The blue, stained-glass windows dimmed the moon, making an eerie cross-pattern on the floor. From nods to winks, the faithful came to pay their respects, obeying the call, among lavish saints painted on emblazoned glass, a stintless attempt at glorifying the Lord. My mother responded in kind to their cares, griefs and guile but I found no burning faith among the enkindled crowd or the votive candles. The dark casket that held my father reflected a solitary light that seemed to dangle in mockery.
I knew he was going to die. I knew it when I walked through the hygienic corridors of the hospital. I could smell it; death. No amount of good deeds or prayer-induced ravaged knees, bent on church aisles, would change the fact that death haunted those halls far and near. Phantom smells lingered; a mixture of medications, disinfectants, alcohol, iodine, perfume, blood and food. I saw him there in gaunt gardens, alone, eaten away by cancer and deep pain. I experienced his likeness each and every day for many years until he moved me not at all; but the heart, like those walls, retains the tale, telling tears of time, like a picture, like a spell ...
The new Surgical and Pregnancy wing of the hospital opened today while I was in Julian's room, spoon-feeding him, like his mother once did. He had already left a good part of this world and could scarcely speak but his sense of humor was still sharp.
"I'll have a martini, straight up, very cold, and stirred to perfection,” he said.
We could hear the festivities taking place as we both struggled to find comforting words for one another. He had neither appetite nor taste for even his favorite things and it was difficult for him to keep a bowl of chicken broth down without vomiting.
I tried to make this night a positive night because I knew it was the last time I would ever see Julian alive again. There was a certain smell in his room that was never present before. It was the same smell that rose from my father's body right before he died. A wintergreen alcohol and licorice smell, against layers of dry, dying epidermis.
I spoke to him about James while I was bathing him in bed. James was Julian's life partner and true soul mate. We all met back in college while boarding at Fordham University. I was looking for my room when I walked in on Julian and James. They were naked in bed together and Julian was giving James a massage with his favorite chocolate-mint, Kama Sutra oil. I remember the flow of his hands, as he smoothed the oil on to James' body, with such beautiful tenderness.
Now, I'm frightened. Frightened to talk about James, knowing the same fate awaits Julian. But Julian loves to be reminded of James and the times we all shared together.
"I felt so alive beneath the warmth of his breath. His beautiful eyes made me think about anything but death," he says. "I don't mean to make you cry. Do you remember the time you wore those gaudy, silver, glittered shoes to Tavern On The Green?" he asks.
I remembered. It was the day we found out that James was HIV positive. A waltz was playing in the background and Julian and I held each other, listening to violins while slow dancing, saying good-bye to the blue afternoon.
I have a secret: before James died I went to church, got down on my knees and prayed a chaplet to Saint Michael, The Archangel, begging him to spare James's life. It was then that I saw this angelic figure floating down over me, shimmering in the light. It was a familiar figure. I had seen it before, in my youth, when it was time to say good-bye to my father. There was a faint breeze, a cool innerness that wedged itself into my very soul and I realized that tomorrow is a gift and the people we love are everywhere, even the ones who have passed on. You can touch them, call upon them, they are not lost.
I lay on Julian's bed now, recalling the amazing afternoon of angelic light falling among prayers, burned candles and incense.
He's in pain again. This time more intense than ever before. He manages to ask me if I have written any new poetry lately. I don't have the courage to tell him that I can't put the words together. That my heart is heavy with sadness.
He always thought of me as being such a tough bitch. "Nothing ever gets to you," he would tell me.
It was a facade I was trying to uphold for his sake, for his inner strength. I tell him I've become bored with writing poetry, it's just not enough of a challenge anymore. I take out his favorite book of verse, by Rudyard Kipling, open to page 143, and start to read “White Horses”. He loved this one particular passage and, through the gasps of sheer pain, he recites it with me ...
Trust ye the curdled hollows-
Trust ye the neighing wind-
Trust ye the moaning groundswell-
Our herds are close behind!
To bray your foeman's armies-
To chill and snap his sword-
Trust ye the wild White Horses,
The Horses of the Lord!
Saying “I love you” has never come easy for me but, I took a deep breath as he took his last and, I did it.
Walking home, I couldn't help but fall in love with the full moon over the evening sky. A deep orange, washed with the blue, and I was reminded just how fragile it all can be. How much relationships mean and how connected we all really are.
That night the winds rose up and ranged, blowing dead leaves into my bedroom through an open window. One leaf touched my hand and I thought ... life's tending, it's ending once again