Little Bear: A Love Story
The inner room was crowded with the emergency cases served up by the sweltering mean streets of the city. Where was Mother Theresa when you needed her?
In 1989, two years before receiving his own HIV-positive diagnosis, poet and writer Dennis Rhodes wrote a series of candid letters to New York psychotherapist Daniel Bloom. They remain relevant today. The letter that follows is a love story whose narrative begins at the Pride celebration a decade ago.
Last night the Little Bear and I went down to Christopher Street to watch the fireworks capping off the twentieth anniversary festivities of Stonewall.
The night air was thick and muggy and electric. The Little Bear and I were pressed against thousands of our compatriots, their striking diversity making a salient point about gay life at decade's end: muscle men, muscle women, nonmuscle men, queens, blacks, whites, Hispanics, kids barely in teens and full of life, old men and women barely alive.
It had been a splendid day. The Little Bear and I watched the parade with friends. Every conceivable group and element of gay life was there. S&M activists (and passivists); diesel dykes and sweet, demure dykes; the Gay Men's Chorus, drag queens, and leather queens; Catholic gays and atheists; gay swimmers and joggers and bikers and hikers; gay lawyers, teachers, psychologists, and makeup artists; parents of gays and gays who are parents -- 150,000 strong said the papers, 20 million strong said my heart.
Amid the panorama and the spectacle, one thing impressed and moved me the most -- the elderly ladies and gentlemen of SAGE, Senior Action in a Gay Environment. Most of them rode in sedans, wary of the heat. I stood on Columbus Circle watching these old timers drive by, and I felt very bad that in their youth they never witnessed such a thing. Such a wonderment. These dignified men and women, basking in our plaudits and cheers, were the queers, pansies, and fruits of our parents' and grandparents' generations. Like Miniver Cheevy, each was, in his or her own way, a child of scorn.
To me, survival is both a skill and an art. My eyes brimmed with tears at the elegant survival of these gallants. Robust, forceful, gay assertiveness now spans generations. Gary, nearly 50, on one side of me; the Little Bear, a tender 25, on the other. Myself at life's midpoint, 35.
I sat down tonight to write you about the Little Bear. He's asleep now, looking like a little angel, on his straw mat in the living room. His teddy bear Chris, who weighs just a pound and a half, is next to him, exhausted. Chris has a perpetual smile, but sometimes it is a frightened or a sad smile, if there is such a thing. Like me, Chris worries about the Little Bear.
I have been putting off writing this particular letter because I have to tell you the story of the night I almost lost the Little Bear.
Before he came to live with me, he was renting a room over on West Eightieth Street from this imbecilic woman named Beverly. She had a keenly annoying, high-pitched, childlike voice, which she put to good use because everything she said came from a childlike mind. Her railroad flat apartment was filthy. She was clean, but she looked filthy. She was a photographer, and I think she got about one assignment a year.
The Little Bear moved in with her out of a sense of desperation. What happened was the Little Bear's roommate moved, and the Little Bear's landlord started being mean and nasty to him.
A friend of mine suggested that he telephone Beverly, as she had a room to rent.
To call it a "room" was being charitable. It was an exceptionally large closet, and it was hot, confining, oppressive. Even an ascetic monk would thumb his nose at it. But the Little Bear moved in. And the night he did, it was stifling and dirty.
I know the Little Bear never spent one happy or comfortable night in that room in the six months he lived there. The one redeeming feature for him was that it was just a few blocks from my apartment.
I hated his being there.
During one session, Dan, months ago, you coined a phrase to describe the Little Bear. Half stating, half asking, you said he is my little asthmatic cub. And he is. He almost died many times as a child because of severe asthma. Because he was given steroids, his growth was stunted. His twin brother, Mikey, did not have asthma, so he is today a strapping six-footer. The little Bear is just 5'6", but wiry.
Here's the harrowing part of the story:
One wickedly hot evening last summer, I called the Little Bear and he said he wasn't feeling well. He was in bed in his room at Beverly's. When I arrived, his eyes were closed and he was tightly clutching his teddy bear Chris. I touched his forehead and it was hot as hell. I mean panic-time hot. I called Gary immediately and asked him to come over. My first impulse was to call an ambulance.
Gary came over and said to get Little Bear to a hospital. The Little Bear is stubborn, and he insisted, through a mild stupor, that he'd be all right. But my decision was made. I pulled him out of the bed and helped him put his jeans and shirt on. Gary went home and I hailed a cab on Amsterdam Avenue, giving instructions to hightail it to Lenox Hill.
Lenox Hill has what may be New York's best emergency room. There was no way I was taking the Little Bear anywhere else.
While outwardly composed, I was terrified. I had once seen a fledgling on the sidewalk, who couldn't fly. That bird's fragility ripped my heart out.
Thank God I was in a position to help and protect the Little Bear. The people at the emergency room were swell, from the minute we entered. They saw right away this young guy, feverish, asthmatic, and weakening. With a rapidly swelling left ear to boot. The Little Bear was in a sorry state. They took him into the inner sanctum, and I had to wait outside in the stark, plastic-seated anteroom. It was midnight.
I waited a long time with no word. I fought off, with all the resolve I could muster, thoughts of the Little Bear dying. I had never felt anybody's head so hot in my life.
An hour or so later, the door opened and I heard a woman's voice say, "He's got a friend out here." She came to the door and beckoned me in. "I think he could use some company," she said to me sweetly. She was about my age, and I liked her immediately.
The inner room was crowded with the emergency cases served up by the sweltering mean streets of the city. Druggies lying on stretchers. Bag ladies holding their heads, mumbling. A college kid with a bandaged leg. Where was Mother Theresa when you needed her?
Amidst all this, there was the Little Bear, sitting in a red plastic chair, hooked up to an IV bottle. His face was colorless. I was horrified at his swollen ear. He managed a wan smile, immensely glad they'd let me in.
I sat next to him and patted his hands. I patted his head. I smiled and acted very cheery. I'm a good actor.
It soon became apparent to me that practically all the professional staff was mindful of the Little Bear and solicitous about him. All the nurses. All the doctors. They kept glancing at him, and two of the nurses hovered near him constantly.
The nice woman who had summoned me inside was Dr. Glass. Now she and a male doctor instructed the nurses to bring the Little Bear into an examining room. They put him on a hospital bed and they had him sit up. Suddenly there were two or three more staff members around him. The door was left open, and I stood outside and looked in.
I was astonished, happy, and proud that the Little Bear was clearly the star of the emergency room. The doctors poked around his swollen left ear. They asked him if he was allergic to penicillin, and he said he was. Someone in his family had died from a penicillin shot, he told them. Great, I said to myself. Of course, he got no penicillin. At this juncture, they called the Little Bear's father up in Buffalo to get more medical history and stuff.
What a trooper LB was! I'll never forget him looking out at me amidst all the commotion, and giving me his trademark wave with his right paw -- albeit a weak wave, but one that meant the world to me.
And I was so touched when Dr. Glass came out to tell me that the Little Bear would have to stay in for the rest of the night and why didn't I go home and get some sleep. She said to call her personally early in the morning.
The Little Bear told me to go home, assuring me he'd be all right. I was drained. But I was also uplifted by the magnificent fuss being made over my sweet friend.
I took a cab through a deserted Central Park at 3:00 in the morning. I felt very good about my city. I was glad I'd acted so decisively. The Little Bear was out of danger.
Out of danger. That's exactly what I am too. As I think back to the night I almost lost the Little Bear, I think of the tough stuff he's full of and the tough stuff I'm full of.
Despite what he says, I think the Little Bear's going to live a very long time.
Dennis Rhodes is a poet and writer who lives in Provincetown and who serves as Poetry Editor of Body Positive magazine.