Suffering from a long illness.
We all know what that means, don’t we?
I glanced down at the ancient park bench as I lugged an oil painting and an urn full of my lover’s ashes into a room I hadn’t even known existed. It was just on the other side of the brick wall that enclosed the garden at the Center.
We’d met at the 13th Street LGBTQ Center in Greenwich Village. I carried the last of his physical self past the bench were he’d pushed my newspaper down and introduced himself to me. After almost ten years, we’d come full circle.
I refused to do a funeral, though. Just wasn’t going to happen.
I crept into the room first, by myself, to position the urn and hang the painting. I sat down for five minutes. I needed five minutes of silence before I let our friends in.
Suffering from a long illness.
Those were codewords during the Plague Years. During the 1980s and 1990s, lots of people didn’t want AIDS or HIV to appear in print associated with their loved ones. Some newspapers wouldn’t print the real cause of death even if you wanted them to.
“After suffering from a long illness,” is what they printed in obituaries instead of, “died from complications due to AIDS.”
The thing about my late husband Lenny, though — my Alphabet City, Lower East Side bruiser of a show-tune-singing, Jeanette MacDonald-loving life partner — is that he died suddenly, out of the blue, after suffering from a long illness that didn’t have anything to do with HIV.
When I say he died suddenly, I mean that we had reached an equilibrium with his illness. We were just dealing with it. Whatever came up, we handled it.
OK, equilibrium, my ass.
I had reached denial. A blind state of refusing to look ahead more than to the next day or to the next visit to the dialysis clinic.
This was going to just keep going.
He was going to die sometime, but not today, damn it, and not tomorrow.
I went to work. I shopped for food. I whipped up elaborate meals. We watched movies. Jeanette Macdonald, Nelson Eddie, and Lenny’s biggest Hollywood love of all, Claudette Colbert.We lived our lives.
He. Was. Not. Going. To. Die.
All I had to do was just keep on keeping on.
Then one day, one regular, ordinary, spring day with cheery sunshine, a stiff breeze, and not a problem in the world to worry about, he wasn’t alive anymore.
Just like that.
The grief hammered me. The pain was shocking and horrible, like plunging my hand into a pot of boiling water.
Then it went on and on and on and on as if it would never ever stop.
My friends decorated the room I rented at the Center.
The oil painting was one of Lenny that he’d sat for in Provincetown when he was still in the peak of health. I centered the urn under the portrait.
People from so many walks of life showed up. His old friends, his extended family, my friends. Colleagues from work. My Act Up buddies, or at least the ones who were still alive.
My neighbor Blossom — my Absolutely Fabulous binge-watching-party co-conspirator and our faithful dining companion — flaunted an expensive-looking little black dress that I knew she’d dug for in a bargain basement and tailored herself. My business partner Carla sported a little black dress that looked expensive because she’d shelled out the annual budget of a small Caribbean nation state for it.
Me? I wore jeans, a black t-shirt, and a denim jacket with Act Up and Queer Nation buttons all over it. I’d started to pick a dark suit out of a row in my closet, but I couldn’t do it.
Lenny would have asked me why I was wearing work clothes to his party. So I went to his memorial service as myself.
I started things off with a poem and a prepared eulogy. I explained that Lenny had died suddenly after suffering a long illness. I was afraid of breaking down, but everything was just so warm and supportive that I did fine.
Speaker after speaker stood up and celebrated Lenny’s life.
Then a couple dozen of us headed around the corner to a Belgian bistro where I ordered mussels and drank Trappist ale. We all ate wonderful food as we laughed over stories about the man who’d have had us all in stitches if he’d been there. To my mind, that was as good a funeral as anyone could ever have.
I just couldn’t do the whole dead-body-in-a-box thing.
I also couldn’t explain the long-illness thing.
The gay male community in New York was just emerging from the icy shadow of the Plague. People were still dying, but treatment was available and we knew the worst was over.
All of us had lost friends. All of us had little black books half filled with lined-out entries.
All of us knew what “suffering from a long illness” meant.
Lenny was born with a defective mitral valve in his heart.
His mother, a Jewish refugee from Poland, rocked him in her arms in the hours after his birth, hot tears pouring down due to the news she’d learned. He probably wouldn’t live more than a few weeks, and if by some miracle he did, he’d never live to be an adult.
She took him home to a tiny apartment in a tenement on Avenue A, and she did everything you’re supposed to do with babies. She fed him, changed him, woke up at night with him.
After a few weeks, he was still alive. Tiny, but still alive.
She kept it up.
One day she noticed he was getting heavier.
He started to gain weight.
She kept on being a mother.
When he was 13 years old, he went away to a camp in the mountains for “cardiac kids.” Wealthy donors funded the retreat so dying children from the City could come breathe some fresh air and look at horses and cows up close.
Lenny saw something else up close. The farmer’s young son in the cow barn made eyes at him. They spent two weeks sneaking around looking for private spaces where they could kiss — and more.
When he was 19 years old, Lenny got a job as a bookkeeper at a publishing house. When he was 23, he had heart surgery. New stuff. Pioneering stuff. Dangerous stuff.
It worked. For a long time. It didn’t make his heart new, though. It was already seriously enlarged. Years of damage had scarred it irreparably.
By the time I met him, he’d had two more surgeries and a pacemaker implanted. His artificial valve ticked like a clock in a children’s cartoon — the funny cartoons where the clock ticks down and a bomb blows up.
I used to lay my head on Lenny’s hairy chest, soaking up the warmth of his body as that metallic click echoed the future into my ear.
Gradually, his heart died. It couldn’t keep up with him. Other organs began to fail. His kidneys stopped working. He shrank. No more bulking Alphabet City bruiser, he. Scarecrow was more apt, except for his feet and ankles all swollen from the pooled blood his heart didn’t have the strength to pump back up anymore.
Then one day it was over. He took a breath, sighed, and never took another.
He’d lived a rich life, a much longer life than he was supposed to have.
I spent years not elucidating “suffering from a long illness.”
I told myself that our close friends knew why Lenny was ill and that nobody else needed to know. It just wasn’t anybody’s business.
But you know what the problem really was?
I didn’t want to feel like I was apologizing that Lenny hadn’t died of AIDS.
I felt like I needed to apologize for it.
That’s crazy, isn’t it?
You know what’s crazier?