Category Archives: dying
And yet, my disease continues to whisper inside my head, trying to shake my confidence and make me throw it all away. My disease is trying to make me believe that I am useless, and since my disease knows me so very well, it knows exactly what words to use to cause despair:
“You are a total fuck-up. You’ve never contributed anything to this world of any value. Why don’t you just give up on this recovery bullshit and go do what you do best…get loaded?”
“You’ll never have a career again. You fucking burned your last one to the ground with a goddamned butane torch, what person in their right mind would ever hire you again as a Producer? The only thing you produce is misery.”
“Jesus Christ, why are you going to all these meetings? Meetings, meetings, meetings. What a colossal waste of time. Those may work for other people, but you and I both know you’re far too fucked up for that recovery shit. It’s too late.”
“Just kill yourself. Do it now and stop prolonging the agony for all those people who love you but who would actually hate you if they really knew what goes on in that sick head of yours. You know you’re just going to end up dying alone with a needle in your arm or a pipe in your hand. Get it over with, you fucking pussy.”
I’ve done a lot of walking the last few days, taking the train out to Pasadena and traveling the five and half-mile return trek to Mount Washington by foot. During this time, I have inadvertently done something that is required of me in the program of recovery I use, but that I’m really, really bad at: meditating.
A little over ten years ago, following my first stint in rehab at Glendale Alcohol and Drug Services (GAADS), I was invited by a friend to attend a three-day “mindful meditation retreat” at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, and it was an abysmal failure. Though we arrived at the beautiful compound with the best of intentions, it soon became clear we were in way over our tiny-attention-span heads.
The first day, after eight hours of lying in a solarium doing not much more than breathing and listening to our co-participants stomachs gurgle, we were beginning to question the importance of this extremely boring activity in our lives. By the middle of day two, after suffering a bout of the church giggles following another meditator’s accidental flatulence, we were asked by the seminar leader to leave. Of course, he asked us very politely, with a serene long-haired grace that reminded me of a combination of a deadhead hippie and a trappist monk. Still, we were mortified, if only for a few minutes. The rest of the weekend was spent goofing around naked in the hot sulfur water of the cliff side hot tubs.
So much for meditation, I thought, and washed my hands of it.
But just like with prayer, I’m beginning to understand the need for meditation in my life and in my recovery. I’ve attempted it again, mostly in group settings, like the time on my sober group camping trip when a dozen of my cohorts and I sat silently on a fallen sequoia branch in a beautiful meadow, my friend Jonathan’s gentle voice guiding us along, encouraging us to be still, to breathe, to just be.
It was a lovely moment, but still, I remember focusing not on my breathing, but on the discomfort of the rough bark against my ass, and the fear that the giant bumblebee sniffing at the beautiful wildflowers by my feet might change its trajectory and land on my face. So I sat there, trying to shift my butt covertly and without making any noise, one eye half-open and keeping an eye on that bee, understanding the concept of the meditation but realizing no direct benefit from it.
Several days ago, my Los Angeles recovery community lost another of its own. A dear, gentle man who seemed to have it all. Multiple years of sobriety, what seemed like a successful business, physical beauty, and seemingly surrounded by love and support.
He shot himself.
I’m not sure if his suicide followed a relapse, or if despair overtook him without the aid of drugs and alcohol.
Either way, I do know one thing: that this man, who I’d spent significant amounts of time with at meetings, after meetings, at parties, and one weekend in particular at a recovery-related convention, had found himself in a place beyond hope.
It’s a place I know well, and visited recently.
It’s the place those voices in my head want me to return to, permanently.
The memory of this man, of our interactions, and the knowledge that even with years of sobriety he could find himself in a place so dark truly fucked with my already tenuous state of well-being.
My disease said to me:
“He had five years of sobriety and his disease took him. Why are you even trying to get away from me? You’re mine, you’ll always be mine, so stop fucking running and go get high.”
I was a mess inside: so sad and heartbroken over the passing of this truly beautiful and inspiring man, and so scared that…but for the grace of God…that could have been me just several weeks ago, when suicide seemed like the only way out of the paranoid, psychotic mess I found myself in.
So I did what I’ve trained myself to do: I went to a meeting. It helped, but not much. It was good to be around other alcoholics and addicts, and someone else shared about my friend’s passing. I cried a little, then came home, still feeling out of sorts.
When those feelings jangling around in my head became too much, I knew I had to do something.
So I took a walk.
And without meaning to, I discovered a way of meditating that works for me, a way of de-clouding my brain, allowing positive thoughts and affirmations to fill my head instead of the dark whisper of my addiction. Perhaps it’s just the endorphins, but when I arrived home that day after three hours of hoofing it across town, the angst-y fog in my head had cleared a bit. I could focus.
Today was my third walk in as many days. At one point, I stood on an overpass in a sort of reverie, watching the stream of traffic on the 110 freeway below me, feeling the warm sun baking my forehead, feeling very strange indeed. After a few moments of trying to assess exactly what this feeling was, it came to me:
I felt calm.
It had been at least an hour since the screeching voice of my disease had spoken to me, and the silence was beautiful.
“You are going to make it,” I told myself. “You are a valuable human being. You are kind and caring, and you deserve love and you deserve a beautiful life. A sad ending is not guaranteed, nor is a happy one. It’s up to you.”
And I believed it.
Fuck you, disease.
Even in my darkest moments, even when my disease is screaming at hurricane pitch, I am surrounded by love. I always have been.
This is how I’m feeling now, after my three-hour meditation walk, and it feels great.
There is hope for me still, and when I quiet my mind and open my heart, it becomes almost tangible.
As the lyrics in the following song say (a song I was introduced to by my friend Rob M., yet another sober guardian angel in my life), I may be an addict, I may have caused pain, I may be in pain frequently…but that isn’t everything I am.
And in one little moment
It all implodes
But this isn’t everything you are
Breathe deeply in the silence
No sudden moves
This isn’t everything you are
Just take the hand that’s offered
And hold on tight
This isn’t everything you are
There’s joy not far from here, right
I know there is
This isn’t everything you are
RIP, Max. You were loved by so many. I wish you could have felt it when you most needed it.
I’m sitting at the kitchen table, a plate with a few remnants of toasted bread in front of me. This is one of my props, because as usual I have no appetite. One of my more clever tricks: toast the bread, butter it, break it into pieces – biting some for authenticity – and placing a few pieces in the garbage disposal. The remainder, arranged haphazardly on the plate, creates the illusion that I have eaten breakfast. If Patrick believes I’ve eaten, he’s less likely to suspect I’m using.
(No appetite: one of the warning signs that I’m using meth again.)
I hear the bedroom door open. Shuffling into the living room on his way to the bathroom, he pauses briefly in the hallway to survey me. I can tell he hasn’t even clocked the crumb-littered plate in front of me. I’m not sure if he’s even slept since catching me masturbating at the computer at 5 AM. My bloodstream still full of speed, I certainly haven’t.
(Late night/ early morning masturbation…another sign that I’m smoking speed again.)
He doesn’t waste time with preliminaries: “I’m giving you a drug test.”
Well, there it is.
“Okay”, I say briskly, “not a problem,” trying not to betray myself with a dry-throated croak or fear-induced waver in my voice. Objecting to a drug test is a tacit admission of guilt. Of course, taking the drug test will be solid proof of it.
So I try to buy time, and add – with forced cheerfulness:
“I just peed, so next time I have to go I’ll let you know.”
He stands in the hallway, continuing to regard me for a moment, his eyes too puffy with sleep…or maybe lack of it… for me to discern his thoughts, before heading into the bathroom. I hear the door close with a loud click. The early morning is so silent I can hear him peeing through the heavy wooden door. Flush, the door opens, and Patrick returns to the bedroom, which means he’ll be getting back into bed and, if I’m lucky, falling asleep again for at least an hour, and if I’m lucky, maybe three or four. He’s been known to sleep past noon on some days, and I can only hope he’ll do so this morning.
Immediately, a light surge of panic courses through me, and I rack my brain to figure out a way around this. I feel trapped. How the fuck am I going to get out of this one? I’m certain he’s going to kick me out again if I test positive. My mind goes to the cardboard box in Patrick’s desk, full of mail-order, white cellophane wrapped drug testing kits. Sabotage? Maybe I can carefully open the test kit at the top and figure out a way to make those two lines representing a negative test appear. Food dye? No, too difficult. Magic marker? That could work, provided Patrick doesn’t first look at the test strip before dipping it in the plastic cup of urine. And how to seal the cellophane wrapper up again in a way that won’t be noticed? Glue? Maybe. Perhaps glue with a hot clothes iron applied to it would simulate a factory seal? Too many risks, too many variables, I finally decide, and my mind moves on to other options.
Our three dogs, Jane, Steve and Sherman, are circling the table. Jane is yapping sharply. They want to be let outside to pee. As I get up from the table to release them into the back yard, the idea arrives fully formed, stunning in it’s simplicity.
“Hang on, you guys” I say to them, opening a cupboard above the microwave and retrieving a medium-sized Tupperware bowl. I peel the lid off, take the bowl and move to the sliding glass door that opens to the backyard.
I let Jane out first, using my leg to impede Steve and Sherman, slide the door closed trapping them inside, faces pressed against the glass in their eagerness to expel the contents of their bladders. I follow Jane, a small rust colored spaniel into the yard, my red-rimmed eyes squinting against the assault of the bright morning light. Jane bolts for the lawn to the right of the pool, and I hurry after her.
I stay just a few feet behind her as she sniffs the lawn, circling, stopping, changing her mind, moving to a new spot. After several false starts, she assumes a crouching posture, her chin tilted up, eyes squinted shut, her standard peeing posture.
Quickly, I squat beside her and try to leverage the edge of the plastic bowl under her hindquarters. She startles at the intrusion, however, looking back at me with an expression of obvious irritation, scuttling away before releasing a single drop.
We repeat this awkward routine several times before Jane makes mad dash for the other side of the pool, where she squats, face twitching, and with panicked backward-looking eyes staring at me…relieves herself before I can reach her. “Dammit, Jane! Bad dog!” I snap at her, before heading back to the sliding door for attempt number two, leaving Jane in the yard to decipher this sudden episode of inconsistent discipline.
I choose Sherman next, cursing my drug-fogged mind for not realizing earlier that – obviously, duh – catching the urine of a large, male dog in a Tupperware bowl would be far less complicated than catching the urine of a small, female one.
Sherman the Akita, wangly and twitchy from holding his bladder, barrels out of the house and past me the minute I slide the door open, and Steve, a fat, low slung black and white terrier mix, manages to bulldoze his way between Sherman’s legs and makes it outside too.
Cursing silently…knowing that two options for pee collection have been reduced to one, I watch as Steve heads to one side of the pool, and Sherman to the other. I make a quick decision and take off after Sherman, trying to hold my bathrobe closed with one hand, clutching the plastic bowl in the other. I stub my bare foot on the uneven brick of the patio, and unleash a torrent of hissed “fuck, fuck, fucks“.
I catch up to Sherman, who is sniffing around the overgrown tangle of vines lining the lawn, but for all his enthusiasm for getting out here, he is annoyingly slow at getting to the point. I’m stalking him from behind, trying appear as casual and uninterested as possible, when I spy Steve, across the yard, begin to lift his leg at the base of a large wild rose-bush. Quickly calculating the distance, I make a decision and race towards him, bowl held out in front of me like a relay racer preparing to hand off his baton.
I’ve miscalculated, however, and by the time I’ve traversed the length of the yard, the rose-bush is dripping urine, and Steve has begun toddling off back toward the house, blissfully unaware that he has just totally fucked me.
I do an about-face and begin sprinting back to Sherman, who is now watering the lawn with his own steady stream of precious, meth-free urine.
I’m almost at him, bowl outstretched, bathrobe flopping open behind me like giant plaid wings, when I noticed two people on the road above our hillside home, out for an early morning walk silently surveying the Fellini-esque spectacle below them, four eyes and two mouths all wide open.
I do a another quick about-face, pull my robe closed around my nakedness, and trot quickly to the visual cover of our gazebo.
I wait several minutes until I’m sure the walkers have moved on, then screech out another guttural “fuck,” hurling the Tupperware bowl into the yard.
As I head back to the house to begin formulating plan b, words I’ve heard in my half-assed visits to places of recovery run through my head, the way such words often show up at the most inopportune times, totally killing a buzz or inspiring sudden guilt over being so absolutely incapable of grasping even the simplest mechanics of recovery.
The words that come to me now are the same ones that have been floating into my consciousness with the annoying regularity of all those ignored jury duty summons piling up on my desk:
Those word sting me with their truth, and stay in my thoughts the entire day: ten minutes later, while I’m composing a Craigslist ad, offering to buy clean urine for $50.
They will still be with me an hour after that, when I’m deep in the San Fernando Valley at a stranger’s home – Patrick still asleep in our bed – standing in a shag-carpeted living room scattered with children’s toys, walls adorned with several Jesus portraits, watching a bearded man piss into a mason jar while verbally belittling me.
“What kind of sick fuck,” he says, “pays someone for their piss?”
“Are you a sick fuck?” he asks, sneering at me, over the sound of bubbling urine.
He’s enjoying this. I hang my head, clenching and unclenching the cash in my hand, wanting to run, but knowing I can’t leave without that jar and it’s disgusting yet incredibly valuable contents.
“Well, are you?”
I don’t answer the question, because it’s clearly rhetorical.
God help me. I am.
I am a very, very sick fuck.
Two months after we return from Maui, I am sitting in my office on the Universal lot when the phone rings. It is Mike, calling from Rochester, New York, having flown there a few days ago to visit his friend Sharon. His voice, usually boisterous, sounds so small and scared I don’t recognize it at first.
“I need a favor,” he says.
“What is it?”
“I need you to go to the Gay and Lesbian Center and get the results of my AIDS test.”
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
Last month, Patrick and I had gone with Mike to a fourth of July party at Chris Kattan’s house in the valley. Mike had seemed a little subdued, and I kept asking him if he was okay, my constant insecurity causing me to think that maybe I had offended him somehow. He just wasn’t acting like the gregarious Mike I’d always known.
“My shoulder’s been hurting,” he explained.
I gave him a massage, sitting on the lawn, surrounded by Groundlings, but it only seemed to make it worse. He hadn’t gone to the doctor, he said, because he didn’t have insurance and couldn’t afford the visit. I told him I’d pay for the visit, and that he just needed to go, but he brushed it off and refused to talk about it any more.
I find out later that a few days after the party the pain had grown so intense he had driven down to the county hospital at USC. There, the doctor had asked him if he was part of a “high risk” group. Upon learning that he was, the doctor suggested that he be tested for AIDS before they do any other expensive tests. Mike balked at having the test done “on the record,” so he went to the Gay and Lesbian Center and got tested anonymously. They had given him a number that he was to bring back with him when the results were ready. Before he got the results, though, he had made the already scheduled trip back to New York.
While there, he had collapsed in a restaurant, and an ambulance had taken him to the emergency room.
Now, Mike is calling from his hospital bed.
“I’ve got cancer,” he says matter of factly.
I’m stunned, and for a moment I assume he is joking. But he stays silent, and I start feeling scared.
Cancer? If he has cancer, why do I have to go get his AIDS test results? It makes no sense.
“What?” I ask, confused.
“It’s lymphoma. But they don’t know if it’s AIDS-related or not, and the test they did here will take a few days. My results are already in at the center, so if you could go find out we’ll know sooner.”
He reads a number to me, which I transcribe onto a sheet of legal paper and fold up and put in my wallet.
I don’t know what to say. I never know the right thing to say in these situations, and this time is no exception. I start to say one thing, change direction midsentence, say another thing, and it just makes no sense. I grab onto myself mentally and give a shake, and say firmly:
“I’m on it, Mike. I’m going now.”
He gives me the phone number for Rochester General, I tell him I love him and hang up, needing to get this done, now. My friend is sick and I feel totally helpless. It’s the middle of the workday, but I find my boss Michael and tell him what’s up. Fortunately, Michael is a good man with an enormous heart, and he lets me leave, even though we’re overwhelmed with the enormity of this project. I drive to the Gay and Lesbian Center in Hollywood, where I sit in a waiting room, nervous as fuck before I am called into a small office and a counselor gives me the news that I….or, actually Mike…is HIV negative.
I am thoroughly relieved, but still shaking from the pent-up anxiety of awaiting confirmation of what I had assumed would be bad news. The counselor thinks, of course, that my emotional reaction is about my own health, and I want to tell him that I have never taken an AIDS test, that I’m way too big a pussy to even risk getting that kind of bad news. I want to tell him that these results are actually for my friend who is in New York with cancer, and that I always use rubbers…but of course I don’t and sit almost twitching with impatience has he walks me through a refresher course on safe-sex guidelines and compiles a stack of pamphlets to hand to me.
It is still the pre-cell phone era, and I drive quickly back to Silver Lake to fill Patrick in and to phone Mike with the good news. There is also no internet, no google, none of the research tools that will be commonly available in a year or two, so I can’t be certain, but it seems pretty damned likely to me that regular lymphoma has got to be a whole lot better thing to have, a much more curable thing to have, than AIDS related lymphoma. It is 1994, and the word AIDS still has the smell of certain death about it.
I call Mike, and give him the news. He seems relieved as well. I want to talk to him more, to find out more about how he is feeling, but he is tired, and he mentions a morphine drip, which actually reassures me a little because it explains the listless tone of his voice.
The next day, Patrick and I book a redeye flight to Rochester, and check into a small inn near the hospital. Upon arriving at the hospital, we find Mike in a private room, sleeping. His sister Julia is there, and she looks exhausted. She’s only been back in Los Angeles for a brief time after her run on Saturday Night Live, and she is currently weathering the scathing advance reviews of her movie “It’s Pat.” Although Julia and I have always been friendly towards each other, we are not close. Patrick, having been in the Groundlings Main Company with her, knows her better than I do.
“Is that woman still out there?” is the first thing she asks.
Patrick and I are perplexed, and I poke my head back into the hall.
“Just some nurses,” I say.
“Oh, good,” she says, sounding relieved, and explains that an ardent fan had recognized her. “She’s very sweet,” Julia explains, “but I’m just not up for it right now.”
I look at Mike, sleeping with his mouth open, snoring. That, at least, is familiar and thus reassuring. He looks pretty good, despite the IV lines and scary-ass medical equipment surrounding him, and my sigh of relief is audible.
“So how is he?,” Patrick and I ask at the same time. Pinch, poke.
Julia has a slightly nasal, adorable quality to her voice that is common to all the Sweeney children, but even that doesn’t lessen the impact of her next words.
“It’s not good. It’s Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, and it’s stage four.”
Hodgkin’s? The shaky-head Katharine Hepburn disease? Wait, no.., that’s Parkinsons. I look to Patrick, hoping to see some recognition of these words in his face. But he seems as perplexed as I am.
“What does Stage Four mean?” we again ask simultaneously. We exchange annoyed looks with each other.
“Well….” Julia struggles to find a way to say what she has to say. “Basically, the doctor said that Stage Five means you’re dead.”
The next day, I’m alone in the room with Mike, who is still drifting in and out of consciousness, and I take on the task of hitting his morphine drip button whenever the machine decides it’s time for him to have some more. He seems happy to see me, but emotional enthusiasm has never been Mike’s thing, acerbic and wry being his two brightest colors.
“You didn’t have to come all the way out here, you know,” he slurs.
“Shut up. Of course I did.”
“I really thought I had AIDS, you know.”
“Well, you don’t have AIDS. And thank god, because they can’t fix that. This… they can fix” I say, trying to convince myself as much as I’m trying to convince him.
Mike, never demonstrative, reaches out and grabs my hand, surprising me, and I look away as I feel tears start to well up. We sit there in silence, and I continue to hold his hand long after the next wave of morphine has pulled him back under.
Over the next couple of days, Mike begins to regain some of his strength. I don’t know if it’s simply the rest, or if it’s the chemicals they’re putting into him, but his cantankerous nature begins to reassert itself. The doctors and nurses who are treating him are finally introduced to the real Mike. I suspect they like the weakened version of him better.
It might be because Mike, always a bit of a control freak, has decided to regain some of that control by demanding a business card from every doctor that stops by his bedside to impart information to him.
Before the doctor has barely uttered the words “hello, Mike,” he immediately interrupts them by saying, tersely, “Do I have your card yet?”
“Do I have your business card yet?”
If the answer is no, Mike demands one. He reads the name on it aloud, and asks if he is pronouncing it correctly. Once he has the pronunciation down, He takes a pencil from his nightstand and transcribes basic notes in tiny writing on the back of the card about what the doctor has come to tell him about his condition or treatment, often asking the doctor to pause or slow down so he can get it all down accurately.
If the doctor has already provided a card on a previous visit, Mike pulls the rapidly growing stack from the nightstand drawer, asks the doctor’s name, and then searches for the correct card from the stack he has arranged alphabetically.
“Ah, here you are,” he says, and quickly peruses the notes on the back to refresh his memory before he allows the doctor to continue.
The reactions of the doctors and the multitude of specialists ranges from smirking bemusement to blatant annoyance.
“Michael, I was just here this morning, we spoke for twenty minutes. You remember me.”
Mike doesn’t give a shit, though. This is his illness, these people are working for him, and goddamnit, he’s going to keep it all straight in his head. This flood of information would be confusing enough for someone not being given intravenous morphine. No patronizing medical professional will be playing God in Mike Sweeney’s hospital room, not now, and not ever. I blush red when this scene goes down, and it does almost hourly, but I’m glad to see Mike’s feistiness manifest itself again.
I begin to suspect that all these doctors have been informed that Mike is the brother of a celebrity, and perhaps this explains why each of them, to a one, bow to this slightly humiliating ritual on a continuing basis. Celebrity is a funny thing, and even in my short time with Patrick I’ve experienced the benefits of being next to it. Being seated at restaurants before others who have been waiting, free drinks at bars, all sorts of odd little unexpected perks, including my own lush, private suite at Cedars Sinai when I was admitted for kidney stone surgery earlier in the summer. I know it’s all bullshit, and I feel a little guilty about it at times, particularly since I’m really only an adjunct, but I still take those free drinks. And now, if being the brother of a celebrity means Mike is going to get more attention paid to him, then I’m grateful for it. I demand that Patrick, who has just begun what would turn out to be a four-year stint on “Ellen,” remove his baseball cap while we’re in Mike’s room, hoping the doctors will recognize him. Double the celebrity, double the attention? I hope so. Or at the very least, double the tolerance for Mike’s irritating card-game.
Patrick and I return to Los Angeles a few days later, and a few days after that Mike comes home to begin chemo and radiation treatments. He has no health insurance, so Julia organizes a benefit screening of “It’s Pat” to help defray some of the costs. Mike is an extra in a party scene in the film, and already I notice the difference between the Mike who was filmed a year before and the Mike sitting next to me in the theater. He’s only been back in town for a couple of weeks and he’s already lost a considerable amount of weight, which he is happy about, but his hair has also begun to fall out, which he is not happy about at all. The photos we take together at the event show him dressed in a sports coat and dress shirt and wearing a baseball cap.
Unlike me, Mike’s appearance has never conveyed any foolish preoccupation with vanity, he’s always projected an unconcerned affability that is usually associated more with straight men. In fact, people are usually taken aback when they find out that Mike is gay. He doesn’t hide it, he isn’t closeted, it just isn’t the most obvious part of his often bigger-than-life presentation. Still, I know he does care about his appearance, and the hair loss bothers him until he comes up with a solution. He shaves his head and adopts a pseudo-goth look, trading in his usual baseball shirts and baggy shorts for jeans, rocker t-shirts and leather jacket. His normally pudgy face has new angles suddenly, and I think that for this moment in time he is actually happier with his appearance than he’s ever been. His lack of eyebrows is still bothersome to him, and at one point I convince him to let me try to draw some on with an eyebrow pencil, but it looks ridiculous and the effort is abandoned.
Mike’s treatments leave him incredibly weak, and by October he has moved into Julia’s home in the Larchmont District. He keeps his converted garage apartment on Sierra Bonita in the Fairfax neighborhood, even though this will require Julia to pay the rent on it for him. But he demands this, because being Mike, he’s not comfortable not having a place to retreat to in case he feels a sudden need for solitude. Mike loves his family, but he’s always valued his privacy. As a child, he once installed both a deadbolt and a doorbell on his bedroom door, something his mother once told me and I found absolutely hilarious. I admire Julia for stepping up to the plate and putting her life on hold to care for her brother, who, to put it mildly, can be trying. At one point, Julia makes a business trip back to New York, and while she is gone Mike heats her swimming pool to what I jokingly call “second mortgage” setting, and every night that she is gone great fluffy billows of steam waft out of her backyard and over the neighbor’s fence. He knows she’ll be furious when she gets her gas bill, but, lying on a blue pool raft drinking a beer at midnight…in October, he simply says, “What is she gonna do to me? I’ve already got cancer.”
For the most part, Mike deals with the hand he’s been dealt bravely and with his trademark black humor. When he’s up to it, we go shopping at the Beverly Center, and when he asks the clerk at Nordstrom if the store offers a cancer discount, I can only shake my head and smile. The clerk’s spluttering response is priceless, and Mike enjoys it so much the question becomes part of his standard routine every time he has to pay for something. If the clerk says no, Mike parries back with, “It’s stage FOUR cancer. I’m a stage away from being dead. Maybe you could check with your manager.”
When I’m available to take him to UCLA for his chemo treatments, he insists on stopping at El Coyote for margaritas on the way home. This doesn’t seem wise to me, and I hate the parental tone in my voice when I suggest we take a pass. He angrily insists, and we eat chips and salsa and drink margaritas until we’re shitfaced. He usually has several hours before the waves of nausea hit, and he spends those nights on his knees on the mission tile floor of Julia’s guest bathroom. I know he’s sick, yet he still seems indestructible, somehow, even with the weight loss and the nausea and the irritating thrush he’s developed in his mouth and throat. His humor, his personality is still so manifest that it is able to dull my worries a bit, most of the time.
Six months in, the Spielberg job is also taking up much of my time, and this holocaust project has turned out to be much more complex than a simple documentary. We’re in the midst of opening offices all over the world, training interviewers in multiple languages, translating documents, hiring camera crews, and the days are much longer than they’d been at my 9 to 5 corporate job at ABC. I love the work, however, and it keeps me distracted from Mike’s situation. Unfortunately, it is also keeping me distracted from my relationship with Patrick, and I sense a growing emotional distance between us during those times that we actually do manage to spend together. There is just too much to think about, and in my chaotic mind holocaust survivors and cancer patients are accorded top priority.
Christmas time rolls around, and because my parents are still in the middle of a messy divorce, I opt to stay in Los Angeles, alone. I don’t know Patrick’s family very well at this point, and frankly, don’t feel the desire to be around a functional, intact domestic unit. Mike is flying home to spend the holiday with his family in Spokane, and around two o’clock in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, not long after Patrick has departed for Joshua Tree, a yellow cab pulls up in front of our little Silver Lake house.
Through the front window, I see Mike get out of the backseat, and I open the front door.
He has made an extensive detour on the way to the airport to wish me a merry Christmas and to give me a gift, a small white envelope. I feel guilty because I haven’t bought a gift for him, though I make it clear to him I haven’t bought gifts for anyone this shitty holiday season.
He’s running late, so he can’t come in, but we hug each other, and as always I’m grateful for it. Hugs from Mike mean a lot to me, because he has never been very physically demonstrative with anyone.
After he’s gone, I open the envelope and pull out a note that says “Thanks for being such a great friend. Have a Merry Christmas.” There is a P.S.: “These should help.” At the bottom of the envelope are four Dilaudid tablets.
The sole benefit of Mike’s cancer has been the sheer quantities of painkillers he’s been provided, more than he actually needs at this point, I’m pretty sure. He was thrilled to be prescribed Marinol, a pill version of marijuana, but after trying it we agree that it can’t hold a candle to smoking the real stuff (which we do, often, from his leaky red plastic bong). Soon, Mike realizes that as a stage four cancer patient, his doctors will provide him with pretty much any pain medication he requests, and over the past couple of months, when Mike is up to it, and I’m not working, we’ve been getting messed up on morphine, Demerol, and now this amazing Dilaudid.
I consider taking one of the pills, but decide to save them for tomorrow, already feeling an advance wave of depression creeping over me. I’m pretty sure tomorrow is going to suck. I’m already feeling sorry for myself, what with my being alone (even if it’s by choice,) my cancer-ridden best friend, and my suddenly demented parents and their soap opera crazy bullshit.
I sleep in on Christmas morning, and after lunch I pop two of the tablets. Soon, I am floating on a hazy, happy cloud. I put on an Andrews Sisters Christmas CD and sit cross-legged on the living room floor playing Sonic the Hedgehog for hours. It turns out to be one of my favorite Christmases ever, courtesy of Mike Sweeney.
Upon returning to LA after the holidays, Mike takes a sudden turn for the worse. Now, he is not just thin, but skeletal. The yeast in his throat, a result of the chemo weakening his immune system, makes speaking difficult. He is over-medicating himself, so it’s often hard to tell if it’s the disease that is causing the stupor or if it’s the drugs, which are now being administered intravenously through a port that’s been put in his chest. Then, suddenly, everything goes from bad to really, really bad. Julia is diagnosed with cervical cancer, and must undergo a radical hysterectomy. The absolute unfairness of this, the sheer cruelty of the universe, makes everything seem, suddenly, even more surreal than it had already been. Mike, voice slurred, takes to answering the phone at her house by saying, “Hello, house of cancer, how may I help you?”
Julia’s parents move to Julia’s guestroom to help take care of both their kids. I feel terrible for them, and try to assist as much as possible, as do all of Mike and Julia’s friends. At one point, Mike becomes so frustrated by this sudden influx of the family – which he loves dearly, but that he’s spent his life trying to individuate himself from – that he insists on moving back into his apartment on Sierra Bonita. It’s a bad idea, but Mike, as always, is inflexible.
Cheri, who has left her music business job at A&M and is now pursuing an acting career (she is still six months away from landing “Saturday Night Live”) is temping, so when she’s not working she’s taking care of Mike. I spend as many nights on his couch as I can, and the bond the three of us formed in Hawaii grows even deeper. One night, Mike, in a near stupor, is sitting in the chair in his small living room. Cheri is standing behind him, gently rubbing his shoulders. Mike begins to cough, then to choke, a terrifying rasping rattling sound. Suddenly, a great wad of mucous frees itself from his throat, and lands on Cheri’s right hand. Mike, so far gone, is oblivious. I almost gag at the sight, but Cheri betrays no reaction to the sticky mess on her hand and continues to stroke Mike’s shoulders until the coughing has subsided. Only then does she give him a kiss on the top of his head and move to the kitchen to wash the gunk from her hand. I’ve liked Cheri from the moment we’ve met, but this small act of kindness to my friend, her refusal to cause him any possible embarrassment – even in the state he’s in – endears her to me further. Of course, being naturally hilarious – which Mike and I have long known, and the world will soon discover – she still manages to get Mike to crack a drugged-out smile several times that evening, despite his discomfort.
This is the last night we all spend in Mike’s apartment together. The next day, he is back in the hospital. He slips away slowly, so slowly that it is almost impossible to detect the line between drugged consciousness and coma. It comes as a surprise to me when his nurse tells me this, and when she tells me he probably won’t wake up again, I don’t know what to feel. I don’t want to lose him, but I don’t want him suffering. I climb into his bed and spend the night sleeping next to him, the sickly sweet smell of the yeast in his mouth and throat hovering in the air around my head.
Mike’s family doesn’t come to visit often now, with the exception of his younger brother Jim, who has always seemed to worship his big brother. It’s not because they don’t care, because they do – intensely – but because the Sweeney’s are now in triage mode, horrified and stunned by the imminent loss of one child and brother and focusing their energies on saving another child and sister. I can’t even bring myself to think about what they must be going through.
It’s late March, and Cheri and I are sitting at Mike’s bedside. Though deep in coma, his face bears an expression of concern that is disconcerting to me, and causes me to whisper repeatedly in his ear, “it’s okay, Mike.” Sometimes, his lips will move, and we convince ourselves that he can still hear us. We tell him funny stories, we play music for him on a portable CD player. The Breeders, Dionne Warwick, and his most recent favorite, The Crash Test Dummies. When we begin reminiscing about Hawaii, I get an idea. I drive to a record store in Westwood and buy a nature CD of ocean wave sounds. We play the sounds of the surf, extend his arm so it’s dangling off the bed, and place his hand in a small plastic tub of warm water on the adjacent chair. We then grab onto opposite corners of his mattress and attempt to replicate the rolling motions of the ocean. We talk about our trip to the nude beach, that day he loved so much, the day he floated naked on the inflatable raft in the warm waters of Little Makena Beach while Cheri and I huddled on the shore both fully dressed and totally embarrassed. Perhaps it’s only because we want to see it, but his face seems to relax – not quite a smile – but the strange, agitated look has definitely subsided a bit.
The next day, I talk to one of his nurses and she tells me that Mike’s problem is that while his body has been shutting down, he still has the heart of a 31-year-old, and it is refusing to stop beating. I think it’s more than that. I think it’s because Mike, who has never done anything he didn’t want to do, has never accepted the fact that he is dying. For all the time we’ve spent together, we’ve never discussed it, and now I am ashamed of myself for not having had the courage to broach the subject, even when it had become clear to everyone that the cancer was winning. I explain to the nurse what my suspicions are, and I half expect her to laugh at my theory. Instead, she stands next to mike and starts talking to him.
“Mike, I want to you picture yourself on a trapeze, swinging through the air. Back and forth. You have to let go. Just let go and trust that the next trapeze with be there. Let go, sweetie.”
She continues to whisper that to him for a few minutes while I stand there holding his hand. It is less than an hour later when I notice that the pauses in between his breaths are growing longer and longer. I find the nurse and let her know, and she comes in and examines him. “It’ll be soon,” she says.
I panic, because Mike’s brother Jim had arrived earlier and I told him there had been no real change in Mike’s condition, so he had decided to head down to the cafeteria before settling in for his visit. I’m freaking out, asking the nurse to please page Jim Sweeney, when our friend Mary Jo walks in the door. “He’s going,” I almost shriek. “Stay with him, I have to find Jim!”
I finally locate him exiting the elevator on Mike’s floor, and we hurry back to the bedside. I call Cheri at Disney, where she is temping today, and tell her to get here as soon as possible.
The three of us line Mike’s bedside, holding his hands, his feet, silent, as his breathing slows, then seems to stop. We look at each other. Is it over? Another ragged breath answers the question. It goes on for almost fifteen minutes before he slips away, and I swear to god, this God I swear I don’t believe in, that I can feel his soul leaving his body. The nurse checks his vitals, and confirms that he is gone.
I look at the clock on his bedside table, and the digital numbers read 3:33.
Three thirty three.
3:33 PM is the time on my birth certificate, and 3:33 PM will be the time on the death certificate of one of the few truly close friends I have ever had. I bend over, tears dripping from my cheeks, and place a kiss on his already-cooling forehead. “I love you,” I try to whisper, but the “you” ends in a ragged gasp as my throat clenches tight.
Cheri arrives about ten minutes later, and when she discovers Mike has already passed, she lets out a low keening moan, and I move to put my arms around her. We stand there holding each other for a long time, until our friend is covered with a sheet and wheeled from the room. After a few phone calls are made, those of us present hug and console each other for a bit, and finally Cheri follows me in her car back to the little cottage in Silver Lake. There, we lay in silence, holding hands, on top of the comforter in my bed. Soon, the sunlight begins to drain from the room, and we fall asleep.
Years of experience have taught me that my crystal binges can be paused only by one or more of the following reasons: running out of product, a spiral into full psychosis due to sleep deprivation, or as in this instance, a feeble, fought-for orgasm that temporarily shuts down my meth-propelled libido.
In my dark home office, I collapse back into my big, black leather desk chair, and tear my burning eyes away from the flat screen monitor. The strangers fucking on the screen now elicit feelings of revulsion, despite the fascination they provided for countless pay-per-view hours. I quickly command-w the window away, and survey the tableau before me: lube thickly coats the mouse, carbon-black fingerprints transferred from the burned bowl of the pipe spot the glossy pine surface of the desk and white apple keyboard, making it look like a crime scene, post CSI-visit. I have no idea what time it is, or to be honest, even what day it is. I started this run on Monday so – this must be what – Wednesday? Thursday? I try to count the sunsets and sunrises that I was barely aware of, and can’t find a number. I’m so addled I don’t even think to check the date and time in the upper right corner of my computer screen.
I pull my naked body from the sweat-sticky chair, and finally leave this stinking office that has begun to feel more like an amyl nitrate-scented tomb.
Locking the bathroom door behind me, lights on but dimmed, I run a bath, making sure the water is good and hot. As the tub fills, I look in the mirror and startle at what is reflected back at me. My face is gaunt, a reddish lawn of stubble covering the lower half of its pallid surface. A blood vessel has burst in my left eye, a dark red blotch in a field of bright pink. I light a small votive candle before turning off the overhead light and step into the tub.
The hot water burns my ankles, and I gather into a crouch, lowering myself slowly. As I slowly extend my legs, the hot water touches the MRSA sores on the tops of my thighs. The sting is momentarily unbearable, and I clench my jaw and squeeze my eyes shut against the pain. As my body fully submerges, the pain overloads my senses, shorts itself out and is suddenly reduced to a tolerable sting. With a grateful exhalation, my body, stiff from days of speed-induced fight-or-flight muscle clenching, begin to relax. I help it along by tensing and releasing first my toes, then my feet, legs, fingers, and finally my arms. The crackling of joints is accompanied by a muffled, rippling sound that resembles Velcro strips being pulled apart, as too-long compressed tendons suddenly stretch taut. Finally, I arch my back slowly, feeling the individual vertebrae sharply popping free from each other like the giant plastic linking beads of a Playskool child’s toy.
My hands wander absent-mindedly to my thighs, my nails scraping at the thin scabs that have formed over the abscesses. The one on my right leg is the size of a quarter, and it sits alone on its canvas of white skin. The sore on my left thigh is smaller, perhaps dime-sized, but is far more sinister, as it is connected to an even smaller eruption near my knee via a thin, varicose-like vein of infection that snakes between them. Scraping away the healing scab of any wound once seemed counterproductive, but in this life I have been living, the scab only traps the infection, and necessitates yet another trip to urgent care and a nauseating lance and drain procedure. In my current bizarre reality, it is better to keep the wounds open. Once they are fully saturated and softened by the bathwater, I use my thumb to rub the scabs away.
I grab the bottle of betadyne from its perch on the rim of the tub and squeeze a good amount of the brown disinfectant into the water, not as an attempt to heal the sores, which I know is hopeless without yet another trip to the hospital and a days-long regimen of intravenous Vancomycin (aka, “the antibiotic of last resort”)but to potentially ward off any new infections just waiting to invade any microscopic opening in my skin. I apply some of the disinfectant to my face, remembering last month and the giant, lemon-sized abscess on my right cheek. I am certain that I contracted this MRSA (“The Superbug,” I’ve also heard it called) from the filthy bed sheets of my dealer, the last time it had been necessary to trade sex for crystal meth.
Raising my eyes, I do not see any faces coalescing in the fog of steam between the tub and the ceiling. Floating faces, strange, brooding ones I do not recognize, have been my constant companion in any darkened room, having made their first appearance approximately a year into my addiction. I am grateful for this rare respite, and my eyes move from scouring the candlelit mist over the tub and down to my body, its speed-chiseled planes and angles distorted by the water. Even now, even with the sores glowing red and ragged like bullet wounds, I admire the absence of fat, noting the tautness of my belly and the way my abdominals ridge my belly and the way my groin muscles stand out, angling towards the tops of my hips with geometric precision.
Leaning my head back against the rim of the tub and closing my eyes, I try to slow my still-speeding mind, fighting the reflexive urge to move, forcing myself towards calm, willing the hot water to suck the careening energy impulses from my body. Hours of watching pornographic movies has so thoroughly saturated my brain that I can not completely remove the images of rutting strangers from my thoughts, and I must consciously restrain my hands from wandering back to my dick, which could potentially start the cycle all over again.
A cool draft wafts over me, and my eyes shoot open. I look to my right at the louvered windows over the vanity, squinting into the darkness outside, looking for the eyes I am certain are staring back. As I try to focus my eyes into the distance outside the window, I sense movement above me, a sudden swirling of the mist hanging over tub.
The first being materializes slowly, a small, gauzy, slow-spinning tornado that descends from the steam and alights on the side of the tub. Diaphanous, yet still possessing a hint of sculptural solidity, a pale semi-opaque hologram, it is perfectly proportioned, but less than a quarter of the size of a full-grown human. There is no question about the nature of this creature, as the stereotypical feathered wings sprouting from its shoulder blades twitch and quiver as if moved by an unseen breeze.
So many hallucinations over the past several years have rendered such apparitions fairly mundane, and I am not remotely shocked as three more identical creatures waft down in similar fashion from above, also alighting on the tub rim so that there are now two on either side of my prone body.
My initial reaction is one of gratitude: that these are not the usual grimacing gargoyles that both haunt and hunt me when I am using. I take a moment to study their faces. Displaying none of the scowling disdain and judgment I’ve come to expect from my drug apparitions, they remain impassive, unreadable.
My favorite game to play with the creatures that visit me, before my bravado wilts and I slip into hysterical, hiding-under-the-bed panic, has been to try to make them laugh, and on very rare occasions I have been able to illicit a restrained, reluctant smile from some of these faces that glare at me, inches from my own. Though these angel-like beings bear no signs of malevolence, I still attempt a joke.
Using my very limited knowledge of sports, I crack wise with, “just so you know, I’m a Mariners fan.”
They react to this, but instead of smiles, I detect great sadness in their eyes. What is this? Compassion in my hallucinations? Where is the hatred? The silent ridicule? The unspoken, panic-inducing psychic messages telling me there is a gunman standing outside my window? That death is imminent? That it is time to kill myself and rid the world of my sickness? This sadness they seem to be experiencing makes no sense to me, and I instantly feel completely ridiculous for having made such a weak joke.
I notice a translucent tear rolling down the misty cheek of the one closest to me, on my right.
I am moved, a little embarrassed by this display of concern.
“Don’t cry”, I say, and turn to look at the apparition nearest my left shoulder. Completely silent, it simply lowers its head, slowly moving it back and forth in an expression of great sadness as it seems to regard the open sores on my legs. Their concern makes me want to reassure them.
“It’s not that bad,” I say, “They’ll heal, eventually.”
As if in response, their heads pivot slowly until they are all looking up and away from me, toward the shower head protruding from the wall. I follow their gaze, and realize that the shower head is gone, and in its place is the glowing, also Obi-Wan-as-hologram-like face of my grandmother. My grandmother, who died before I could see her one last time because I decided to keep partying one extra night instead of visiting her. A spasm of guilt and shame passes through me, mixed with a feeling of strange comfort that she is here, if only in hallucinatory form.
Her face is stern, though stopping short of anger. This is the expression my grandmother used when she didn’t know how to express pain, pursed lips and set jaw of a her stoic Irish approach to life and its difficulties. I also detect great sadness in her eyes, magnified by the giant, coke-bottle eyeglasses that cataract surgery back in the mid-seventies had necessitated. I immediately move my hands to cover my privates, and red-hot shame courses through my being.
“I love you, Nan,” I say, and I am filled with sorrow, grateful to see her but horrified that she is seeing me like this. Had she been watching me these past days, soaking up porn, pulling toxic smoke into my lungs and masturbating like a fiend? The thought makes my stomach churn queasily.
Before I can say anything else, before I am able to make any sense out of this situation, the creature furthest from me on the right suddenly extends its ghostly arm and grips the curved, chrome waterspout – just inches from my toes – and with a deft twisting motion, yanks it from the wall, leaving behind a dark, jagged hole in the cream-colored tile. Its removal is achieved in complete silence, and I wonder again, momentarily, why sound is always absent from my hallucinations. The creature hands the dismembered waterspout to the apparition closest to me on right, my who holds it just inches from my eyes, rotating it slowly, giving me time to examine its chrome surface as it reflects the candlelight.
As the spout slowly gyrates closer to my face, I immediately intuit that things are about to turn ugly. I’ve been tricked. I look back at the sad faces surrounding me, expecting them to have mutated into horrible, grimacing monsters while I’ve been distracted, but they have not changed. Still, sadness.
The spinning waterspout demands my gaze once again, but it is difficult to focus on it because it is so close to my eyes, a silver blur. It moves away from my face, and I see with shock that it is no longer a waterspout. It is an object I haven’t seen in ages, but remember well from my days of owning a beat-up 1982 Chevy Cavalier. It is now a steel motor oil spout, the kind I used almost weekly to feed cans of 40 weight oil into my car’s ulcered engine. The puncturing spike is clearly visible, in fact, its shining sharpness is exaggerated in size.
I sit upright in the tub, panicked, water sloshing. I try to climb from the tub to throw on the overhead lighting – which almost always stops my hallucinations – but my legs seem paralyzed. The oil spout stops rotating, the spike level with and pointing at my chest.
“Patrick!” I scream, before realizing that he is out of town, being funny on some movie set somewhere. His absence, of course, is what made this at-home meth binge possible.
I look to my grandmother, wanting her to stop whatever is about to happen, but she avoids eye contact. I want to ask her to intercede, but the words won’t come. I know that I deserve whatever is about to happen, because I am a disgusting, horrible, deviant, terrible person. I know it, she knows it. Though my moral compass was dropped, stepped on and crushed beyond recognition years ago, I still retain a small understanding of the concept of justice. Whatever is about to happen to me will be just that, and I, the condemned man, must confess my guilt. Still, I stare at my grandmother’s sad eyes with my own, hoping for reprieve. Instead, my grandmother nods her head at the apparitions, a silent assent.
This thing is about to go down.
Terrified, I look to the ceiling and begin reciting Hail Mary’s rapidly, in the same machine-gun way I did as a boy trying to get my penance out of the way as quickly as possible.
A proud, almost defiant atheist in times of clarity, I have learned that just as with a foxhole, there is no room for godlessness in the midst of a meth freakout.
An odd…though not painful… feeling in my ribcage stops my praying, and I look down to see the oil spout is now being pushed into my chest. There is no pain, it sinks into my body like a spoon into jello. I wait for blood, but there is none. Instead, I sit and watch as a slow trickle of thin, brownish, foamy liquid begins to trickle from the spout and into the bath water, slowly picking up speed until it is a veritable geyser splashing the water below. There is a gurgling, and then it suddenly stops. I feel pressure in my chest, getting stronger by the moment. There is no actual pain, just an uncomfortable feeling that is akin to a balloon being inflated slowly beneath my ribcage. Then, with equal suddenness, the spout explodes, as the pressure forces a clog through. Great clots of shit-brown muck stream forth, and in them I can see, clearly, paramecium-like organisms squirming alongside humongous bacterial creatures which hit the water swimming, then dart, feathery, beneath the Betadyne- clouded surface of the bath water.
I can feel my body emptying, can feel the upward rush of toxins and drug residue being sucked from my extremities, into my chest cavity, out the spout and into the water. I bend my knees and stare, dumbfounded, watching as the sores on my thighs slowly shrink, their bacterial epicenters being sucked dry from within. When the skin is completely smooth, I begin to cry.
“Thank you,” I whisper.
After what feels like several minutes, the spout gives one last gurgle and then runs dry.
I lay in the tub, and as my breathing returns to normal, I realize that I feel something I haven’t felt in ages: clean. I also feel great calm, the 78 rpm of my thought patterns are now spinning at a leisurely 33 1/2, the constant, behind-my-eyes film-loop of pornographic images has been paused.
I look back to my grandmother, to tell her again that I love her, that I miss her, and that I’m sorry. I want to thank her for this purification. She is no longer there. The shower head is, again,just a shower head.
Still surrounded by the winged quartet, silver spout jutting from my chest, I close my eyes, and say another Hail Mary – this time slow, measured, the chirps of early-waking birds accompanying my recitation as I slip into the finally-welcome oblivion of sleep.