The next day, I was in English class when my counselor came to get me. Wondering why, I gathered my things and went to the office, where Grandma was waiting.
"I got a call from Mark's mother that you need to go there right now."
A chill ran through me. Oh, God, this is it! I thought, as we walked rapidly to the car. 'It can't be. I thought Mark seemed a little better yesterday'.
When Grandma pulled up in front of the house she said, "Mark's mother said to just go in and right up to his room. So I did, my heart thumping and my stomach churning.
Entering Mark's bedroom, I saw several people including his mother, his father, his nurse, Peter and Christian, and a man whom I supposed was his doctor. Mark was lying propped up in bed. If possible, he was paler than I had ever seen him, and he seemed to have trouble holding his head up. Around his neck was his swimming medal as well as the necklace Joey had given him. The others moved back, leaving me a pathway to his bed.
Mark tried to hold his hand out, but it flopped to the bed. "I'm sorry I couldn't wait until you got out of school," he said, barely audibly.
"What do you mean you couldn't wait?" I asked.
"It's time. I probably only have a few minutes left."
"Richard, will you hold me tight?"
In order to do that, I had to get up beside him on his bed. I climbed up, put my arms around him and squeezed him gently but firmly.
"Thank you," he said. "Just stay with me like this." He reached up with his free hand and took his medal off his neck. "I want you to have this to remember me by, and there's a picture on the table which I want you to take." He tried to put the medal around my neck, but didn't have the strength to reach up, so I did it for him.
"Promise me that you'll never forget me, Richard."
"Of course I'll never forget you. You'll live in my heart always." Tears were running down both our cheeks. Looking up I saw all the other people in the room were in the same state.
"Good. Wherever I'm going, I'll never forget you either." He seemed to relax a little and he closed his eyes.
He can't be gone yet, I thought, and he wasn't.
Slowly, he opened his eyes again and murmured, "Kiss me, Richard."
I didn't know if all of the people in the room knew about us, but I didn't really care. I leaned over and gave his lips a gentle, caressing kiss.
"No, like you usually do."
I opened my mouth a little and let my tongue explore his lips. He opened his mouth to let me in, and I tongued all over the inside of his mouth, our two tongues slowly dancing. Finally, I pulled gently back.
"That was wonderful, Richard." He smiled and relaxed again with his eyes closed.
Minutes passed. Finally, his eyes opened just a crack. He said, "I'm not afraid any longer, Richard. Will you just hold me and kiss my lips one last time? I think I'm going now."
I gently touched his lips with mine. I could feel his soft breathing on my face. One breath….two breaths….three breaths…… nothing. I waited. I couldn't believe he was really gone.
"No, Mark," I murmured, "just five minutes more." But there was no reaction. Finally, I gave him a last kiss and hug. Then I pulled slowly away and somehow stumbled out of the room onto the landing.
I stood there, sobbing, my whole body shaking. I have never felt so desolate as I was at that moment. It was over; Mark had left me. What was I going to do without his love? Without his caresses? Without his kisses? Most of all, without his wonderful, funny mind? It's strange, but I never thought of the sex then, just him touching me and caring for me.
Slowly, the others came out of the room, leaving Mark's parents alone inside with him. Peter and Christian came up on either side of me and each put an arm around my shoulders. "Come on, Richard," said Peter, "there's nothing more you can do here." Together the three of us went down the stairs and outside. Grandma was still sitting in the car at the curb. Christian went over and said something to her. She nodded and drove away. The two of them guided me to the patio at their house and eased me into a chair, where I sat, still sobbing. They sat down on either side of me and waited.
When the sobs finally stopped, Christian said, "Why don't you go in the kitchen and wash your face and get yourself a glass of cold water. We'll wait here."
I did as he suggested. I washed for a long time. At last I took a deep, shuddering breath and went back outside with my glass of water.
"I never saw anybody die before," I murmured. "It was so peaceful. When he first told me that he was going to die, he talked about how scared he was. But today he said he wasn't scared any more. I'm very happy for that."
We sat in silence for a few moments, before Peter said, "I think he was ready. He was so weary of the pain and the vomiting and just feeling awful. He was worn out, Richard."
Christian added, "You know he didn't want to leave you. He didn't want to leave any of us. But somehow he just knew it was time."
I nodded thoughtfully. "What happens now?" I asked.
"Well," said Peter, "there will be a funeral service and burial in a few days. I'm sure his parents will let you know where and when. For all of us, grief is a long process. We each need to handle it in our own way, but we also need to support each other. Any time you want to talk, or, in fact, not talk but just sit, you know we'll be here for you."
I nodded again. "I don't know how I'll ever get past this awful, empty feeling."
"As Peter said, it'll take a long time," said Christian. "You'll never forget him, but, whether we like it or not, life does go on, and sometimes we just have to keep going until we find a time and place where we feel back to normal again, although normal will also be different. Just take it a day at a time."
I sat quietly listening with part of my mind while another part of my mind was remembering those last few minutes with Mark and how he died so peacefully in my arms.
Peter reached over toward me and said, "Since Mark said he wanted you to have this, I brought it from his room." He handed me Mark's picture, taken in a time when he was healthy and happy. He smiled his enchanting, sly smile at me, looking as though we shared a secret. I turned it over. On the back, Mark had written, "Dear Richard, remember me as I am in this picture, not the sickly patient you knew later. You took such wonderful care of me. Thank you! All my love, Mark." Tears came again to my eyes, but I fought them back and said, "Thank you, Peter. Did you read what he wrote?"
"No, that was to you not to us."
I handed him the picture and told him to read it. He did and then passed it on to Christian. Christian read it, smiled, and returned it to me.
"Do you mind if I just sit for awhile and not talk?" I asked. "I don't know what else to do."
"You can sit as long as you like," Christian said. "When you're ready, we'll eat something and then take you home."
"Thank you." I have no idea how long we sat. I do know that the shadows began to grow long in the backyard. The two of them never moved, nor did I.
At last I said, "I think I'm ready now."
"You probably don't feel like eating, but you really should," said Peter. "In fact, you may not feel like doing much of anything for a few days. That's OK. Eventually, you may have to make yourself do some things, just to get going. But for right now, do what you feel like doing."
He went into the kitchen and came out a few minutes later with the ingredients for making sandwiches. Then he went back in and brought out lemonade for me and something a bit stronger for himself and Christian. We ate in silence. Peter was right; I really wasn't hungry. But I made a sandwich to please them and ate what I could.
When we finished, Christian asked, "Do you want to go home now?"
"Not yet," I replied. "I want to just sit for a little while longer. It's so calm and beautiful here, and my condo will not be calm and it's not particularly beautiful." They laughed and I realized that, without even trying to, I had said something that Mark would have found amusing.
"You don't have to stay with me if you have things you want to do," I went on. "All we want to do is sit here with you," said Peter with a smile. "Remember, we have our memories, too." So we sat in companionable silence until it began to get dark out.
I stood up and said, "I guess I'd better be getting home. I don't want Grandma to worry." So they stood and we went to their car with me clutching Mark's picture.
Peter asked, "Why don't you let us get that framed for you? It can be done so that you can see the message on the back as well as the picture."
"I think I'd like that," I responded, "but first I want to keep it near me for awhile."
"Fine. When you're ready we can take it in together to have it done, and that way, it'll never leave your hands."
They had never been to my apartment, so I gave them directions. When we got there, I climbed out, said thank you, and closed the door. They drove away with a wave and I went into the apartment to begin my life without Mark.