True to my earlier observations, the summer seemed to be flying by when I wanted it to go as slowly as possible. Each Thursday, Joey paid Mark a visit, always bringing something to share or give. One week it was a small box with four special chocolates in it. Another week he brought a copy of his school picture for Mark. One week he showed up with a joke.
"Mark," he asked, "have you heard this one? A small boy was shopping with his grandfather and got lost in the mall. He went up to a security officer and said, 'I've lost my grandpa'.
"The guard asked what his name was, and the boy replied, 'Grandpa'.
"The guard smiled and then asked, 'What's he like?' to which the boy replied, 'Good Scotch whisky and women with big tits'."
Mark laughed and laughed, finally saying, "Oh, my. Little brother is growing up!"
The days had fallen into a routine. Mark often smoked one or two joints in the morning, saying that they really seemed to help with the nausea. Harris kept up a continuous supply. I asked Mark not to smoke when he was alone as I was afraid he would fall asleep while he was smoking, and he promised. Often I read to him. Sometimes we just talked. Sometimes Mark dozed while I read or wrote in a journal I was keeping.
One morning I said, "Mark, I just can't get past the anger of feeling that what is happening to you is so damned unfair."
He nodded and thought for a few moments before saying, "Richard, I totally understand that, but I've finally gotten beyond it." He thought a little more before continuing. "When I was in the hospital I saw a great many children, young children. Some weren't even walking yet. Some were just toddlers and kindergarteners. A lot of those kids are not going to make it. They're so young, Richard. That's what's not fair to them or their parents. I didn't die when I was two. I had the chance to grow up, to truly know and love my parents, to experience the joy of swimming, and best of all to know and love you. I don't know about fair, but life has been good to me. It's not a question of fair. Sometimes life is good; sometimes it's terrible. We just have to take what comes, enjoying the good parts and putting up with the bad. Does that make any sense to you?"
Nodding, I replied, "I guess it does, but I'll need to think about it."
"OK. You think and I'll rest. That's the longest speech I've made in a year." He closed his eyes while I moved to the window so I could look out and think.
When Mark awoke, I went to his bed, kissed him, and said, "Thank you Mark, for again being my voice of reason. What you said helped a lot, and I think I'm beginning, finally, to get over my anger." He smiled and asked me to read which I did until it was time to leave.
The week after we had fucked, Mark wanted to do it again. We did, and we both loved it. The next week, we repeated it. While it was good, when we finished Mark lay on top of me and said, "I'm exhausted. I'm afraid this might be the last time."
I told him that was fine but we could continue the sexcursions as long as he wanted to.
That afternoon, Mark was sound asleep and I was reading. Suddenly, he exploded with a huge load of diarrhea. He woke with a start, sat up and shouted, "God Dammit! God Dammit! God Dammit! God Dammit! I should have killed myself when the doctors told me I was dying!" Then he burst into great, heaving sobs.
Without thinking, I shouted back, "Don't ever say that again! Don't ever even think it!"
Between his sobs, he stared at me, shocked, and said, "You've never talked to me that way before."
"I've never had to," I responded. I went over to the bed and urged him to sit on the side of it which he did with my help. I put my arm around him.
He pulled back. "Don't do that! You'll get shit all over you!"
"So what? I don't really care. Shit washes off. What I care about is you."
After a few seconds he said, "Richard, I'm so fucking tired. I'm fucking tired of being sick; I 'm fucking tired of being helpless; I 'm fucking tired of being a burden on you and my parents!"
"First of all, Mark, you aren't a burden on me or anybody else. I never think of what I do here as a burden. To me it is a privilege, and I'm grateful to you for letting me help you. I'm sure you're sick of it all. I'm sure there are times when you want to quit. But if you had killed yourself in June, think of what you would have lost. You would have lost our time together, you would have lost the experience of fucking, you would have lost getting to know your little brother better, you would have lost the reading we've done, the jokes we've shared. I know it's hard, Mark. I know I can't even imagine how hard it is. But you have courage, you're not going to quit, and I'm not going to let you. Please, don't ever think about killing yourself."
As I was talking, his sobs gradually slowed and stopped.
"Thank you, Richard." He looked around at his bed. "This is way too much for you to handle. Please get Mom."
"Your mother is out doing some errands. We can take care of this." I went into the bathroom, got a basin of warm water, a washcloth and a couple of towels. Although he was very shaky, he was able to stand, turn and then lean on the end of the bed. I got his PJ's off and began washing him. When all the shit was off him, I dried him, put a clean towel in his chair, and gently helped him to sit down. Then I stripped the sheets and blankets, throwing them in the bathtub. Because the mattress was a little damp, I put a towel down and then remade the bed with fresh linens and blankets. Then I went to his dresser to get some clean PJ's.
"Richard," he said, "I'm afraid it's probably time I shifted over to a hospital gown."
I knew how he hated them, but I nodded and got one out of his dresser. I could put it on him without him having to stand. When that was done, I helped him back into bed. Before he lay back, I hugged him and gave him a loving, chaste kiss.
He lay back, totally exhausted, I'm sure.
When his mother returned and came into Mark's room, we told her what had happened. I apologized for leaving the dirty bedding in the tub, but she said, "Richard, please don't apologize. You've done more these weeks than anybody could have expected. Did Mark tell you he thought you were a saint?"
I smiled, nodded, and told her how I had answered him.
"Mark," she said, "I think it's time we called in a night nurse for you. You really need somebody with you twenty-four hours a day. He sighed sadly and then nodded. She gave him a loving kiss, took the dirty washing from the tub and went downstairs.
After a silence, Mark said, "Once again you've been my voice of reason. Thank you."
I asked, "Do you realize you strung four 'fuckings' together in one sentence? That must be a record."
He smiled, lay back, and was asleep again within seconds.
The next day was Thursday. I wondered what Joey would produce. He had an envelope in his hand when we walked into Mark's room. "Hello, little brother," Mark said.
Joey smiled and shyly handed the envelope to Mark saying, "For you, Coach."
Mark opened it, scanned it, and said, "This is beautiful, Joey. Thank you." Looking at me he said, "It's a poem," and he began to read it.
I am a fish.
Water is my element.
In it I race, I dive, I splash, I play.
Who made me a fish?
I did not know the joy of being a fish.
He taught me to swim.
He taught me to dive.
He taught me to splash and play.
Without the boy, I would never have known.
I am a fish.
Water is my element.
"That's beautiful, Joey," I said. "I didn't know you were a poet."
"I'm not. I wanted to write something to thank Mark and this just came out."
"Come here, Joey," said Mark. He took Joey's hand in his, looked him straight in the eye for a moment, and then said, "This is the best present I have ever received." He pulled Joey to him, hugged him for a long time and then kissed him. When Joey stood up, there were tears in all our eyes.
At Mrs. Russell's request, I stayed late that night, until the night nurse came at 8:00. She was a small, cheerful, African American woman, and Mark and I both liked her immediately. I asked her to tell me how to change a bed with the patient in it. She gave me a detailed lesson and we talked until I was sure I could do it.
In the next weeks, Mark grew visibly weaker. He seldom sat in his chair, and he often seemed to stare off into space. He dozed a lot. A couple of times he asked for a sexcursion, which I happily gave him, but eventually he stopped asking.
One Thursday, Joey came with the news that he had set a new personal record for the 100 meter freestyle. When he told Mark what it was, Mark's eyes opened wide. "Wow!" he exclaimed. "Joey, take off your shirt and come over to the bed." Joey did as directed. "Turn around." He did. Mark rose up and ran his hands over Joey's back and down to his waist, feeling the muscles that had developed. "Joey, you really have a swimmer's body. You're going to be a champion someday."
"And I'll always remember it was because of my first coach," responded Joey.
Through August, Mark and I talked less and less. Talking seemed to take real effort now. Sometimes I just sat with him, holding his hand for hours.
Toward the end of the month, he appeared still weaker. His doctor had warned us that this would happen. When he did talk now, it was often in short phrases.
Unfortunately, school began the day after Labor Day. Grandma insisted that I had to go, but every afternoon, she picked me up at school and took me to Mark's, where I stayed until the night nurse arrived.
Because of school, Joey visited Mark on Saturday. He had asked to borrow some money from me because, he said, he had seen something he wanted to get for Mark.
He took a little box with him to Mark's that morning, went up to his bed, and, handing Mark the box said, "This is for you."
Mark tried to sit up, but couldn't. I raised the bed a little and he took the box. He was so weak that he had trouble opening it. Inside was a necklace, with two hands clasped. He held it up and asked me to put it on him. "Thank you, Joey, you're always so thoughtful, rather like your brother. I promise you I will wear this always." He sank wearily back.
Joey leaned down and gave him a kiss. "I'll always remember you, Mark."
As Joey left the room, I could see that he was upset. So, saying I'd be back in a minute, I went with Joey into the hall. "That's the last time I'll ever see him, isn't it?" he asked.
I couldn't say no. All I could do was hug him for a minute before he went downstairs.
One evening, I thought Mark seemed a little stronger. I gave him a gentle hug and kiss as I was leaving, and told him that I would be back at 4:00 the next day.
He gazed up at me, tears in his eyes, and said, "I'll try to wait."