The Poisoned Ink Well

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

A Month of Rainy Ash Wednesdays

When we saw the banana trees were yellowed, dying, burnt looking mounds, surrounded by patches of dirt with blades of grass peeping through and the litter of beer bottles and cigarette butts, my heart sank and my son always wiser then his years said “Somebody died can’t you see it?” I could see it, but I didn’t want to believe it. The yard was never a manicured or well thought out kind of garden, more an urban jungle with shrubs, azalea bushes, and the famous nick named Gary banana trees vying for attention in a haphazard sort of way. The yard always looked green and loved and watered, with the bottles, butts, and litter that accumulated every night picked up by someone in the famliy every morning. The porch swing that sat between the two apartments in the family leased duplex that had served as a family meeting place with someone usually sitting and swinging on it was gone, too.

It’s the day before Mardi Gras, Lundi Gras they call it and we pick him up from the hospice and he’s as yellow and dying as his banana plants, with tiny purple veins bursting on the side of his face, his eyes jaundiced and his skin a muddy pinkish brown. (I'm a nurse and I've cared for end stage liver and AIDs patients and I know these signs.) I see the ascites stretched across his tight abdomen, but I don't want to see him like this with my nurse eyes, but I can't help it. He tells us that Pops and his Step Mom (my sweet beautiful, elegant, forever, party friend Margaret) both died last year, all of a sudden within three months of each other and the family (what was left of them) let the duplex go and he ended up staying here. It’s a very, very nice Catholic run facility for end stage AIDS patients with smiling pleasant staff members, and clean halls, it’s the model of efficiency.

He has his own room, and it’s a world away from the rest of the place decorated like a New Orleans bar with all different kinds of Mardi Gras masks, and beads, and bright purple, gold, and green feathers all over the walls. Mardi Gras always was our holiday, our favorite. One time we lost our ride at a Drag Queen Ball at the Cajun Dome in Lafayette. And we were both wearing black velvet formals and we tried to hitch hike home in our tux and ball gown. Our friend finally drove from Baton Rouge and rescued us. We ended up waiting all night for her at a biker bar in Breaux Bridge. Boy were those guys laughing at us, but we always had a good time, every day of the year, nothing but laughter, when we were together.

25 years of Mardi Gras and he’s too weak this year to go to the parades, so we end up at a booth at the Chimes by LSU drinking pots of coffee and eating all the appetizers on the menu instead of ordering dinner. He tells me that they’re busy trying to cure him of his addiction to pain pills, a kind of a twelve step program when he only has maybe two or three faltering painful footsteps left and somehow we both laugh at this. In between mouth fulls of cheese sticks and fried boudin balls, he asks me to write his eulogy. I have known him forever and I‘ll know him forever and I don‘t want to say goodbye. (Not while he is still alive)He was and is my very best friend, a sister, a soul mate. He tells me that they say he has less than six months to live. And I don't tell him, but I know that everyday for the rest of my life will always be like the day after Mardi Gras without Gary, my life will be like a whole month of Ash Wednesdays.

So how do I go from Mardi Gras to death to Ash Wednesday to a eulogy? Before we left Gary took all his Mardi Gras stuff off the walls of his room and gave it to me and my son and we hugged goodbye a little longer just in case it was for the last time. I desperately don’t want to leave him, but I have a job, a home, and a sort of (misfit) life 400 miles away. I head west through Port Allen over the new Mississippi River bridge and finally due north. It starts to storm and I start to cry, the windshield wipers need replacing, and I can’t wipe my eyes fast enough to see, so we stop in Natchitoches. Eddie my son purchases crawfish pies, Kleenex, and wiper blades and we eat and cry and talk and do the needed repairs. Somehow I make it home over the next seven hours and I try to think of ways for him to live, and I refuse to write this damn eulogy, or say goodbye. I get home and hang up the feathers and the mask and the beads and all the pretty stuff he gave me that he’s collected over the years. It’s decorating my bedroom and I wake up in the middle of the night staring at a purple sequined mask with his face hiding somewhere behind it in my dream/wake state and with the dull nagging voice of my unconscious saying, “What will you do without him?” I don’t know. And I'm thinking that if I was there with him that I might be able to nurse him back to health, to some sort of remission, and I feel guilty and sad and angry. He took care of me for so many years. He fed me and clothed and let me stay with him when I had no place to go. He bought all my son's baby clothes years ago when we had no money. He was the best friend you could ever hope for when you were down and out. And now it's another rainy Ash Wednesday and I don't know how to help him.

Frankie (another extended family friend) died on this past Christmas Day of HIV complications. They put him in a hospital right at the end, that’s the way they do it and you’re very lucky if you don’t die out on the street or on a family member’s spare couch because hardly anyone gets treatment. So many of us are dying now of HIV, Hepatitis B or C, chemical industry related cancers, that they barely manage to dispose of our bodies, nobody can afford burials or funeral services anymore, it’s too expensive, just a quick cremation, and the ashes go to who ever loved you the most or has the most clout in the family. There’ll be no grave markers or tombstones for any of us, you’ll never know we existed at all; I don’t know if that is good or bad, it’s just the way it is right now. Whole families decimated. This is Louisiana and I can almost hear the police officer/doctor/ politician/court reporter/orderly say good riddance as they zip us up in body bags and move on the next one.

Melanie Burke-Zetzer for Gary White

(I have more to say)