On the day we returned to our respective homes, Joe to San Francisco and me to New York, Joe drove me to the Sacramento airport. After four months of getting to know one another in round-the-clock intimacy of caring for a woman we both loved, the parting was painful. We were both teary, but neither of us doubted we would be in touch often and we promised to follow up on our plans for Joe to visit me soon in New York.
Mom’s friend, Barbara, was becoming my friend, Barbara, and we phoned several time a week after I left Sacramento. At first, she spoke mostly of the times she and Mom had shared over the years and how alone she felt without Mom. Now we were discovering our own commonalities.
When the phone rang one day about two weeks after I got home, it was the first time I had heard Joe’s voice since we had left Sacramento. He was hesitant and a bit distant. He said he had tried to write a dozen letters to me, but the words wouldn’t come and now the telephone seemed the only right way to say what he then blurted out:
“I’m gay and I’m HIV-positive.”
It hit me like a punch in the gut. If, in the 1980s and 1990s, and you had made your home in Greenwich Village for a long time, you could not escape the scourge of AIDS. I had already buried too many people I loved – many of them not much more than boys - and my oldest, dearest, closest friend, who lived in Los Angeles, was HIV-positive too.
Joe had not told me in Sacramento, he said, because he didn’t want to increase the burden I already bore. But he was surprised I had not guessed because of the AZT pills he swallowed at regular times of the day and the several rest breaks he took – both required to maintain his health.
I had assumed the pills were vitamins, and Joe had made so many of the household chores his own, I hadn't noticed rest breaks. It wasn't fair. I wanted to scream and yell and cry and when we hung up the phone, I did. I had found a second brother with whom I had connected so closely, and now the spectre of his early death would shadow everything between us.
We humans are remarkably resilient in the face of horror, and Joe and I had an outstanding ten days together when he stayed with me in September. Joe had never been to New York and he took to it like a native. The subway was an adventure and instead of seeing the dirt and grime and noise, he liked its speed and convenience. We visited museums and walked through Chinatown and went to a Broadway play. We took advantage of the variety of restaurants and we shopped the Bleecker Street stores for cooking at home.
Joe saved my life one evening with the Heimlich maneuver when a piece of cheese caught in my throat.
Joe agreed with me that among the abundance of spectacular architecture in New York City, the Chrysler Building outshines them all. He was as much in love with New York as I have always been and he said, at the end of his visit, that more than anything else, he wanted to walk the winding Greenwich Village streets during a snowfall.
So we planned a February visit.
Late in the year, Barbara phoned with terrible news: a tumor had been found in her brain. Surgery was to be immediate, but the doctor warned about damage to her brain, though there was no hope at all without the surgery. The doctor’s concern proved true. Barbara and I spoke briefly on two, maybe three occasions following the surgery and then her son told me she no longer recognized anyone. Barbara died a month later.
In the days before Joe’s February arrival, I was glued to the weather reports. It was cold, flurries were predicted with a light dusting of snow, but no big storm: good for airports, bad for Joe’s wish. I sent entreaties to the gods. I got my mojo working and some good juju too. I lit a few candles and prayed the weatherman was an idiot.
There were light flurries in the air, nothing serious, when Joe arrived in the late afternoon. We talked and chattered and reminisced for a couple of hours. I cooked dinner and we lingered over the last of the bottle of an excellent Bordeaux I’d saved for his visit. Afterwards, Joe helped clean up the kitchen and wash the dishes, and when I peeked out the window around 10:30, I was giddy to see that my mojo had caused the weatherman to fail. Already, there was more than half a foot of snow on the ground and I could tell it wasn’t going to stop anytime soon.
Joe and I giggled like kids as we bundled up in our coats and scarves and hats and gloves and we were the first, on some blocks, to make footprints in the snow. There was enough of it piled on parked cars that it was easy to ignore them and imagine we were walking in the Village a hundred years before when these same houses were lit with gaslight. When we listened carefully in just the right way, we could almost hear the clip-clop of a horse and carriage around the corner. Joe said the walk was more than he had hoped for and the best thing that had happened to him in ages.
Joe didn’t have as much energy on this second trip to New York. One day, we cut short a visit to the Metropolitan Museum when his entire being seemed to deflate as weariness suddenly overcame him. His enthusiasm for the city had not waned, but his ability to keep going all day had. Nevertheless, by pacing ourselves, we checked off everything on Joe’s list before he went home.
Although we talked about Joe returning to New York and even fantasized now and again about his moving to the city, he became steadily more sick over the next year and a half and spent increasingly more time in and out of the hospital for new treatments. Each took more out of him.
Sometimes, when Joe was too weak, I talked with his caregiver, Jack. By mid-1994, Joe was no longer capable of speaking on the phone at all. In October, Jack said I should come. The end was near.
Jack was sitting on the front stairs of his home when a taxi dropped me there from the airport. He was crying as he hugged me and said Joe had died at the hospital while my plane was still in the air.
There was a memorial for Joe a few days later at the Bay View Boat Club where he was a member. That’s “boat,” not “yacht” club, as befits those like Joe who loved sailing more than any kind of status. His friends told me he had often talked about me in the years after Mom died and about his two trips to New York. And they said he always called me, “my sister."
Some weeks after I returned home, Joe’s friends scattered his ashes near the Farallon Islands, about 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco.
There is no revelatory conclusion here. No grand enlightenment. No flash of wisdom gained. Joe and I, and Barbara too, had been the tight little family surrounding and protecting Mom in her last days. Two-and-a-half years later, there was only me to tell this story.
- Finis -
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 1
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 2
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 3
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 4
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 5
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 6
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 7
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 8
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 9
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 10
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 11