ON THE day Patrick died, his brother Kevin and I repossessed a light truck that Patrick had lost a month earlier in a burst of late-stage AIDS-spawned dementia. Patrick had handed over the keys for the truck to the other party in a traffic accident, and the man had kept the truck because he'd seen that Patrick was in trouble. Bullies do that.
Kevin and I had a good time. He'd found the truck that morning and had come back to the house where Patrick lay dying, and together we two had gone to fetch it. We had to buy a battery and install it because the bully had had the sense to know that there was another set of keys.
Kevin and I laughed a lot that morning. I'd been in Portland, Ore., only a week, but I'd come to love him, their sister, their mother, Patrick's wife and five children, their renegade priest and dozens of miscellaneous care-givers who were ushering this man they all loved into the Great Unknown.
On the previous Saturday afternoon, when I arrived from Washington, I wondered, briefly, what in the hell I was doing there. I am a gentleman at the lower threshold of my Golden Years. I knew no one in Portland. It was my vacation. I do not particularly like to travel. I hate being a house guest. And as a lifelong blatant heterosexual, I was carrying around a lot of baggage about gays and bisexuals and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
What happened was that I had said yes, again. It has been well over 10 years since I overcame my own potentially fatal illness, my three decades of playing Russian roulette with Smirnoff the Invincible, and over the past year or two, for reasons not clear to me, I have found myself increasingly saying yes in surprising situations.
One of these involved a transcontinental flight, a dying man and his family and Elizabeth, a Washington-area woman of tender middle years who has somehow become my closest friend. We met on an electronic message queue, and in due course I was invited to her wedding this past October. I wrote a sonnet of celebration, which Elizabeth included in the wedding libretto, and the rabbi had me read it just before the breaking of the glass.
Patrick couldn't be there. Elizabeth had known him when she lived in the Pacific Northwest, and she had invited this talented pianist with the graceful octave-plus fingers, to play at her wedding. It came as a grievous blow when he called from the hospital to say that the ravages of his disease would make his attendance impossible. That was his last hospital stay, and he was confined there on her wedding day, Oct. 28. He would die at home, amid love, and friends, and the joy of living expressed throughout the day, much the way Elizabeth was married.
Patrick played piano and directed pastoral music in churches in the Portland diocese. A photograph on a cassette tape of his arrangements, produced by Oregon Catholic Press several years ago, shows him as a large, handsome man with a perm and a boyish face. Patrick touched many lives, both gay and straight. His family, including his wife, Carol, had pitched in heroically when Patrick's male partner, Dale, had died three years earlier of the same disease.
I called him before the wedding, twice, read my sonnet to him and then sent him a copy of it. It was called "An Enchantment," and it had to do with the many facets of life, including the final adventure.
Two weeks after the wedding, Elizabeth messaged me, saying she had decided to go to Portland and help the family take care of Patrick for a week after Thanksgiving. She asked if I would like to go along. "Get two tickets," I said. "I already did," she replied.
I met Patrick face to face on a Saturday afternoon, Nov. 24. He lay on a rented hospital bed in a bedroom of his home. He knew who Elizabeth was, and he knew who I was, and he was comfortable with my being there. I found myself smoothing his forehead and cheeks toward the top of his head, and his hands toward the fingertips. A woman had once taught me that pain should be handled always toward the extremities, always outward from the body.
There was a lot of smiling in this house during the week. Before Patrick moved into his final hours, he asked his wife, Carol, for a cup of "April soup." She racked her mind trying to identify this wonderful product before realizing that his brain, not yet drugged and in some pain, had simply produced the wrong word. The same day, he reported to his mother that "my peachtrees hurt," and everybody laughed at that and loved him so.
On Monday, someone came in with sheet music of familiar Christmas songs, arranged by Patrick and just published in book form. On the cover was a reproduction of an oil snowscape by his sister, Claudia. Patrick's grand piano stood in the living room, covered with a dust cloth. His wife said he had banned music in the house a week or so earlier; it seemed to make him angry.
When it came my turn to sit with Patrick for a time, I stroked his hair and said, "Lisa would like to play your new music for us. Would you mind?" Elizabeth had been Lisa when Patrick had hired her as a church organist a decade earlier. He smiled and nodded. Elizabeth and Claudia played most of the afternoon. Patrick smiled. "Lookin' good," he said once.
On Tuesday I drove errands with a woman named Pat, who with Patrick's mother and wife tended to his demands and his most intimate care. I took Pat to a couple of bookstores where she'd ordered copies of books for children about the death of parents and such matters. Pat was fighting her own battle with cancer and was losing. She walked with a cane and made countless telephone calls and spent countless hours standing in lines for family aid, food stamps, medical assistance -- things which, I found, are not the tools of welfare cheats but means of survival for many.
One of our errands on Tuesday was to pick up morphine and suppositories of Motrin, a mild analgesic that seemed to keep Patrick more comfortable. That afternoon he was given his first morphine tablet, and Carol later smiled wistfully and said, "It's remarkable how one little pill can make eight people feel so much better."
That afternoon Elizabeth and I were attending Patrick in his bedroom. He was breathing deep gasps, and the sounds of life spilled into the room from outside -- his two daughters making little girl noises in front of the television set, dinner being prepared in the kitchen, the telephone ringing and then Jonathan, one of Patrick's sons, practicing the trumpet in the basement. Elizabeth and I looked at each other, and she said, "This is it, this is the Enchantment." I nodded.
On Wednesday, Patrick stopped taking nourishment.
That evening the priest, Father Gary, cooked dinner for the family and the care-givers. (Gary was hanging on to frock with claw and faith. I, the born-and-reared Methodist, had taken a hell-threatening communion in his 12th-century Roman Catholic mass the previous Sunday night, and had already begun to love him.) He made a Bavarian cream dessert, for which I'd been assigned to grate a thin Hershey bar. I left some knuckle on the grater, but didn't give it much thought.
By Thursday the piano was covered again. Elizabeth and I folded the children's laundry and stacked it neatly atop the instrument. Life would go on.
On Thursday evening the person who'd been assigned to bring dinner fell afoul of circumstance, so I turned my attention to creating something from nothing, which was just about what we had at hand. I found two ravaged chicken carcasses in the refrigerator and slid them into eight quarts of boiling water along with three carrots, four potatoes, an onion and a handful of celery scraps. I suggested unloading some cabbage into it for flavor but yielded to cautions that the cabbage would take over everything. Then I made some egg dumplings, except that the flour in the bin seemed to be Bisquick, which gave the concoction a whole lot more substance than I had counted on.
Oddly, everyone loved this chicken stew, and me for making it. Somebody had the bad taste to speak of loaves and fishes. Several people went back for seconds. And all seemed to be seeking spices to add flavor to it -- too polite to mention that the main flavor that was missing was chicken. Aaron, 15, Patrick's eldest son, found my eye across the room and intoned, "This is really good." When we'd arrived on Saturday Aaron could not be lured from his room, where he'd hidden for days.
The day of my chicken stew was the day Father Gary anointed Patrick. Joining our hands, we stood in a circle around the hospital bed. Its sides had been lowered now for two days, because Patrick -- knees high sometimes and arms across his chest now and then, eyes closed, his heart racing, his breathing shallow and rapid -- had not been able to move. No danger here of a fall from bed. His friend Dale took great falls right to the end, but not Patrick, in his emaciation looking much like the scrawny Jesus on the crucifix on the wall of the room where he lay dying.
I felt a deep wave of gratitude that I had been allowed into this circle of grace. Father Gary used oiled fingertips to form kinesthetic crosses on Patrick's forehead, his eyes, his ears, his lips, his heart, his hands and his feet, at each station of the body commending that part to God. And then he said, "Patrick, your work here is done. You may return home to God now." In our circle, our hands still joined, we listened as the priest read the 23rd Psalm. It was a week of a lifting of monumental defects and burdens from my heart and my character, and I smiled at my own imperfection when I found myself backsliding, briefly raising a supercilious eyebrow at Gary's use of some cockamamie new yuppie version of the psalm. Death surely ought to be accorded the elegance of the King James Version. I forgave myself quickly.
The next morning, Kevin's brother and I retrieved Patrick's missing truck. That afternoon, I was given the honor of lifting Patrick for a turn onto his side. It was the first time I'd been allowed to do this, and despite my still-healing knuckle I declined rubber gloves so as to touch this man's infant flesh with fingertips as I held him close. He had seven hours to live.
When Elizabeth and I left that house Friday evening for the last time, we did it quietly, and simply. These had been long days, and after taking our hosts to dinner we retired to our rooms. I was dreaming some sort of a disembodied dream when I became aware of Elizabeth standing by my bed, in the half-light. I was fully awake instantly.
"Patrick," I said.
"About an hour ago. Nancy just called."
"What time is it?"
"We were just in time."
"Yes," she said. "Just in time."
I stood and we embraced for a long moment, saying nothing, and then she returned to her room.
We flew back to Washington on Saturday, and the next day Elizabeth took me to her church for the first Sunday of Advent to hear the new priest, like Elizabeth a convert to Catholicism, admonish the congregation, as the holidays approached, about the necessity of taking what one heard in church and putting it into action in the community, on the street, in the homes. I took the bread from the priest into my mouth (eschewing the wine, for practical reasons), and as I walked away I felt the hush, as Wallace Stevens once wrote, of ancient sacrifice. I had been given a precise but infinitesimal glimpse of the great insight Moses had brought down from the mountain: simply, that we are not in this alone, and that we belong here together. This third-quatrain pivot came to me, from the sonnet, "An Enchantment," I'd written for Elizabeth's wedding:
So many rooms, this house, for childbirth, grief,
Conception, anguish, circumcision, death,
The ancient rituals, and the sure belief
That joy lives here, with you, in every breath.
And it came to me that I'd been given the opportunity to see my own words come true, and to watch myself grow and change not for the sake of getting what I want out of life but just for the sake of, well, rightly relating to the presence of grace in other people. And it was just in time for Christmas.
Robert Williams is a Washington Post editor.