I just can’t tell if it’s grief, anger, love or some sort of combination of everything at once. Tonight’s meditation is my attempt to process it a little bit and maybe I can figure out what’s going on so I can start dealing with it. The only real outward sign is that I’ve been zoning out from time to time. When people ask me what I’m thinking about, I don’t know what to tell them because it’s not really an intellectual thought process that fits well into words.

The jaunt to Savannah was, in some ways, a means of recharging the batteries as I knew this week and weekend might be a bit rough. Part of me thinks I should have stayed a bit longer, but I really did want to get back to Birmingham for auditions and improv class. It also allowed me to go to church last Sunday and sing with the choir. James Sullivan was kind enough to provide an anthem with an actual bass part rather than some sort of second tenor written in bass clef. Most of the rest of this week I’ve just felt tired, falling asleep in front of the computer at work, having difficulty getting my notes done (still have a sheaf to do tomorrow), not really feeling like eating much.

I spent this morning with various estate planning things I’ve been putting off for far too long. My basic estate plan up through this year was ‘I’m dead – Tommy gets everything and will have to figure it out’. That won’t work anymore so my dining room table is littered with computations and change of beneficiary forms and a draft letter to my attorney regarding my will. It seemed somewhat poetic to be dealing with all that a year later and I have a feeling I will still be dealing with some of it in another year. I’m not planning on going anywhere but I’m under no illusions that I’m going to live forever (unlike the lead edge of the baby boom, but that’s another discussion) and as I’m starting to do some more exotic travel, one must always have a plan for the worst. That was followed by brunch with Tom Baker who’s pretty good at cutting through my layers of BS and then another audition.

Today’s audition was for You Can’t Take It With You, a play I have directed, stage managed, and acted in twice. I was reading for Paul, the father, a part I played in college nearly forty years ago. At least I’m age appropriate now. I really don’t like to audition but it’s a necessary evil I suppose. I keep reminding myself that those on the other side of the table want you to be so good that you fill one of their needs and that they’re rooting for you. I’m pretty good at cold reads but I hate preparing monologues and songs as they’re so danged artificial in that environment.

Tonight I went to Unbreakable, a Andrew Lippa piece presented by the local gay men’s chorus, Steel City Mens Chorus. Dinner first with a new neighbor who’s also a widower of a certain age (just friends…) and then the show. The piece is an exploration of LGBTQ life in America over the last century in fourteen songs. As it’s Lippa, it’s very modern show tune sounding and I enjoyed the music very much. In structure, it’s more of an oratorio than anything else with a combination of solos and men’s choral numbers about everything from Gertrude Stein to HIV. This is only the second time the piece has been done but I can see it having a life as a special program from gay mens choruses in other places. I was a bit surprised that a piece of one of my earlier musings from this venue had made it into the program (a paragraph on the need for philanthropy to support performing arts). I guess someone reads these things after all.

As I was listening to the piece unfold, I kept thinking that in some ways it was very much the story of my life. Steve came out in 1962 at the age of 14 and helped blaze a trail for LGBTQ rights in Southern California through the 60s, 70s, and 80s. We were together through the 90s in Northern California for all the changes that period brought, then came to Alabama. The 00s and 10s belonged to me and Tommy, moving from a time where my employer refused to acknowledge my relationship (I still have the letter from UAB saying if they acknowledged a gay relationship, people would be signing their next door neighbors up for University benefits) to one where I can go to my friends weddings and no one bats an eye. One of the anthems toward the end of the piece talks about we are the survivors, walking hand in hand. That’s me, I survive walking hand in hand in hand with my ghosts.

I have yet to visit Tommy’s grave. We don’t really do burial and grave stuff in my family. When you’re gone, you’re gone. He’s in his family plot in the little mining town of Parrish about an hour outside of Birmingham. I’m feeling like I should make a pilgrimage tomorrow. Maybe I’ll do that instead of going to church (the choir isn’t singing anyway). If I do, I’ll take a picture. There are far worse places to be resting than a little country cemetery in rural Alabama. If I take flowers, I just have to be sure there aren’t any roses. For some reason, he hated them. Occasionally I’d have a brain fart and get him some. His responses were usually none too kind.

I did make it to the grave site on the anniversary

I don’t know if writing this has made anything clearer to me or to anyone else. Sometimes when I write these posts, they take shape as a story or anecdote, sometimes they’re a travelogue, sometimes I vomit up random word salad from somewhere deep in my subconscious. Know that I’m OK, just processing a lot. As I go through all this I realize that not only am I processing my time with Tommy and his death, I’m also processing my time with Steve and his illness and death. Apparently there was unfinished business that was sublimated for nearly twenty years and it all has to bubble up before I can fully enter whatever phase of life is to come next.

Enough of this drivel, going to put on some old Game of Thrones episodes and snuggle up with the cat…

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