In mid-June, we received a phone call saying that Mark was coming home from the hospital. After seeing him the weekend before, I was rather surprised because he had looked really sick and down, and I had worried about him all week, but I assumed the doctors knew what they were doing. When he arrived, his parents asked me to give him a couple of days to settle in before I went over. I did talk with him on the phone, and he sounded sad, which surprised me because I thought he'd be happy to be home.
At the end of my second call, he said, "Richard. I really need to talk with you. Can you come tomorrow?"
I replied that I could if it was alright with his parents. Later, his mother called to invite me over.
The next morning, Grandma took me to Mark's saying that I couldn't stay for a long time and that she would wait while I had some time with him.
Mark's parents had bought him a hospital bed, so that he could be more comfortable. I thought he looked a little better than he had the last time I had seen him. His hair was just beginning to grow back, and his eyes looked better, although he was still very pale.
"Richard, come and hold me."
"Is it OK?"
"Yes, it's OK, and I don't really give a damn if it's not. Just hold me."
I sat on the edge of his bed and leaned over, putting my arms around him. We stayed like that for a couple of minutes before I became aware that he was crying. In all the time since he had gone to the hospital, when we talked on the phone or when I was there, he never cried. Why was he crying now? And not only was he crying, he was sobbing, his back heaving and his breath coming in gasps.
"Mark," I comforted, "you're home now. You're done with the hospital. Everything is going to be all right. Pretty soon we'll be back out on the patio and in the pool again."
"Th-th-ats just i-i-t. It's n-n-n-ot going to b-be all-all right, ever a-a-a-gain."
"What are you talking about?"
Mark took a deep breath, trying to stifle his sobs. "Give me a s-second," he said, "while I t-t-try to get c-c-c-c-control." I waited while the sobs slowly died away. "Damn," he muttered, "I promised myself I'd be strong and here I am blubbering away like a baby." He shuddered a couple of times. Finally, he looked at me and murmured in such a soft voice I could barely hear him, "Richard, I'm dying." Then he burst into convulsive sobs again.
I was thunderstruck. This had never occurred to me. "How can you be?" I asked. "I thought the hospital sent you home because you were in remission again and could get any treatment you needed here."
Again, he fought for control before saying, "There are two reasons why the hospital sends a patient home. One is if he's in remission. The other is if the treatment didn't work and there's nothing more they can do. That's me. All those months of feeling shitty, of throwing up, of pain, of diarrhea, of being so weak and helpless, of praying to get better, of pretending to be better – they were all a waste. The treatments didn't work. In fact, they were making me sicker, so the doctors talked with me and my parents. They said they could keep up the treatments until I died, if that's what we wanted, but they knew it wouldn't be successful. Or, they said, they could stop the treatments and send me home, where I could at least have a few months to feel a little better before I died. Either way, Richard, I was going to die. What kind of a fucking choice is that? My parents left it up to me, and I decided I wanted to come home. At least then, I could see you, and hold you, and share my time with you. I didn't want to just keep feeling terrible. Can you understand that?"
I paused for a moment before saying slowly, thinking as I spoke, "Yes, I suppose I can, but I can't believe that the treatments wouldn't have worked eventually. I think you should have stayed there."
"Is that because you don't really want to see me like this?"
"Of course not. It's because it would be the only chance you had of getting better."
"Are you mad at me for my decision?"
All my pent-up feelings exploded. "How in hell can I be mad at you, Mark? I have no idea what you've been through. From what you said a minute ago, it was much worse than I ever knew. I never knew you were throwing up, or having diarrhea, or being in pain, or feeling weak and awful. Why did you pretend to feel better? I thought we could be honest with each other.""You are mad at me." We were quiet a minute. Mr. Russell had been right. Loosing my false hopes was devastating.
Mark continued, "I'm sorry I deceived you. I really thought that I would get better, and I didn't want you worrying any more than you already were. Richard, if I thought there was any chance at all that I could get better by staying in the hospital, I would have, but those doctors have a lot of experience. They know what they're doing. Every day they hope for miracles and sometimes they get them, but when they don't, their first concern is for their patient. They know that I wouldn't get better. It's not just a guess. And they want me to be as comfortable as I can for as long as I can. Is that bad?"
I was quiet now, feeling miserable. "No," I murmured, "it's not bad. It's all just so damned unfair. You had everything going for you, and suddenly, WHAM, from out of nowhere this hits. I just love you so much that it hurts."
"And I love you, Richard. That's the main reason I wanted to come home again. I couldn't bear to think of dying in that hospital without you there. I really need you. It's always been, whenever I feel down, you're there to cheer me up, or when I feel angry, you're there to calm me. You're my voice of reason, Richard, and I'm going to need a lot of that in whatever time I have left. Please say you're not mad at me."
"No, Mark, Of course I'm not mad at you. I'm angry at the situation. I think I need some time to process this before we talk anymore. Can I come back this afternoon and we can talk more?"
"Can I tell you one more thing before you go?"
"Hold me first." While I was holding him he said, "Richard, I'm scared shitless! I don't want to die. I don't know what it's going to be like to die. I don't know if there will be pain, or if it will be peaceful. I don't know if I'm going somewhere else or if, when I die, it's just the end. It's like going on a journey where you can't know the destination, and it's very scary."
"My God, Mark, I'm sure it is. Please, please believe that I'll be right there with you until the end, and I'll do everything I can to help you."
"Thank you, Richard. I think I already feel a little better. Will you give me a kiss?"
"Are you sure I won't give you an infection, like pneumonia?"
"Who gives a damn!? I'm going to die anyway so what difference does it make how?"
I gave him a gentle kiss on the lips. He looked at me and seemed to want more, so I opened my mouth and felt his tongue deep in me while mine was deep in him. Then I said goodbye and went downstairs and into the living room, where Grandma and Mrs. Russell were talking. "He told you?" Mrs. Russell asked.
"Good. He very much wanted to be the one to tell you. We told him that we would, but he wanted to do it. How is he?"
"Exhausted, I think, but he's calmer. He says he's scared, and who could blame him? I promised him I'd be with him as much as possible from now on. I hope that was OK."
"Absolutely. It's a terrible burden to put on you, Richard, but you're the one who's going to help him through this."
"I think maybe he'll help me through it too," I said. "If he doesn't, I don't think I can do it."
"Richard, we're all here for you. Any time you want to talk, or vent, or shout, or scream, we're here for you."
Later I wondered who would be there for her, but then I decided that she and Mr. Russell would have to help each other.
"I told him I would come back this afternoon. Is that OK?"
"Right now I need some time to myself. I'm so thrown by this that I can't think straight. If it's OK, I'm going to go next door and work in the yard for awhile to see if I can calm down."
Mrs. Russell and Grandma agreed that was a good plan, so I walked next door. Somehow, working in the yard helped me begin to think things through more rationally. At noon, Peter and Christian gave me lunch. Peter asked, "How's Mark doing?"
"He cried a lot when he told me, in fact we both did. Then he told me he was 'scared shitless'. I'm sure he is. I know I would be."
"He must be. How are you doing?"
"Not too good, right now. It was such a shock. I thought he was coming home because he was better. Then I was blindsided. Now I'm trying to adjust to what he told me and figure out what I can do to help him."
They encouraged me to talk with them any time and to spend as much time with Mark as I could, even if that meant letting things slide in the yard.
After working some more in the yard, I returned to Mark's house, where his mother told me to go right up.
The first thing Mark said was, "I'm sorry I was such a crybaby this morning. Everything just got to me."
"Of course it did. Don't be sorry," I said. "Cry any time you feel like it. It can be good for you."
"I knew just what you meant this morning when you said that this isn't fair. Ever since I went to the hospital I was feeling that way, and when the doctors told me I wasn't going to get better, I was really angry. I'm afraid I said some things to them and to my parents that I shouldn't have, but they took it pretty well. I'm still angry, Richard. I'm angry at the doctors for failing, I'm angry that this is happening to me, I'm even angry at my parents because they didn't protect me from this. I know that's not fair, or even rational, but that's the way I feel. I think you're the only person I'm not angry at right now."
"It's probably pretty normal to be angry, and I imagine your doctors weren't surprised. As for your parents, I'd be surprised if they weren't angry too. Mark, we're going to have to work together to get us through this. You said this morning that I was your 'voice of reason'. If I'm going to be that voice for you, sometimes you're going to have to be that voice for me. We're going to have to lean on each other as well as your parents and Grandma. It's not something we can do alone."
"There is one good piece of news," Mark said, flashing his sly smile.
"What's that?""Well, all the time I was having chemo, I couldn't get a hard-on. Do you have any idea how frustrating that is? Wanking would have been the only comfort I had, but I couldn't do it. Now that we've stopped the chemo, I can do it again. Last night, I jerked off for the first time since last September. Oh, my God, it was wonderful."
"Great! You let me know if you ever want me to do it for you.""Oh, I will." He smiled again. "Hey, what do you call a gay midget?"
"I have no idea."
"A low blow!" We laughed and then talked of other things. Mark didn't seem to want to be serious again and that was fine. There would be plenty of time for that.
As we talked I saw The Once and Future King, which I had given him for his birthday, on his table. "How do you like the book?"
"I know I told you I was enjoying it, and I'm sorry, but, to be honest, I'm not strong enough to hold it up."
"That's fine," I said. "A suggestion. How would it be if I read it to you? Then we could enjoy it together." He loved the idea, so we planned to start the next morning. "There's one thing you have to promise me, though."
"What?" He looked a little wary.
"From now on we have to be honest with each other. There's no way we can help each other if we're not honest. If you're angry, tell me. If you're scared, tell me. If you need a break from my company, tell me. If you want me to jerk you off or blow you, tell me.
He laughed and promised that he would, and then swore me to the same promise.
"Richard, I think I'm getting kind of tired. Will you be unhappy if I ask to be left alone now?"
"Of course not. That's the honesty I was talking about. Tell me when you need to be alone."
Before I left, I gave him another hug and kiss. I knew he was going to need a lot of those and, in fact, so was I, so I was very happy when he was able to give me a little hug back.