“…Cry. Swear. Laugh. Cry more. We are making a river with our tears and rivers quench the thirsty…”
I had a massive headache for the past two days — the sort that makes you not even want your morning coffee and leaves you feeling nauseous. I worked through it the first day and made it worse. I tried to appease it the second day by lying prone wrapped in blankets on our couch with a cool washcloth on my eyes and forehead.
This is what couches in living rooms are for, and with four people in the house we get a lot of mileage out of ours — though of course the thing I thought about was that this was exactly where Travis was when I came home and found him sick on the couch back in May.
His was a much more advanced ailment, of course, but it was with roughly the same treatment. He was balled up on the couch, had a bucket and a blanket — I administered the cool washcloth, asked if the light level was okay, asked if he wanted windows open or closed, asked if he needed a lighter or heavier blanket, asked if he wanted water. Brought him some anyway after he threw up the first time while I was there, and brought him a fresh cloth to wipe his mouth with. Held his hair back when they next wave came.
I found a book on grieving for teens at the end cap of our library recently. I found myself deeply moved by this item:
” 21. Know that your relationship was unique.
You’re probably not the only one mourning this death.
Others share your sorrow, and there’s comfort in knowing they do.
But it’s also comforting to know that the relationship you had with there person who died was unique. You behaved differently around one another than you did around other people. You affected each other in different ways.
You’re a different human being now than if you had never known that person.
Your life is enriched forever.”
Travis and I were not best buddies. I honestly had not known him that long, as far as things go. But we’d lived together, and his partner was a fixture in Anthony and I’s concentric circles. To be roommates, for me, means you become a sort of family. There’s a lot of late nights, early mornings, weird household emergencies (like chickens escaping or discovering two of your angelfish are a breeding pair), and just a lot of casual stuff that bonds you in ways that are difficult to explain.
So our friendship was stirred up pretty quickly, because in addition to all this we were similarly laid back, similarly in favor of being quietly attentive rather than overtly demonstrative. Similarly wary of Too Much Directness, and often balancing something really deep and meaningful with something kind of surface-silly, to even things out.
We clicked. That’s really all there is to it.
During the three months of cancer, our interactions were exactly as they would have been if he had just caught a bad cold. I never tried to Say Anything Meaningful, nor act outwardly that this could be the Last Time I Saw Him — though of course I always knew that in the back of my mind. That knowledge did not push me to a heightened state of sentiment, rather it pushed me into a heightened state of awareness. Appreciation. Openness. I was just unexperienced enough to think to myself, with a sense of quiet bemusement, this is what a Last Moment could be. Digging in pizza boxes for a cheese pizza, that he absolutely should not eat anyway. But that’s what he wants, and by God I’m not going to police him. Enough people are doing that. Sure, bro, I’ll help you look.
He told us at the beginning of all this that he was eager to come see us because he knew we weren’t going to treat him any differently. And we never did. Illness strips you of bullshit — of tact, of propriety, of all the tip-towing we do to keep other people at ease. There’s no patience for that when you are plagued by a gnawing nausea, when something else is gnawing at your liver and lungs.
And it seems like this sudden, utter, abject directness causes a lot of healthy people to wrap extra layers of indirectness around themselves, to protect themselves from it. And it’s just because you don’t know what to say, how to help — because of course, you can’t help. You can’t make it better. And you can’t say anything that will help the fact that he’s dying and going to leave his two year old daughter with no memory of his devoted, pure love.
We’ve been writing letters to his daughter. In my first one I said:
“I never knew what a father was until I saw your daddy being one.”
One of the last things Travis did on this earth was to arrange for a slip ‘n slide to be purchased for his daughter, and watch her play on it in the hot summer sun, with the kind of wild abandon reserved for two year olds.
Three months later we were at Orcas Island, a place he loved almost as much as his daughter. The place he shared with Anthony and I (along with a handful of folks who had been there before.) A place I have not done justice to at all, and intend to, because it is unreal.
It’s where we all would have gone again this summer if he had been well — it was a place he himself was able to spend his last week on this earth. It was a place I said I need to get to this year, long before I knew we were holding his memorial there. Because he is connected to the place in a deep way, and I felt his spirit would be heading there. In our circle one cannot set foot on the island without thinking of him.
We were there to formalize this connection.
During the memorial I was throwing pebbles into the sea with his daughter while above us, on a large rock, family members scooped into the Big Lebowski inspired Folgers can containing his ashes. (This can was purchased on eBay at Travis’ request, about a month or two before it was needed. The phrase “volume of human remains” was Googled to ensure one can would be sufficient — it is, as it turns out, at least in his case.)
Music was playing from a loudspeaker. After several key people hurled a scoop of ashes into the sea, they yelled my name. I hadn’t expected them to, and was deeply moved.
I was unofficially in charge of his daughter, who looked at me inquiringly when they yelled my name.
“They’re calling my name. Let’s go see them.”
Someone else threw ashes while I got myself up on the rock. I had his daughter in my arms, and I checked someone’s program to confirm the song we were dancing to: Paul Simon’s Slip-Slidin’ Away.
I learned later that Travis had selected all the music for the memorial himself. Doubtless this spurred on the last minute slip ‘n slide purchase. Full circle.
“What they doing?” his daughter asked. I was frank. We are always frank with her.
“They are throwing your daddy’s ashes. And now it’s our turn.”
The memorial was planned months ago — and when I heard the date I was ecstatic, because it was being held the day before my birthday. How correct, I’d thought. How beautiful. A celebration of death and then a celebration of life. It meant I’d be spending my birthday doing things I loved: camping, sitting around in nature.
After a good hearty camp-stove breakfast I went for a walk back along the place we’d been to the day before, the place one spends a good deal of quiet time if one is at that campground. The place where we’d thrown his ashes.
It was earlier in the day, so the tide was further out than it had been during the memorial.
I wasn’t exactly walking where the ashes had landed, but closer. I was looking casually for good pebbles, as one always does on a pebbly beach. Things catch your eye and you examine them.
I posted these on instagram earlier, and haven’t been able to say it any better than I have already:
It was there that I saw, rolling around in the sea…
…an agatey-geode he left just for me.
There are people who got real closure from the man himself.
There are also people who didn’t, and for whom that stung very painfully at the end.
I wasn’t CONSTANTLY around during Travis’ illness, though I think I give off that impression. There were some people that were there almost every day, administering massage, helping with the steam baths, managing medication, and just generally trying to keep him comfortable and loved. It was like a massive rhythmic dance going on for those three months. A stomping, clapping, tapping kind of rhythm. And my role as I saw it was to add a clap in the gaps. I was the gap filler. I would drop in, nudge something into place, then leave again.
I tried my best to strike a balance between giving help and giving space. (And, very often, LEAVING space for others.)
It didn’t matter to me who was visiting them, what mattered that SOMEONE was visiting them.
It didn’t matter to me who was bringing them dinner, what mattered was that SOMEONE was bringing them dinner.
It meant I was slightly outside of the real work — the drama, the frustrations, the tears, the moments where it got especially dark. But as such it meant I could pick up the slack, or direct others to pick up the slack for them, when energies waned. It meant I felt my role was not as important as those folks who were always there, and I was never out trawling for acknowledgment, though I received a ton.
Of course, this also meant I was occasionally very privileged and lucky to be at the front seat of things.
Of course, “privilege” and “luck” are not usually words you’d use to describe holding someone’s hair back as he vomits into your trashcan because of his stage IV terminal cancer. But it felt lucky to me. To have a chance to be there with him, to be helpful, and to not make a big deal about it at the time. To not need or seek any thanks at all. That wasn’t the point – the point was the real, hands-on time. The gift of time.
He surprised the hell out of me by alluding to it once, when he came to visit me out of the blue on a Saturday morning about a month later.
“I owe you a pitcher…” he said.
He was talking about the plastic pitcher I’d sent him home with the day his partner came to get him from our house — he had been wrapped up in one of our quilts too, but the pitcher was the Thing To Throw Up In. A comforting thing.
I laughed. “No worries. I know where you live.”
We understood each other.
I understand this stone as a birthday gift from Travis, from the other side.
And that’s how I’ll take it, because I like going on that kind of ride.