Bryan called me out of the blue.
Our friendship had been formed in a dysfunctional restaurant, in a small-minded town, over one summer in the 90's. He ran the front; I ran the kitchen. For three months, we had each other's backs.
The proclamation came out stilted yet strong. He had to say it loud — push it out.
"I have AIDS. Like, I mean, full blown AIDS! I found out a few years ago...I just couldn't deal with it. My partner knew and helped me keep the secret."
"Where are you?"
"It was crushing...eventually I needed to start talking about it — he insisted I keep quiet. Now I HAVE AIDS and fuck, he's gone...He's gone...and I have no one."
"Do you need anything? Have you told your mom?"
"No. You are the first. I guess she'll find out soon enough. 'Hi Mom, I'm sick and I'm coming home.' — That's a nice hello. Once she knows, can she call you?"
"Yes, of course."
He wasn't kidding when he said full blown. He had dropped 30 pounds since the last time I had seen his skinny ass — he liked it when I said that. He liked his ass. Said it was his best attribute. I thought it was his sense of humor and the way he told a story — He would come into the kitchen and tell me the most bizarre things he had overheard at the bar — it was 'Buddy said this and Buddy said that.' His visits always left me in stitches.
Soon after arriving home, he ended up in the hospital. The doctor assumed his mother knew but she didn't and when she called me, her first words were "I've been avoiding the truth for quite a while now."
Avoidance of truth can be attached to love and compassion, or not. His brother tried hard to ignore the fact Bryan was gay. When they spoke, he would turn his head away, as if dealing with an off taste in his mouth. His mother just loved her sweet baby boy. Thinking about him dying was too much for her to brar so she focused instead on embracing the moments she had with him. The adjustment from denial to truth was jarring.
During a bedside visit, he laid out his expectations of me with his regular flourish.
"You will run the funeral. These are the songs. Say something nice about me. I know you can."
I wanted to ask if I had a choice to perform this function, but one look told me I didn't, so I nodded and began taking notes.
Once stabilized, he went back to his moms. He hated being bedridden. His friends in the city avoided visiting. The Palliative care people annoyed him with their overbearing kindness and concern for his well being. All he wanted was to smoke cigarettes and eat brownies.
"What's it going to do?" he asked sarcastically. "Kill me?"
I shrugged. "Might make it faster."
"Good. Bring more brownies."
I saw Bryan on his last day. He didn't know my name but was happy his mother and I were there.
"It's a good time to have a friend."
"And, where am I again?"
"You're at home with your mom."
"Well, that sounds like a pretty good place to be."
His mother and I smiled and nodded in agreement.
When I said good-bye, he raised a limp arm to wave. The weight of his hand foiled the effort and it almost slapped him in the face, but he was unperturbed.
"Thanks for coming." His voice cracked. "Next time come through the door. Quit sneaking in through the windows."
In the elevator on the way down, I had to laugh, not realizing they were his last words to me. I would spend the rest of my life trying to find hidden meaning in his garbled sentence. At the funeral, I relied on stories he told me in those last weeks and interspersed them between the songs he asked to have played: The Dance, The River and The Last Song. They became the backdrop to a sad day, further tinged with the carefully crafted regrets of those who couldn't make it up to visit but dutifully arrived at the funeral.
Death is surreal. The world goes on as if nothing has changed. Absence is noted only by those who loved. Bryan's chosen songs are my call to arms when I forget to live my life well. They are the gift he left behind for those who cared enough to listen.