Last evening Paul walked in from work and handed me his iPhone with a typical curt haiku from his sister onscreen: Mom sleeping all the time/Talking to new doctor/Next phase. As if Josephine were going through a classic model of dying—or was she just resting up from her recent manic couple of days when she was yelling for the police and demanding to be taken home? Someone had helped her dial Paul at work: “If you and your sister aren’t here in five minutes I’m calling the cops!” Earlier that day I bashed my head on one of the sub-basement beams when I went down to look for an old letter in a box still unpacked since our move six years ago, and at some point I forgot to remain half crouching, slammed the top of my skull, and fell backward and rolled in the dust and cobwebs managing not to hit my head a second time on the cement floor. For several hours after, I thought of Natasha Richardson’s fate and worried. That night I had one of my frequent I-see-dead-people dreams: I was out with a group of friends and Richard—my second lover to die of AIDS, over twenty years ago now—was there, performing silent film-style capers, mugging and mouthing at me, but only I was aware of him.
Prior to our meeting, Paul and I had both lived through the plague years in San Francisco, both lost people close to us. (I’ve been HIV-positive but asymptomatic and nonprogressing for thirty years; on an HIV cocktail since ’11, per the latest protocol, with zero viral load, healthy T-cell numbers, and no side effects other than “vivid dreaming.”) Now, in our fifties, we’ve been oddly surprised to find the grief reprieve over—sure, Death’s gone on wildly swinging his scythe in the headlines, but for a long stretch he hadn’t seemed to be paying attention to our circle of contemporaries and close relatives—and the more natural cycle of older-generation deaths picking up pace. Dead in the last seven years: my gay younger brother, Mark (suicide), my much-loved eldest aunt, Joyce, two former teachers and lifelong friends, Daisy Meacham and poet Robert Burlingame, an old friend’s partner of forty-five years, and Paul’s father, Sam.
We’re what lifestyle pieces call DINKS (double income, no kids)—though since my last in-house layoff a decade before, my freelance erotica copyediting (pussy lips! asscheeks!) meant that Paul’s CFO position with a wealthy individual brought in the double income and I paid some bills and impulse grocery-shopped—and so we have been free to live pretty much as we would have thirty-five years ago, sans the disco dancing and sex with strangers: a liberal, highly sexed male couple with a comfortable house in San Francisco and a shared weekend place at Russian River, an elderly dachshund, and a couple dozen longtime friends between us. We go out when we feel like it, cook nice dinners, drink wine and smoke pot in relative moderation, occasionally have a drink in a gay bar. “This can’t go on forever, you know!” Paul regularly warned me as I tossed another trick towel into the laundry basket, but the panting orgasms were only more frequently wrested from us after this kind of talk.
Climbing back up the steep hills from Glen Park village and lunch out with a friend, I passed the big old rundown corner-lot Victorian we’ve always speculated about, and saw piles of clothes and linens on the sidewalk and plastic garbage bags being dropped from the high steps above, a slapdash estate sale. Inside, when I wandered up, there was debris spread everywhere, as if a storage locker had exploded: junk on every surface and the place a dusty, moldy wreck. There were stacks of framed tourist-spot and baby-animal prints on tables and leaning against the water-stained walls, some mildewed, weighty Victorian poetry volumes I wouldn’t use to stop a door—Browning, Tennyson, Bryant—and up the filthy shag-carpeted stairs, rooms full of women’s clothes on racks. This old lady was—and it seemed clear she’d expired—quite the clotheshorse and hoarder. I’m my mother’s son in this at least: I’d like to leave behind a clean house. It wasn’t lost on me that we’d be facing a similar, if far less cluttered, process at Paul’s parents’ house in Union, New Jersey in a few days—and who knows what situation with Jo herself, who’d been in a rapid decline in the year and a half since Sam died.
Up till Sam’s slow-moving cancer, they’d carried on remarkably well for being in their late eighties, living as they always had since his 1980s retirement in the house they’d occupied since 1959, rather like the miniaturized, bottled citizens of Kandor Superman stowed and occasionally shrank himself to drop in on at the Fortress of Solitude. Jo shouted at Sam till he got hearing aids, then Sam shouted at her when it turned out she was also near deaf. When she wailed at his deathbed, “Why did you die and leave me here all alone?” it wasn’t just a thing you say; she took to her bed soon after the funeral, announcing she wanted to die, and nobody could tell how much was depression and dementia that’d been held at bay till now, and how much conscious determination.
Four sisters, with a fifteen-year gap in the middle: of the elder, one had been my mother, mostly estranged, now twelve years dead, the other, Joyce, more like a mother to me since I’d moved to California at twenty-one; the youngest, Janet, had always been more of a fun big sister; her three-years-older sibling Libby, my nemesis, was a pursed-lipped, pontificating evangelical. Joyce and Janet had flown to San Francisco for the “celebration of life” (I wasn’t directing the event) when Richard died in ’92. That was the last time I’d had to speak at a memorial for someone I dearly loved; I’d gotten off easy since.
We’d driven to LA a day after getting the news, which was sad and awful but by then not unexpected: Joyce’s cancer, in remission for seven years, had come back over the past year, spreading to her bones. She’d barely survived one blast of chemo the first time, before a magical recovery; now, at a frail seventy-eight, she had declined invasive treatment. The cancer’s progress and the necessary pain medication addled her and quickly halted our weekly phone conversations. I’d flown down for a weekend in June and she was in bad shape, weakly shuffling with walker and wheelchair, sitting in front of the TV and unable to distinguish the commercials from the programming, my uncle struggling to care for her. (Janet and Susan would both come to help for long stretches, and finally, a young Filipina home health aide.) Bill got her in the car one muggy afternoon and drove us to a lookout point along the Pacific Palisades, and she was enough herself to make a face and pick out the capers I’d put in our tuna salad sandwiches.
Only ten days prior to her death, at the end of a trip Paul and I had taken to New Mexico and El Paso to see several of my old school friends and Aunt Janet, she and I had stood with both our ears to the cell phone when Uncle Bill put his phone up to Joyce’s ear as we prattled about the visit. When Janet asked how she was doing that day, she got out “So…far…so good?” Then Bill came back on and explained she’d been put on oxygen, his voice breaking, and Janet and I started bawling and everyone on the patio around us looked aghast. “Did she…?” someone asked. No, we just knew it was coming soon.
The spare brick ranch house was a hub of activity when we first stepped inside, old photos and artifacts spread over the dining table, Janet’s Chuck scanning snapshots to a laptop to be played in a loop at the memorial; Bill dazed and wiping his eyes but being kept busy; Cousin Susan’s partner Anne cooking dinner, our Oscar barking anytime one of us wasn’t holding him, a social worker dropping by to check on the emotional aftermath (was she, I wondered, the same upbeat lady who’d visited a while back, asked my dying aunt to suggest a favorite song, and when Joyce vaguely, possibly sarcastically, said, “I don’t know…‘Jingle Bells’”?, led a macabre sing-along of the Christmas carol, though it was closer to Halloween?), a church representative stopping in to make notes for her eulogy. “Janet’s speaking, and you will, right?” Susan asked.
“You and Joyce have a special relationship,” my Uncle Bill would say. Our closeness over the past several decades tapped all the familial love I’d missed with my mother, who’d never gotten over her anger and embarrassment at my being gay. Joyce had felt a similar sting: my grandfather disowned her for several years after she eloped to California with Bill in 1948. I thought her high-strung and strict the infrequent times I was around her as a child: my older cousin, Linda, was an early 1950s preemie with severe physical disabilities—though she survived to become a plucky, smart, sharp-tongued wheelchair activist—and coping with her care dominated and stressed their family. My cousin Susan, a year older than me, came out about the time I moved to San Francisco, and Joyce fiercely supported us both. After Linda died at forty, not from her ever worsening health but in a freeway accident the weekend of the Rodney King riots, our connection only grew more tender.
We arrived at Newark Airport early on a cold Friday morning in late March, picked up the rental car and navigated rush hour traffic to sleepy Union, drove to Paul’s sister’s for the key and then to the family home on Hawthorne Avenue to throw our luggage in, clean up, and drive to City of Hope. Diane had been adamant that the end was imminent and Paul should see Jo while it was still possible. City of Hope, at ten grand a month, had a spacious, pod layout, with arts and crafts décor, WiFi, a crackling fireplace and coffee and fresh cookies in the public rooms, and a noticeable lack of that disturbing rubbing-alcohol hospital odor. Sure, there were rooms you didn’t want to glance into as you passed the half-shut doors, and a couple of residents who could still get out of their rooms flailing their arms and desperately trying to make eye contact like you were the waiter and they wanted the check, or sitting slumped in wheelchairs. Jo had been sleeping all the time, not eating, not speaking if she did wake, not opening her eyes—and that was the case when we walked into her room. Soon Diane arrived, and then Paul’s nephew and his wife and child; periodically Paul would shout into Jo’s flattened ear beneath the head cap covering her remaining wisps of hair as she lay slightly propped up in the hospital bed, “It’s Paul! We’re all here!”
Back at the silent house we fell into bed and slept ten hours till the dusty avocado-green dial phone rang anachronistically at nine a.m.
When we returned to the hospice, one of the Caribbean aides met us smilingly in the hallway. “Oh, it’s so great you’re here, Josephine was just awake and talking and eating her lunch!” Paul was able to get her to open her eyes, take some sips of ginger ale, and even respond, hazily, to gossip about our friends in San Francisco and the flight—a blip in the downward spiral, if it is one, and she seemed able to appreciate we were there—that Paul was there. Communication was rudimentary: “Are you thirsty?” “Do you want to sit up?” Her only partly decipherable speech is either yes or no, or obscure, e.g., “Is that one coming that mostly lived in Italy?” But at least Paul could feed and stroke her, hold her hand, say, “We’re here all week, Ma.”
The following day, a Sunday, was our first real start at cleaning out the house. We carefully emptied the china cabinet and packed up the simple white and gray Sango dishes. Stepping on the carpet over the loose floorboard just in front of that hutch and hearing the dishes tinkle as it swayed always gave me a sensory pleasure. That, and what looked like a corn husk tied with a ribbon stuck in a hole in the little white porcelain Mary behind the glass—Jo’s palm from Palm Sunday. We gathered and boxed all of great-nephew Chase’s scattered toys, and drove those and the china crates to Paul’s nephew’s house. It was garbage night, and we stuffed all the cans. The work was fraught with clichés; clearing out the history and accumulation of two familiar lives, one more thing I’d completely avoided thanks to the longstanding break with my parents. We stopped work for a two-hour visit to the hospice, where Jo was sleeping again; when we returned, Diane was at the house and willing to go through more stuff, and even got animated when we came across several dramatic ’70s dresses of hers hanging in the back of a deep hall closet upstairs, some of which I recognized from the fading, round-cornered snapshots in Paul’s pre-SF photo albums where everybody’s twenty-one, smoking and holding cocktails at parties in pine-paneled basements. There was her wedding dress, and Jo’s wedding night peignoir of yellowing white satin and lace. More big plastic bins were filled and loaded into her car and driven away. Then Paul humored me with a drive out for Sicilian pizza at a fusty Union Center pizzeria; when we walked into the nearly empty room festooned with plastic plants across the latticed ceiling and in planters along the wood-paneled pony walls, he stopped and gaped at an older couple till the woman, staring back, said, “Paul?” It was his close high school pal Jerry’s sister, Laney, unseen in thirty years. “What next—Aunt Bea?” I said. “Floyd the barber?”
Monday, more major clearing, dumping, and boxing; several afternoon hours with Jo, mostly sleeping again. Back at the house later, after glasses of wine and a sneaked toke scrounged from a friend, I coaxed Paul upstairs—in former times he’d generally shrugged off any sex suggestions, spooked by the proximity of his folks, not that either could hear anything with or without the high-volume television in the evening—and knelt to blow him as he sat on the edge of the bed with his pants yanked down, while he gripped my head and talked dirty, and I stroked hotly into the blue shag.
Next day, more sorting out, then a drop-off of old bestsellers, CDs, and clothes at Goodwill, then more hours at the hospice. Emptying a midcentury record cabinet in one of the dormer bedrooms, I uncovered a yellowed bundle of letters Paul had written to his parents starting with his first arrival in San Francisco in June ’77, tied with a stiff piece of ribbon. I sat back in the floor and put them neatly in order by postmark and began reading, quickly adrift in the sunny, boosterish, but quite recognizable voice. Unlike my few letters home from the same place and time, there were no mentions of hookups or STDs. “Promise me you won’t toss these out and will let me read them,” I told him when I went downstairs with my find. He hadn’t wanted me to read the little packet of letters from the same period Diane sent him back a few years ago.
Wednesday the shredders came: all the decades-old tax, business, banking records, gone. Earlier, Paul stood with cobweb in his hair in front of the tall file cabinet down in the finished basement reading through a file folder full of receipts for jewelry Sam had bought Jo back in the day. I packed up and labeled all the old photo albums and shoeboxes of loose snaps, from which we’ve culled favorites on past visits. We drove over to spend time with Jo at four: she’d been awake, talking, and had actually been put in a big, wheeled lounge chair that morning, but was back propped in bed when we walked in. All the aides seemed surprised and amazed at her rally. It’s jarring to go from photographs of Jo’s girlhood and prime to the wizened, sunken-eyed, hairless condition she’s reduced to now. Sitting by her bedside I remembered the surreal sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when Keir Dullea as astronaut David Bowman is looking at the shrunken, ancient dying man tucked in the French provincial bed, and then the POV shifts and it’s Bowman in the bed, looking out.
When we pulled into the driveway back at the house—31 degrees outside and brutal wind—Paul looked up and yelled: a six-foot length of aluminum siding had been wrenched off the eave high above and was violently slapping against the house. We’d never be able to sleep if we didn’t do something about it. I saw when I raced up the dormer stairs and stuck my head out that at one point in its arc, the strip of siding swung close to the window. There was a slapstick sequence where I tried to catch at and then hold it in place with freezing fingers while Paul raced around looking for string, and icy wind snapped the curtains in my face, till he could lasso the strip against the house and anchor the other end of the string to the metal banister, then close the sash on it. “If this were a Buster Keaton movie,” I said, “the next blast of wind would yank out the window frame and drag the stair rail after it.” This incident seemed a physical manifestation of Sam’s absence: his well-maintained house is coming apart, something he fretted about in his delirium (“They’re wrecking my house!”) as he lay dying in a hospital bed in the middle of the living room, exactly two years ago.
Back in San Francisco, doodling instead of working, I peered at the Google Earth view of 3028 Brandwood in El Paso—the last house I lived in with my family, from ’67 to ’77—the front yard only dead grass, dirt, and blown trash, the shrubs dead; from above, I could see the backyard, also brown, with a little white bar sideways in a far corner: the fake marble “poet’s bench” purchased in Mexico and trucked over, which used to be shaded by the willow I planted alongside it, since cut down.
Dinner at the wildly popular Boon in Guerneville last night, crowded with warm-weather visitors. We sat between tables of twentysomething straight couples, the boy at my right side reiterating his and his twelve-year-old-looking date’s ages in a piercing nasal voice: “Okay, sure, you’re almost twenty-seven, but you’re not old-old!” Talk of Jo on the drive up, and how long her dying can go on—eighty-seven pounds now and mostly unresponsive. Speculating morosely about “how much time do we really have?” Paul said, “You’ve had to acknowledge death, of course,” meaning my losing Jack and then Richard up close. “Yeah, but I’ve had plenty of time to unacknowledge it!” I said.
The Wicked Witch of the West flew in the day of the memorial. When we let ourselves back in the kitchen door at Joyce and Bill’s house Sunday morning, the first person I saw was Aunt Libby, and a thickened Uncle Dolph, wearing a clerical collar, which I guess anyone can if he feels like it, though as far as I knew he was a retired HR executive. The two of them gave couples seminars at their church with racy titles like God’s Plan for Biblical Intimacy in Your Marriage and Lordly Loving with Dolph and Libby Wigant. It’d been thirty-five years since the last time I’d seen her other than in photos; her shortish gray hair fell stylishly over her brow, so the trademark lack of eyebrows was obscured. She still spoke with that Southern belle affectation. Before I could say, “This is my husband, Paul,” as I’d intended, Dolph rushed out his hand to Paul and said manfully, “Dolph Wigant.” Libby smirked at me and wheeled away toward the dining room, trilling, “He looks exactly like Max!” (my late, much-despised father), to which deliberate insult I smiled and said, “I’d hate to think that’s true, but I guess you can’t fight genes.”
“And that’s just what Max would say!” Was she determined to provoke me? I just blinked and kept smiling, thinking, Be gone, you have no power here! Aunt Janet, probably worried I’d throttle Libby, interjected something about the unfortunate “Stone family cheeks,” and I said, “But wait, I’m not doing the Stone Scowl!” (Their fraternal Grandmother Stone frowns balefully in her few surviving photos, probably with good reason.)
“No, his face isn’t quite that puffy,” Libby called over her shoulder as she draped her pashmina, and I thought, Maybe she’s seen the nasty things I wrote about her if she’s being this rude. Uncle Dolph glared at me.
My cousin Susan’s one-time high school girlfriend, Rhonda, a nonstop talker, rode with us to the lofty Palos Verdes venue; as luck would have it, Libby and Dolph were emerging from their rental car alongside us in the parking lot as we climbed out. “Where did you get those shoes? They’re darling!” Rhonda stage-whispered to Libby. “DSW! Aren’t they cute? And they’re so comfortable!” A chummy discussion of the difficulty of finding cute yet comfortable shoes ensued. You’re flirting with a lesbian! I wanted to say.
Six weeks after the last trip we were back in Union—where we’d foresightedly left our suits behind in an empty closet—headed for Jo’s viewing at Galante’s Funeral Home from four to eight. The call came on a Tuesday morning before Paul left for work, his old friend Rosemary, who manages the place, reporting that “Josephine has begun the dying process,” unresponsive, breathing lightly with oxygen, stopping and starting. Then he called me a couple of hours later from work to say she’d died and he’d already been booking flights and a rental car.
Prescriptions filled, dog-sitter booked, ride to SFO arranged; another five-hour red-eye; this time the window seat to our middle and aisle was occupied by a large young woman with a well-behaved service dog tucked at her feet; she alternated eating bulky, healthy-looking wraps from a shopping bag and sleeping with a blanket draped over her head as if she were being taken into custody. Across the aisle, a jittery, sexy professional soccer player sprawled with his big legs spread, his shoes off and black-socked feet stretched out in the aisle. The arrival was all Groundhog Day as we went through the same jet-lagged hoops to get to the house and fall into the pushed-together twin beds with the same sheets we’d lain on six weeks before for deep, crazed sleep till the old dial phone by the foot of the bed jangled us awake at noon. We met Diane at Galante’s to make “the arrangements” an hour later; Galante’s, with the sagging French provincial furniture, elaborate oil portraits of the founders, and persistent paint odor—or was it? There we were again, staring across Paul’s friend Donna’s older brother’s desk at the same eagle-in-flight paperweight we had two years before. Tension, because Diane felt that, Jo having expired only twenty-four hours before, this was all too rushed, and as usual, Paul was the bad guy for wanting to take the reins and move things along. Four hours later we’d made all the choices at the funeral parlor (schedule, prayer cards, coffin)—I drafted the obit, which isn’t so different from book-jacket copy, if you think about it, and came up with several personal bits that passed muster: first and foremost a homemaker and homebody, happiest cooking for and surrounded by her family—ordered all the flowers, and gone to the cemetery, Hollywood Memorial Park, to sign off on the pricey crypt opening and closing. Paul’s folks had landed in Hollywood because Holy Sepulchre on East Orange in Newark, where all of the earlier generations are buried, got too dangerous to visit. The last time Sam reluctantly drove Jo and Aunt Doris there, some years back, they had a flat and were aided by a concerned elderly black gentleman who told them, “You folks should not be out here.” Some relatives ranged as far as Gates of Heaven in East Hanover for a Catholic burial plot in a safe neighborhood.
After two overcast, humid days, with rain on and off and the lulling sound of it overnight, it’s now sunny. There’s no reason for this house to feel more empty and abandoned than it already did, but with all the frantic arrangements done and Paul still asleep upstairs, it does. The viewing, or wake, went smoothly. There was the dreaded first stepping into the room at Galante’s and seeing the open coffin up front surrounded by all the flower arrangements we’d selected the previous afternoon, and Jo’s upper body and propped-up head. Paul had asked if we should consider a closed casket; “Oh no, Mommy would not like that!” Diane said. It turns out the woman who does the cosmetology at Galante’s is very good, and with only a photo, restored Jo’s face and arranged a wig to an amazing semblance of her last good days. Then, a four-hour blur of hugging and chatting up the throngs of elderly relatives and former neighbors and childhood friends of Paul’s, friends and workmates of Diane’s, and Paul’s niece’s and nephew’s. Maybe because I too was a bit of a stranger in this crowd, I found myself walking up to and engaging people who seemed lost, and so spent half an hour struggling for conversation with a young woman I’d last seen dirty dancing at niece Julie’s sweet sixteen bash (“Funeral homes freak me out,” she said, her eyes sweeping the room as if she’d misplaced her date), and let myself be trapped by speed-talking Yvette, the excitable Trinidadian neighbor Sam and Jo used to hide from when she rang the doorbell.
The next day, Saturday, began with the drive from the funeral home to the church, Paul, Diane and me in a limo with Julie, nephew Jared with the pallbearers. Stepping out at St. James, my eyes filled up for the first time that day, seeing the cinematic coffin being rolled in ahead of us. Then came all the alien rigmarole; Paul, Diane, and the kids had no more idea than I of when to rise or sit. After several awkward pauses, the priest (who looked more like an insurance salesman than the two gay bears last time around) began hand-signaling up and down. I lowered my head for the stretches of praying, but didn’t do any reciting back or amen-ing. The priest cited a Carly Simon lyric I didn’t recognize about “going home” after cribbing my obit line about Jo being a homebody, segueing to “But when you think about it, hasn’t she returned to her true home, at Jesus’s house?” Only when it got personal, when her name was pronounced and I thought of her smiling body in the casket a few feet away in the aisle alongside us did I have to struggle with the rising sob in my chest and I felt the pew trembling like the dining room hutch with identical efforts around me.
“Thence,” as we’ve started saying with air quotes, to Hollywood and the final, short service in the mausoleum. You stay seated in folding chairs while the funeral director and some workmen get the coffin into the other room and jacked up to the just-above-eye-level drawer, or “crypt,” alongside Sam’s, and then everyone troops in to drop a flower on a pile and say one more good-bye. Earlier, before we left Galante’s and the lid was shut, people went up and bent to kiss her face; I went up with Paul but stayed a step back.
My Aunt Joyce and Uncle Bill had moved from one increasingly liberal denomination to another till they settled on Unitarianism, or, as my grandmother Beulah, a grumpy Southern Baptist, had called it, “a G. D. book club.” Now, squirming in my uncomfortably buttoned collar and tie and wandering around the soaring glass enclosure of the chapel echoing with amorphous organ music, I was thronged by shyly smiling strangers wanting to introduce themselves: “Are you the nephew?” There was a long table with the slide show and guest book and various mementoes, but no urn to monitor the obsequies; the ashes wouldn’t be ready for several more days, after which they’d be sensibly placed in a cupboard to await a future merging with Bill’s. Soon we were guided to a front pew: Bill, Susan, Anne, Janet, Chuck, me, Paul—the remainder of what Janet had dubbed the Crazy Eight, who’d met up for birthdays in Torrance or, a couple of times, at our place in Guerneville. Libby and Dolph were seated just behind us. The minister lit a chalice and briefly addressed the Source of Life and Blessing, the closest thing to a prayer we were going to get. Aunt Janet spoke; Bill and Joyce’s friend of sixty years, Martha, spoke; then I had to make my way up to the podium.
“…then when I moved to San Francisco, I found my cousin Sue already there, on a summer of love sabbatical from law school—and found out we had more in common than those childhood family visits—Cousin Sue was playing for our team! Joyce visited Sue’s Haight Ashbury women’s household, gamely climbing a ladder to Sue’s attic room—and the three of us had a talkative and adventurous night out together. ‘We’re your family now,’ she told me. …When I sent Joyce copies of the book I dedicated to her, again with warnings about the sexual frankness of some of the content, I was astounded when she called to say proudly, ‘I shared your book at church on Sunday!’ …I was especially proud of her tireless efforts to get this church certified as a Welcoming Congregation. ‘Well, we finally got a gay couple last Sunday,’ she’d say, as if she and Bill had been driving down Torrance Boulevard and she’d yelled, ‘Pull over Bill, there’s one!’ I told her I thought she and Bill were going to have to start hanging out for cocktails in West Hollywood to find more potential conscripts. ‘Oh, no,” she said matter-of-factly. ‘They’re not going to drive that far.’”
They dragged a microphone stand to the side of the dais and let other congregants who wanted to speak come up one by one—and nearly every one talked about her gay outreach, and how she and Bill were the first to step forward when there was talk of starting up a P-FLAG chapter. One after another carefully enunciated “Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender,” and I longed to turn around and see if Libby’s eyes had rolled back in her head. And indeed, when the service wafted to a close, I did glance back to see that Libby and Dolph had leapt from their seats in hot pursuit of the minister as he headed to his office, to bitterly complain, we later learned, that “god” hadn’t been mentioned and no proper prayers had been said.
The family were to head back to the house, but Janet had volunteered Paul to drive the young Filipino home-caregiver, Shirley, and her silent, sultry, tattooed boyfriend, back to Whittier, an hour on the freeways each way, which meant, not coincidentally, we missed any further contact with the Christian contingent, who had left for the airport before we returned, though not before handing Bill a religious tract and expressing their worry that “we won’t all be together in heaven.” Back at home, telling my friend Bob about the trip, I said, “I’ve just got to get past Libby and Dolph. I’ll probably never have to see them again.” “Well…” he said, drawing the word out in his peculiar way, as if struggling for a tactful reply. “They are your family, you know,” which at first seemed to mean, They’re all you’ve got. “No, I mean they’re all crazy!” he said with a snort.
I woke from a Bollywood-style dream: Paul’s father was an Indian patriarch, but then I saw him have tearoom sex with another, younger Indian guy, then shoot him, seemingly dead, so he couldn’t tell anyone. But then the younger guy recovered and slipped back into the party, and I kept worrying about what the older man would do when he realized it. Then I was confronted with a manuscript in need of copyediting—the victim was penning a tell-all—and I’d sent it to Daisy, my old friend and long-ago journalism teacher who died horribly two years ago within weeks of Sam, after being badly burned when her clothing caught fire at the stove. The rest of the dream was a long phone message from Daisy—her familiar, cranky voice—saying she wasn’t sure what she could do with the manuscript, there was someone named Fiona she needed to confer with, and then she realized her time was up, the message space was running out and she was talking faster, saying, “Aw, Kevin, I used to be better with these things…” This has happened to me before: in the aftermath of one death, I dream vividly about another, as if the portal’s creaked open and anyone can pop through.
This morning Paul packed up the clothes in his mother’s bedroom bureau and closet, and, at last, he broke down in the middle of it and came out and wept in the kitchen while I held him and patted his back and said, “She loved you; she knew you loved her; you came back often…” Diane came over and helped sort the rest of the clothes—Shoes! Pocketbooks!—and we made another run to Goodwill. Then she and Paul went downtown to get the will from the safe deposit box for Diane to take to the lawyer the following week. When they pulled back up in front of the house, I was playing an old Laura Nyro LP from an upstairs closet on the living room hi-fi, waiting to ask if they’d pose for a reenactment picture on the front steps, mimicking the ’72 one in the pyramid of framed family photos in the tiny paneled den, showing the two of them as teenagers, both sporting shags, sitting with the family dog, a Lhasa apso named Jethro, on Diane’s lap. I’d lugged down the near-life-size ceramic version of the dog for them to hold, and though Diane’s usually unwilling to have her picture taken, they both complied and I got several good shots for a then-and-now Facebook post.
In the immediate aftermath of her death I’d had lots of busy, crowded, unremarkable or unremembered dreams that may have included my aunt, but the special, portentous one I vaguely expected came a few nights after we drove home from LA. In it, Paul and I each gripped one of her arms as if helping her along, except then she seemed to be slightly ahead of us and picking up speed and we were whizzing down a futuristic version of Market Street, toward a brightly lit BART entrance. I wondered if we were on ice skates, but didn’t want to look down. I was saying, “Joyce! Joyce!” wanting to glimpse her face—and she turned back just enough for me to see that she wore a flesh-colored, mesh fencer’s mask with a strap running around the top of her head and down under her jaw, like some Victorian sleeping gear, or, I thought in the dream, something to keep a corpse’s mouth from falling open. She looked straight into my eyes and I felt her so vividly acknowledging me. But she couldn’t speak; couldn’t tell me anything, neither comfort nor terror, just This is how it is.
In her last, pain-medicated months, if I got anything out of my aunt when the phone was held up to her, her responses were either monosyllabic, or repetitions of familiar phrases (“So far so good…” “We’ll see…”). In the past, she’d often say, verbally tossing up her hands and expressing a Zen resignation at some political or personal issue, “This too shall pass.” In the end her catch phrase came out: “This too shall come to pass.”
On our way out the door to drive to the airport, we looked around at the ransacked ’70s gold-and-brown kitchen for the last time. No more turning back the clock, coming in from dinner out with Paul’s high school friends and helping ourselves to cookies or chocolate pudding and glasses of milk while Sam and Jo dozed in their chairs in front of the blasting console TV in the den. No more red-eye arrivals to find Jo in her nightgown and house slippers making us French toast. Good-bye to bumping our wheelies out the front door and down the cement steps while Jo wipes her eyes, and those sharp, simultaneous feelings: relief at watching the little Cape Cod and the two old people at the screen door disappearing in the rearview mirror of the jerking cab; that pang, knowing each time might be the last.
Kevin Bentley is the author of Wild Animals I Have Known: Polk Street Diaries and After, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and Let’s Shut Out the World, a collection of memoirs. These two books, and the author, were featured in a 2005 New York Times Sunday Styles profile and will be reprinted later this year by Chelsea Station Editions. He has edited three literary erotica anthologies (After Words, Boyfriends from Hell, and Sex by the Book) and his personal essays have twice appeared in the literary journal ZYZZYVA.