In an effort to get me kickstarted into writing more short fiction and creative non-fiction, I decided to read the first piece I ever had published: “Dear Tom” from Countering the Myths: Lesbians write about the men in their lives (edited by Rosamund Elwin for Women’s Press, published in 1996). A friend love letter to a dearly departed friend and theatre school colleague, this is “Dear Tom”:
Remember how warm it was that afternoon before Victoria Day weekend when we decided to take our lunch outdoors? It had been years since I’d been on a picnic. I helped you make our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which I also hadn’t had in years, then we headed out, stopping at the corner store for Pepsi, orange juice and salad.
Across the street and down about a block were the spacious grounds of a private boys’ school. I don’t remember why, but no one seemed to be in school that weekday. The ground was soft and relatively dry, so we sat cross-legged on the grass under a big, leafy maple tree while we ate and talked. It was the first, and only, time I tasted carrot and raisin salad. It was surprisingly good. You were so happy to be outside in the light. Your sunny disposition had been too long in the shade in the hospital. I watched you turn your face to the sunlight, confident that the sunscreen would block any cancer-inducing rays.
Lying on your stomach, you read me some of your poems. Many were about death, some were even hopeful. You wrote of a healing of the soul and finding peace within. One of your poems, set in a cemetery, was about “a man and a hole and another year more.” It gave me a disturbing sense of foreshadowing. You’d already asked if I could set one of your pieces to music. I had turned you down, giving the excuse that I was not a composer and that there were better musical heads than mine to undertake the task. You always believed in me. Maybe that’s why I secretly worked on a melody in my spare time, waiting for the perfect tune to present itself, to surprise you.
“It’s like – I didn’t believe it till you got pneumonia.” It was the first, and only, time I admitted to you how difficult it was for me to accept your illness.
“Bill’s been avoiding the issue too.”
You also told me we all needed our own healing. A good listener, and possessing of a courageous and loving heart, you took the confusion of loved ones in stride, and in turn, inspired love and courage.
I don’t remember everything we talked about that day, but I felt a child-like joy at being alive. And for being with you. Drowsy after our meal, we stretched out our legs and spent some quiet time, you rested your head on my thighs. The clouds drifted by in the bright blue spring sky, but we were both too much in a sleepy haze to make out their shapes. The green maple leaves flapped lazily in a light breeze that rolled through the grass. I’d never felt so connected to you.
Our pastoral afternoon was interrupted by a medical emergency. Your temperature had been elevated all day and showed no sign of coming down.
“I’m sorry,” you said. You didn’t want to cut our day short.
“Don’t worry about it. You gotta go. You have to have this checked out.”
We took a cab to emergency. You settled into the back seat while I leaned forward, willing the car to move faster.
In the examining room, you sat on the gurney, back slouched and shoulders caved in, patient and vulnerable, waiting for the doctor to arrive. After taking your temperature and asking you some questions, one of the AIDS team doctors, a young Asian man, did some blood work. He left the bloodied cotton swabs on the thin white sheet that covered your legs. Annoyed, I moved to dispose of them.
“Don’t touch the blood,” you warned.
I brought the garbage can and you slam dunked the dangerous waste.
“Two points!” I exclaimed. It’s easier if you make it a game. Easier for who, though?
You were tired when we got back to your apartment, but we were both relieved that you didn’t have to stay at the hospital. You needed a nap. I hugged and kissed you goodbye and went home.
The song is finally finished now. It’s not perfect, but it has a pleasing and moving melody. My striving for just the right series of notes has cost me though. You never heard it. But that’s really the only thing I remember about you that makes me sad.