As published in Gay Widowers: Life After the Death of a Partner Michael Shernoff, MSW, Editor; Foreword by Felice Picano Published by Haworth Press in December, 1997 ($14.95 softcover) © 1997 Reproduced with permission of the Publishers, Haworth Press, Binghamton, NY
Weird Things Happen
It's weird, so very weird. It's probably the weirdest thing you'll ever experience.
The jarring sound of the phone ringing startled me. I wasn't asleep. But, because I hadn't slept in days, I wasn't quite awake either. "Is this the Chris Brownlie Hospice?" asked an unfamiliar voice. "Yeah, I guess so," I stuttered. It was 3:00 in the morning, and all I could wonder was who would be asking such a question at this hour, and in such a insistent tone. "Who is this?" I said. "May I help you?"
"Can you confirm what time Chris Brownlie died," the voice demanded rather than asked. "You've got to be kidding me," I thought. This whole thing had seemed like a dream. I guess this call meant the nightmare had taken an unexpected and unappreciated turn for the worse. "I beg your pardon? Who is this?"
"I'm sorry, this is the L.A. Times. I'm on deadline. I already have the obituary. I just need a confirmation of the time."
"Listen, I'm Chris Brownlie's lover. I don't know who you are. But, he's not dead yet, thank you very much. I'll tell you what. When he does die, I'll make sure someone calls you." "Oh, I'm really sorry." This time he stuttered. "I didn't mean ..."
"I know, I know. I'm sorry too," I said. "You really need to find a better way to do this." I hung up the phone and quietly went back to my vigil.
I had answered crisply, but inside of me rose a sick sort of panic. Not only was I going to have to go through Chris's death, but even this would not be the end of this for me. People were going to be asking me questions that I would have to answer again and again, and I would be forced to relive this nightmare forever. Even when it was over, it wouldn't be over.
I sat there and watched him. I don't think I cried that night. I just sat there in that chair, next to Chris's Bed. I just sat in that chair and I started to remember. I don't remember all the places my mind took me that night. But I gladly went. I knew what was going to happen. And trucking off into our nostalgic past was better than staring unflinchingly into what seemed to be my desolate future.
It's feeling cheated because it was supposed to be forever and it was only ten years!
I met Chris Brownlie in 1980, at Club baths in Chicago. I was twenty-three years old, engaged to be married and had never had sex with a man before. Chris was not what one would call a classic beauty. Although through my heart's eye, he was the most beautiful man in the world. He had these bow legs. I had never seen a white boy with bow legs before. He was unbelievably skinny, (although skinny was in, in 1980) with this head of hair that looked like a lion's mane, and he had the most magnificent smile I had ever seen. And those eyes, "those eyes so true." Chris's eyes were full of love and passion and life. He grabbed me with those eyes and he didn't let go until he closed them for the last time, the day he died, ten years later.
|It's the breaking of your heart every time you have to leave him in the hospital. It's having to leave him in the hospital too often. It's being a member of the team that makes the decisions about his care. It's making the final decisions all by yourself.|
It's the echo of his voice in your ear on the eve of his death when he says to you "Take me home!" It's the echo of your voice in the hollow of your heart created by the pain of the loss.
It's saying, "I'm fine. I'll take care of everything. I'll handle it." It's discovering you are not fine. You can't take care of anything, and this time you can't handle it.
It's feeling the pain and knowing each bit of hurt is a celebration of the love you feel for each other. It's the chuckle in his voice when he awakes from the coma in middle of the night to tell you he loves you. It's telling him you love him as he takes his last breath. It's holding him and feeling the warmness of his life leave his body.
It's funny how memory works. I remember lot's of things about Chris and our relationship. I remember the places we lived, the vacations we took, conversations we had. But, I live or relive two events over and over again -- the day we met and the day he died.
The nurse woke me up around 5:30 in the morning. I had been a sleep for about three hours. The house seemed strange. I couldn't tell why exactly. Maybe it was because I had spent so little time at home over the previous months. Maybe because I knew that in a few minutes this house, our home would be forever changed. I got up, went to the bathroom to wash my face and walked into the other bedroom. Our best friends were standing around the bed watching as Chris lay sleeping.
I had done the right thing to bring him home. Even though no one had agreed with me. But I didn't have any choice. Chris woke up from his coma one day, he looked at me and said, "Take me home." Everyone tried to convince me that it was the metaphorical "take me home." Maybe it was. But it was also the literal take me home. He wanted to die at home. And he knew that I needed him to die at our house, in the home that we had created together. I needed to say good-bye to him in our space. I needed to have that to hold onto in the weeks, months and years that would follow; and he wanted to give me that gift.
I got in the bed with him. I stroked his forehead. I put my lips to his ear and sang "Let me call you sweetheart I'm in love with you. Keep your love light burning in your eyes so true. Let me call you sweet heart. I'm in love with you."
"O.K. sweet heart," I said, "it's time. I'm ready. I'm going to be O.K."
His body seemed to relax. He took three more breaths. And then he didn't take another. I asked Mary, Chris's best friend, to sing "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess. Mary has this beautiful soprano voice and her voice and Chris's spirit filled the room. I moved down to the foot of the bed so I could hold his feet. As they began to cool, I stroked his ankles and then, as they in turn cooled, his knees. I put my hands on his stomach. Finally the only warm place left on his body was his chest. I laid my head there with my eyes closed until I could feel the last bit of warmth leave his body. I opened my eyes to see the sun peeking through the window of the bedroom. The night was over and Chris was gone.
Chris had AIDS for 33 months. Through it all I never saw myself without him. I never prepared for being a widower. I was almost 34 years old the morning Chris died and I couldn't remember how it felt to not be with him. As I would realize in the coming months, I had lived my entire gay life with Chris. Now, for the first time, I was a single gay man. I had no experience at being single. I didn't know what it meant to be single. I didn't know how to do "single." Quite frankly, I didn't want to be single. But there I was -- 34, single, HIV positive, and alone.
What is Grief?
|It's driving down the freeway and being blinded by your tears. It's not knowing that you are crying. It's wondering what will happen to you when your time comes and he's not there to send you home. It's knowing he will be there.|
It's the numbness, the panic, the fear, the sadness. It's the blind rage over what's happening to you.
People ask me if Chris and I had a perfect relationship. I don't think any relationship is perfect, or maybe every relationship where two people really love each other is perfect.
I experienced three very distinct kinds of grief: intense pain; profound confusion; feeling lost. There were the things that I was acutely aware of as they happened. There were other times when I felt something or knew intuitively that I was going through something emotionally, but I was not able to determine exactly what. I called this experience "my screaming subconscious" or my "back brain consciousness." Finally there were times when I had no idea what or if anything was going on inside of me. During this time I would focus on getting through the day. When the day was too much to handle, I would go to the hour or minute, or, at times, the second. I would look for and find whatever measure of time I could handle.
It's really important to remember that grief is not sadness. My friend Mark, whose lover died in 1992, described grief as this always unpredictable storm of emotions where he kept being surprised, first of all at just at how long it lasted, and second of all at what kind of new unpleasant emotions were going to sort of jump out of him from some corner of his soul.
Mark also talked about a disturbing sexualized grief that manifested itself in an unfamiliar horniness. Mark told me, "I would go searching for sex, and the urge was more insistent and consuming than ever before. At some level, I knew it wasn't about desire, or even wanting sex. It was a weird and disorienting way of missing him, longing for him, grieving for him."
Often I didn't know what to do with my grief. I did know how to work. I could do that. And so I did. Chris died at 6:00 on November 28, 1989. By 10:30 I was in my office. I have no real memories of those days, but I worked every day from the end of November until February.
In the beginning, I thoughts about it as little as possible. There was this automatic pilot thing going on. There were really a lot of things that had to get done -- funeral plans, burial plans, cremation, insurance, death notification. Some of these things are a part of the ritual that allowed me time to create a distance, and helped me get through the excruciating pain of the loss. Because I was caught up in this make busy stuff, I didn't have time to realize what was happening. Unfortunately, the "make busy" ended. There came a time when there was no more minutia, and try as I might to avoid them, there were the quiet times. That's when all of sudden I realized that he's dead. He was not coming back. I was all alone. There were people who said I was not really alone. But during those moments I was really, most definitely alone!
The morning that Chris died, after the paramedics took him, as the hearse drove away, I stood there and watched the cars go by -- back and forth, back and forth. I remember thinking how weird it was, something had happened to me that was so traumatic that nothing would ever be the same again, and yet, as I watched the cars go by, it seemed as though to the rest of the world everything was the same. I realized that to the rest of the world everything was the same. I walk back into the house, my house now, and it was empty. The cats were there. I was there. Maybe even some of our friends were still there. I don't remember. But the house was still empty.
|It's remembering in the middle of the day and feeling as if it were happening all over again. It's the loneliness, because you have no other friend like him.|
It's calling your landlord to find out how much is the rent or calling the bank to find out what's your balance; because he did those things.
It's sitting at home and wondering what's keeping him because you forgot he's not coming home. It's keeping the tape on the answering machine because it is a way of hearing his voice.
It's being glad to return home after a trip because you know the cats miss him nearly as much as you do. It's keeping his drivers license, wearing both of your wedding bands, isolating yourself from family and friends; because you don't know what else to do.
The night after Chris died, I had this dream. In the dream, Chris and I were coming out of 5P21 (the LA County AIDS ward). As we entered the parking lot we realized that we didn't remember where we had left the car. I would see the car in one place. Chris would see it in another space. I would go over to the right and Chris would go to the left. When I got to the spot where I thought the car was, it would not be there. In the course of this dream, we found ourselves further and further apart. As the dream continued the parking lot got larger and larger, and fuller and fuller until the lot was absolutely packed. Finally, Chris was no where in sight.
I still want to tell him things, even today, six years later. But in the beginning I would just talk to him, sometimes in my head, some times out loud. I would talk to him as if he were there, as if he were in the bed with me or on the sofa. Or I would be at work and I would want to call him. I would pick up the phone to say, "Hey did you read this or that. Turn on CNN." or, "What would you like to do tonight?" That went on for months.
It's wishing he were here. It's knowing that he is.
I think that following the death of a partner people come to a determination of how to start dating again by different means. Some people don't start dating again until some artificially imposed time passes (six, months, two years, etc.). Chris taught me how to build a relationship based in the present, to focus on the day. That lessen was invaluable in helping me to decide when and how to begin to date again. There was a simple rule. If the experience was comfortable, I repeated it. If it was not, I did not. I also had a fundamental belief that my relationship with Chris was such that he wanted me to be happy (that was the big message of our relationship) and I felt that this was true of my moving on. Chris would want me to be happy. That certainly has been helpful. I've had two relationships since Chris died. My first was with Brad. He was not threatened by Chris. Possibly because Chris's death was relatively new, and my grieving process was integrated into the development of our relationship.
I met Brad four months after Chris's death. Shortly after meeting him, I went to Europe. Starting the relationship with Brad was my first big decision after Chris's death. I had not yet developed a new decision making process. So I stayed with what I knew. I went to Chris. One rainy afternoon I found myself outside the chapel at the London Lighthouse. The chapel was empty and I sat down and had a quiet discussion with Chris. I told him about Brad. I told him how I felt. I asked him what he thought. I felt his presence. Chris had been an atheist for most of his adult life. I could hear him chuckle and say, "This is a fine place for you to decide to have a conversation with me." It was as if he was telling me to relax and stop looking for the right answer or waiting for the right time. When I returned to Los Angeles I knew that Brad and I would work it out, and what ever we decided would be fine with Chris.
It took about eight more months before Brad and I actually became a couple. Being in love with Brad was very good for me. In some ways having a good relationship or having someone that I cared about and that I think cared about me was a part of healing. It was nice to have fun romantic times with him. I knew there were things that I experienced in my relationship with Chris that I wanted to continue to experience in my relationship with Brad. I was aware of the differences between Brad and Chris. I didn't want to compare them, but I couldn't help but compare them. Brad had to compete with this mythical person. It would have been one thing to compete with an alive person who had his own flaws, it was another thing to compete with a dead person who no longer had flaws or whom he had never met.
I was lucky. Brad intuitively knew how to maneuver through my emotional maze. He knew that there were times when I compared him to Chris. He also knew that Chris's death had become a part of who I was. I was too self-absorbed at the time to realize that Brad was going through his own process. He was deciding whether or not he wanted to be in a relationship with me and my memories. He resolved these issues by asking questions about my relationship with Chris, the things we did together, or the people we knew or met together.
I don't think our relationship could have lasted for as long as it did (or our friendship for as long as it has) if he had been threatened by my relationship with Chris. I would not have been able to be in a relationship (then or now) where I was required to kind of eliminate Chris from my life. I could not do that. I know of some relationships where the surviving partner has had to make these kinds of concessions. I don't understand how these relationships survive. Those kinds of concessions represent the widowed partner saying to his new lover, "O.K., I'm willing to hide one part of myself from you." I think that kind of relationship is doomed from the beginning.
Of course, I did make some concessions. Every relationship has to make concessions in order to survive. Brad moved into the apartment where Chris and I had lived. When Brad moved in we bought all new bedroom furniture. But in our living room, there was this wood plaque that Chris and I had engraved that read: "Welcome to our Home...Chris and Phill." When I asked Brad if he felt that we should take that down, he said "No." But when some of his friends visited, they thought it was odd that it the plaque was still on the mantle. Later Brad and I discussed it, and together decided to take it down. Timing for those changes was important because I don't know how I would have reacted if Brad had made that request right away.
My current partner, Torsten, was more threatened by Chris. He has not experienced this kind of major grief and loss. As a result, there were times when the intensity of my memories of Chris were quite difficult for him. It's important for a person who is a widower to be open with his new partner about the grieving process. This is particularly important if the new partner is a stranger to this kind of grief and loss.
It's telling him it's O.K. It's telling him you'll be O.K.
I woke up one morning and I knew that it was time to move. Many people had said to me "You need to get out of that house." People said I needed to move because they didn't think I could get on with my life as long as I lived in the house where Chris died. They couldn't understand that I actually needed to stay there for a certain period of time. That house was my anchor. That house where Chris and I had lived, and where he had died represented safety, security and familiarity. I believed that my memories lived in that house.
A week after I moved, I returned to the old house. I found that I had no feelings of loss, no ache, no hurt. The empty house didn't even feel familiar. I realized that neither the space, the real estate, the address nor the time spent there made it my home. Nor did my memories live in that house either. I discovered that my memories did not live in that house. They lived inside of me. Wherever I lived, Chris would be there. Wherever I went, my memories would go with me.
The grieving process altered my perceptions about events in Chris's and my relationship. The grief crystallized the relationship between the ying and the yang of our life together. As a result I was able to understand that the difficult things did not diminish the value of our relationship. I also came to appreciate the lessons that I learned from the struggles and the less than perfect experiences. Relationships, particularly gay relationships involve, if not require struggle. I was able to put the truth of our relationship into focus. The clarity of that focus helped me to see the magic that we had and that provided a kind of relief for me in the aftermath of Chris's death.
Chris continues to be an influence on my life. But in a very different way. He is a part of who I am. A month after Chris died, I was going through our safe, looking over insurance policies and other papers when I came across a letter from Chris. It was addressed to me, with instructions to be opened after his death. In the letter he wrote:
|I commend my memory to the hearts of those who knew me. I am secure that I will be remembered. If a life can be measured, let mine be measured by the warmth of the hearts of those who loved me. By this measure, I have lived a life of great richness. Do not despair. What we were will never die. What we are will never fade away. What we will become is in the hands of forces greater than ourselves.|
The New AIDS Paradigm
|It's believing, if you work hard enough, fast enough, long enough, if you can keep him on the cutting edge of treatment; maybe he won't die. It's the anger when he dies anyway. It's the guilt because maybe you didn't work hard enough, fast enough or long enough. It's the hopelessness of knowing even a love as great as yours could not save his life.|
My life is very different today than it was the first few years after Chris's death. Today, with help from my little pharmacological friends, I'm planning for my future. It may not happen. But for the first time since this epidemic started I feel optimistic enough to think about, to hope for, to plan a future. I think that's a good thing. I also have these surges of rage. All of this new stuff came too late. All the good news in the world will not bring Chris back.
Some people want to take away all the pain. I understand that impulse, but I think but you have to be careful when you fool with history. Who knows what act of the past was the absolutely essential act that created this chain reaction of events that caused some desirable outcome. Sometimes I imagine this med student in 1989 reading Chris's obituary and based on that experience he became a researcher and went on to discover the protease (David Ho did study in California after all.). Perhaps if that person had not read that obituary, maybe he or she would have gone on to become a plastic surgeon instead. Who knows?
I'm Not Done Yet
It is chronic. It's not manageable. It's not over! Even after he dies.
There was a period of time during my disease when surviving was not very important to me. It's not that I wanted to die. It was more that I didn't get the point of living. Furthermore, I wasn't convinced that my efforts would alter the outcome of my survival want way or the other.
Finally, I asked my self. "Are you finished? Have you done the things you were meant to do?" I determined that not only was I not finished, but I hadn't even discovered the things that I am meant to do. The new drugs may not bring Chris back. But I can. Or at least I can keep his spirit a live in my work, in my commitment, in my passion for life, in my ability to live and to move on. I owe that to him and to myself.
|In many places you will sense my presence. For, as all who have gone before me, I am in the wind and the sun and the stars. You will hear my voice in your ear, whispering of my love. And when the jacarandas bloom, I know you will see me in their flowers. I will never be apart from you. I will never leave your heart.|
| — Chris Brownlie, 1989|
Phill Wilson is the director of the Black AIDS Institute. He also founded the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum.
You can purchase Gay Widowers: Life After the Death of a Partner in your local book store or order directly from the publisher by calling 1-800-HAWORTH.