By Neal Crook
Revelation 22:1 “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing…”
In 1989, Buck, David and I became inseparable. The two lovers had just relocated to Los Angeles from Dallas. Buck, a hunky Texan, possessed all the charms the South can provide: big hugs, a bigger smile, an angel. David, a handsome Latino, was one of the many gay men stricken by and living with HIV. During this time, AIDS was a death sentence; there were few medications, less support. Luckily, his health was in check.
He was the first person to call me by a feminine pronoun. “Oh, listen to her, she’s a big girl! I’m David. You can call me Diva,” he exclaimed the night we met, hands poised above his head.
To my horror this was announced in the middle of Palermo’s Restaurant from what seemed like a bullhorn. He relished my look of panic at being called a girl. “Honey, you need to get over yourself.” His devilish confrontations regarding my rigidity burned me and fused our bond.
They welcomed me as their third wheel. Our “threesome” served us all. I received companionship and found safety in the sexless relationship. They were given a distraction from the storm that hovered.
Every night my phone would ring. The Texas twang greeted me. “Pick up a steak, we’re grilling—and we’ll take care of the rest.”
After swinging by Gelson’s Market I would stop to get a VHS. Buck cooked, David set the table, and I washed dishes. Most nights Diva fell asleep in his recliner, cat on his lap, while Buck and I finished the movie. We stayed up too late, made plans, and cried. Our time together prepared us for the future when only the two of us would continue the ritual.
During the final year of David’s life, we celebrated holidays, took vacations and created memories: all attempts to alleviate the inevitable. We laughed, we drank, and we removed ourselves from reality. Guardian angels on our shoulders, we held hands as we jumped off Hawaii’s cliffs into healing pools.
All too soon, we resorted to palliative care. Buck called David’s family. “David isn’t going to last much longer. You need to come and say your goodbyes. He desperately needs to see you.” His drawl made the news sound less devastating.
Buck knew the importance of having David’s biological family present for his final moments, but in the gay community, friends become family. Over the years, David had maintained a relationship with his mother and sister. It seemed they stood by him with the onset of AIDS. Maybe that façade existed because his mother and sister lived in Texas—perhaps distance had been confused with acceptance.
One afternoon, while the three of us watched One Life to Live, David pointed at the bedroom curtains. “Who’s that?” His head wobbled as he strained to raise his body.
Buck and I looked at one another then back to David. “Where, Diva?” Buck asked as I walked towards the corner of the room.
“Right there.” He shook his finger toward the drapes. “Can’t you see them? They’re right there waving, beckoning. Don’t you see them? Bill’s there and Mario too.”
I walked to David’s side and held his frail hand. “Honey, Bill and Mario died last month.”
“No, they’re standing right there, can’t you see?”
Like many gay men, my faith had become personal, not tied to an institution or figurehead. The church believed I was sinner, so I left and created my own higher power. Regardless of my beliefs, I knew David saw angels and I prayed they existed to illuminate his path.
This once vital human did not want to succumb. We did not want him to die either, but I knew it was time. He was getting a clear signal. The angels he saw seemed to be comforting messengers, not demons damning him to an eternity of hell, a punishment for his homosexual life. I tried to reassure him. “Yes, your friends are here, it’s time to let go.”
“I can’t.” David replied. “My mother isn’t here.” He drifted off.
The next day, David’s family arrived. His mother and sister timidly entered the bedroom where he slept in a hospital bed. Buck and I sat on either side, holding David’s hands. I was shocked when they didn’t join us at the bedside, but instead positioned themselves in the most remote corner of the room.
“Your mom and sister are here, David,” Buck whispered in his ear.
He didn’t open his eyes, but a smile spread across his face. He strained to rise to his elbows. His sister took another step away. His mother turned her back and played with the curtains where only yesterday the comforting angels stood. I wanted to scream, “This is your son! This is your brother!”
Buck remained calm and tried to coax David’s mother to the bed. “It’s important. He needs to see you. You can’t catch anything. You need to do this.”
A breeze rustled through the open window, the curtains nudging his mother to approach David’s bedside. Mute, she stood, hands at her side. Her daughter joined and positioned herself to avoid the sight of her dying brother. My head spun. “How can you be so cruel?” I left the room, refusing to witness their fear and ignorance.
It was late when I returned to my apartment. I had been home less than an hour when the phone rang. “David’s dead. Can you come over?” This was all Buck said.
David had clung to life, for what? For this visit from his mother and sister? I hoped their fearful stares were not his last vision. I threw on my clothes and hurried back. A full moon escorted me, and the aroma of eucalyptus trees cleared my mind. When I arrived, Buck greeted me with a hug, the absence of David’s family palpable. “Where are they?”
“They went to bed. They didn’t want to come out when I told them. Will you help me get him cleaned up so he will be presentable for his family?”
“We’re his family,” I protested.
Buck and I had been by David’s side for so long. I could not douse my anger towards the people who hid in the other room, but I would pray for them. Buck was asking for my help; how could I refuse?
“Yes, of course,” I told him.
“I will call the coroner in the morning. You know, when he arrives, I no longer have any rights. I need more time with him.” Buck started to cry.
After all that transpired, it was still important to make the situation more comfortable for his shameful family. We entered the room that for so long had held us captive. I looked at the corner where the angels appeared and smiled. David’s lifeless body lay on the hospital bed, his home for the past month. Buck and I removed his sleep wear and sponged off the residues of death. Buck chose David’s favorite suit and jewelry. We dressed him for the last time. David always cared about his appearance. Even when AIDS ravaged his good looks, he made sure we groomed him daily. Finished, we placed his body on the bed that he and Buck had shared for years, a last dreamless night.
Daylight was breaking; David’s mother and sister remained in their room. I suggested Buck get away from the smell of ammonia and death. He deserved fresh air. When he returned, he asked, “Any interaction with…” He motioned toward the spare room.
“Yeah, his sister wanted to know if I had any idea when they’re getting the money David promised them. She said her husband already purchased a TV in anticipation. You don’t want to know what I said. I doubt they’ll come out until I leave.”
Buck didn’t respond.
“What’s that?” I took hold of his hand.
“A blossom, for my love.” On his walk, he’d picked a magnolia flower, not yet opened.
The two of us went to David. Buck placed the bud in a vase beside the bed, leaned over, and kissed him. I could hear the faint sounds of a crystal river flowing. Our family of two went into the kitchen to make coffee and plan for the day. When we returned to the bedroom, the sweet aroma of citrus-honey had replaced the stench of hospice. The magnolia bud had opened, and a breeze had blown pollen on the pillow beside David. Some had drifted onto his lashes. Heaven’s breath of eternity.
Neal Crook recently relocated from hectic Los Angeles to serene Cambria, California. Many of his poems are inspired by the beauty of the central coast. A life filled with gratitude in a world of chaos is his daily inspiration. Involvement in the Cambria Writers Workshop provides the opportunity to explore his past and generate memoir poetry, as well as micro memoirs. The rights and struggles of the LGBT community often take center stage in his writing. He lives with his husband, Michael, two cats, Rufus and Angie, as well as their two dogs, Sterling and Anoush.