F. Cade Swanson
The night you called me, I was sitting in my car in Chicago at a light on the corner where Western and Diversey and Elston meet, a six-way intersection with so many confusing directions as three roads cross. I was heading home—not to the place where you lived with me, not to the home we had made together, but to a new place a block away. I sat through two lights while we talked, and only moved after those words: "I love you."
I was 26 when we met as part of a back to work program for people living with HIV. You were funny and kind and broken, and the world was scurrying around, trying to pick you up and put you back together. The advent of combination therapy in 1996 had suddenly taken you from death's door, back to life. But so much of you had already died. In the midst of the retraining program, you lost your job and then your apartment.
"Move in with me," I said, thinking that I, like the meds, could somehow help you live again. When we'd get up in the mornings, I often watched you standing in the mirror, watched you watch yourself.
"I look skinny," you'd say, but I would catch you running your hands over your arms and chest, like a man going through puberty again. Was it too much to watch your body come back to life? Were the joyful hugs celebrating your renewed health suffocating? This body that had wasted away was taunting you with renewal, just when you had made peace with letting go. You'd spend days snuggled up with my dog in our house, and evenings in your room. Eventually, you returned to Seattle. We would talk on the phone at night. I could tell you started using again.
I wanted you to hang on. Correction: I wanted to hang on to you. Correction: I couldn't let you go.
I started looking at jobs in Seattle. I didn't know it then, but you had already started your goodbye tour. Seattle was your first stop to see your ex wife. Then, you went to Idaho to see your brother.
I thought I could save you. I thought I could help you live again. I thought I would have more days of watching you, more days of snuggling with the dog on the sofa.
Just like when you moved in with me in Chicago, though, you didn't need someone to help you live. You needed someone to help you die. To be your witness. And none of us were strong enough to do that, which is ironic, since we'd all been watching you slowly die for years, but refused to see it.
I learned about it early the next morning, after our phone call, when your brother found your phone and called the last few numbers you had dialed. Our conversation the night before was short, and in spite of (or maybe because of) it ending with you telling me, "I love you," it still felt unresolved. So when I saw your number on my phone, I was eager to pick up.
"Who is this?" the voice asked. We talked for a minute; I told him who I was, and I discovered the voice belonged to your brother. Then he told me you were dead.
"I'm sorry for your loss," my words stumbled out. "I know he's been really grateful for the way you've been taking care of him."
He didn't say that you died by suicide, but it was clear to me that's what had happened. His questions turned to accusations. I felt like a kid playing dodgeball and everything he said was smacking me, every throw was making contact: in the face, in the shoulder, in the leg, in the chest. No matter how I moved I couldn't escape his words.
I've contemplated on more than one occasion that maybe you're still alive, and maybe this was your brother's way of protecting you, helping you in a moment of sobriety. Maybe this was just one more attempt to help you cut ties with a community that gave you life and also fed your decay. Being angry was perhaps easier than being left alone to grieve the death of a man we all knew was going to die. A man we all knew was ready to die. A man we all knew was waiting to die. Maybe your brother didn't have room to hurt, or maybe he was just tired of hurting, and welcomed the inevitable end, so that he could move on with his life.
I thought about my uncles Billy Ray and Michael in Kentucky whose deaths seemed to affect no one but my grandmother, because when an addict finally meets their end, those of us left behind are often too worn down to feel. I thought about how painful it was to watch her grieve in isolation, and about the strange pressure to not react, as if those of us who stood by and watched their steady descent made some kind of secret pact to stop caring, or an agreement that we had to deny their humanity with each act of violence they undertook against their mother, their wives, their kids, and ultimately themselves. Maybe your brother was too tired to feel, or maybe watching your body come back to life was too much for him to take, as well.
"I love you," you said to me that night on the phone, and I started moving again. Did I say it enough? "I love you, too."
first appeared in Chaleur Magazine, March 2019.