Category Archives: friendship

Thank You, Thank You, Thank You

snap1309043 Today, my disease is incredibly angry.

It wants me to be sick. It wants to put me in compromising positions. It wants me, quite frankly, dead.

I spent several hours yesterday in a waiting room at the Gay & Lesbian Center (God bless them and the work they do) after having what seemed like gallons of blood drawn, before finally being summoned into a counselors office where I was told that the test for HIV antibodies had come back negative.  While I’m not out of the woods completely on the HIV front (a more definitive test that was also done…one that tests for the presence of the actual virus…will not yield results for approximately two weeks), it’s still a very good sign.

Today, I am filled with gratitude that there’s the possibility I’ve been given yet another reprieve on the health front.  I am so grateful for my beautiful friends, for my wonderful “prayer posse,” and particularly my beautiful friend Le Maire, who prayed with me on the phone before my appointment, helping bring me into alignment with my Higher Power, the same Higher Power I lost touch with weeks ago, prior to my relapse.

So, my disease is furious today. All that work it did, all those machinations designed to trick me into destroying my sanity, my spirituality, my health, my very existence…were most likely for naught.

And by surviving, yet again, I’ve gained further insight into its devious methods. I’ve come to understand where the weaknesses are in my walls of defense, and I’ve begun the work needed to shore them up against future attacks.

A week ago, I felt isolated. I felt like my sanity was gone, perhaps forever this time. A week ago, I was filled with self-loathing and self-recrimination.

Last night, I spent several hours with a group of beautiful human beings, and heard others share stories of their own battles against their own disease, stories that were painful to hear but so very similar to my own. I was hugged, I was loved, I was told explicitly that I was amongst family, and that I was missed while I was gone.  I sat between friends who held my hand, and who embraced me after I shared my own story of how my disease snuck up on me, and the damage it did to me in such a short amount of time. I spoke of how I had stopped praying at some point, how my conscious connection to my God had gradually slipped away without my even noticing it, until it was too late.

Today, I feel optimism seeping back into my bones. Today, I feel loved and to a small extent, worthy of that love.

I can not let my disease have any sort of victory, ever again. Each time I allow it to advance, it does so with even more anger, more viciousness, more commitment to seeing me degraded, humiliated….and ultimately, dead, once and for all. No do-overs. Gone.

It’s biding its time, having been forced into retreat, gathering strength in its dark fortress, waiting to blind side me again and finally achieve the sick, sad victory it’s been chasing for eleven years.

With my Higher Power by my side, however, I am invincible.

So very , very grateful today. Thank you to all my friends and family, sober or otherwise. Thank you to my Tuesday night recovery family…you truly light a Burning Desire in my heart to stay sober and see the beauty in life. Thank you to my sobriety “guru,” Jonathan…just seeing you fills me with hope.  Thank you to my amazing trudging buddies Phillip and Mykee, who I believe quite literally saved my life. Thank you to everyone who sent messages of love and support. Thank you to everyone who takes the time to read these postings, because writing them helps keep me sane. And sober.

Love and thanks to all of you.

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Me & The Be

Me & The Be

Me & The Be

Yesterday was a day of mourning for so many of my friends in the recovery community in Los Angeles.  Another beautiful light snuffed out by a disease that can lie dormant for days, months, even years before rearing its ugly head and…more virulent than ever…killing its victim without the slightest compunction.

Late last night, after the gathering of the Tuesday evening group of men and women who have become my second family – where the loss of this bright light hung quite tangibly over the proceedings – I came home full of feelings:  There was sadness for this man and his family and friends.  There was also fear, that this might someday be my own fate, and there was anger that so many beautiful men and women suffer from the disease of alcoholism.

Sitting down at my computer, I found my friend Mykee B. online, and reached out. Within moments I was LOL’ing over our private chat conversation. In the program of recovery I’ve chosen, there is a saying about traveling a road to a place of future happiness, and Mykee B. has been my walking partner on this road since almost the very beginning of this journey.

I met Mykee on a camping trip I took with a group of men (and one woman) from the aforementioned Tuesday night second family. At the time, I was barely six weeks off the pipe, and the idea of traveling to the Sequoia National Park with twenty-nine almost-strangers was terrifying to me. However, I followed direction given by the person who guides me through this program of recovery, and agreed to go along for the three day event. I’m glad I did…though I barely spoke the entire time (except for the nightly gatherings around the campfire, where I inarticulately…and through tears….tried to convey my sense of not belonging, of feeling too damaged to ever feel human again. It wasn’t pretty.)

My now-dear friend Stephen B. noticed my discomfort, and on a group hike to a waterfall…during which I was walking with my head down, feeling ugly and old and damaged in comparison to all the beautiful younger boys in our group….began to engage me in conversation, putting his arm around me, and did his best to make me feel a part of.  I will always owe this man a debt of gratitude for that simple action.  It’s taken almost a year, but that simple gesture was the beginning of my evolution from reticent recovery bystander to active participant in my own salvation.

On the morning we were to return to Los Angeles…I had caught a ride with my friend Jonathan (my also aforementioned recovery program ‘guide’)…we were packing up his Scion when someone asked if we had room for Mykee B. in our car. I’d noticed him around the campfire, and had been moved by one of his tearful shares, however we’d only spoken cursorily over the previous few days. Despite the sleeping bags, tents and luggage, we did have some extra room in Jonathan’s car, and so the three of us set out to make the drive home together.

But first, there was a surprise in store for me.

The previous evening, the majority of our group of campers had made a sunset field trip to the majestic Moro Rock, a giant granite dome formation from which spectacular views of the California’s Central Valley can be seen. I had stayed behind, however, having volunteered to help with dinner preparation.  So, on the drive home, Jonathan and Mykee had colluded to make sure I got to see Moro Rock before we left.  I was touched deeply, and the three of us climbed to the top of this rock mountain together. It was a profoundly spiritual experience, and I will always treasure that memory as one of the more profound ones of my early sobriety.

When we returned to the base, it was decided we’d stay in the park a little longer, and we hiked around a gorgeous meadow, just the three of us: my guru, my new friend and myself…all at different stages of recovery but so very similar in many other ways.

It was on the ride home that I really fell in love with Mykee. He was brilliant but not obnoxious about it, he was one of the funniest men I’d ever met (and I’ve met some funny people, trust me), and he was politically astute and passionate about social justice issues.  His small frame (if you know Mykee, then you know he has the highest personality to body mass index of anyone on this planet) gave him an impish quality that could make me convulse with laughter, even back then when the slightest chuckle felt hard-won.

Since that weekend last August, I’ve counted this man among my closest friends. Though recently he’s been extremely busy (the man is a true entrepreneur, and I have no doubt fabulous wealth and success are imminent for my little friend/dynamo) with a number of startup businesses (see www.hprlcl.com), I know he will alway be there for me when I need him. And vice/versa.

Like he was last night, when I needed to laugh more than I’ve needed to in a long time.

If you read this blog, you know that I’ve gone from rabid atheist to praying man in a very short period of time. And every night, when I say those prayers, I thank God for bringing Mykee B…friend, little brother, partner in (healthy) crime…. into my life.  As the Russ Meyer fantasy band The Carrie Nations sang in “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”…. “In the long run, you’ll need someone to trust and count on…come a rainy day.”

Yesterday, it was drizzling, and Mykee was there for me.

Two Anniversaries

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Patrick at the Groundlings, around the time I met him. From Left: Lisa Kudrow, Tim Bagley, Kathy Griffin, Patrick, Cathy Shambley.

Last week my husband and I celebrated the third anniversary of our wedding on April 12, 2010, in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. Attended by friends and family and filled with laughter and tears, April 12 will always be our legal wedding anniversary.

Today, however, is a much more important anniversary. April 19, 1994  is exactly 19 years to the day since my husband and I went on our first date. It’s this date I prefer to celebrate. April 12, though filled with great memories and marked by papers filed and all the legal mumbo-jumbo, is essentially the day that we were finally able to get married, having stupidly waited too long and being blindsided by Prop 8. Like most gay couples who have been together for a long time, it feels like short shrift to say our wedding date is in 2010, because if we’d been “allowed” to get married like straight people, I suspect our wedding would have taken place sometime around 1998, and i’d be telling people that i’ve been married for fifteen years rather than three.

I first saw Patrick Bristow on my first visit to The Groundlings theatre sometime in 1993, and was BLOWN AWAY…like, draw-droppingly blown away…by his improvisational comedy skills. Like, genius x 100. Plus, he was adorable in sweet, quirky way. At the time, I was dating a gay porn star and – ludicrously – wondering why I never seemed to be able to hang on to a relationship. When I saw Patrick in his first improvised scene that night (some lake-side tryst with fellow Groundling Jennifer Coolidge that involved knitting) and when he’d made me laugh harder than I ever remembered having laughed before, I thought to myself, “THAT’S what I want in my life.”

Halcyon Days: Patrick's role on the sitcom "Ellen" launched his career into late-90's hyperdrive. For a while, we wanted for nothing. Wanting for nothing, it turns out, is not always a good thing.

Halcyon Days: Patrick’s role on the sitcom “Ellen” launched his career into late-90’s hyperdrive. For a while, we wanted for nothing. Wanting for nothing, it turns out, is not always a good thing.

Our mutual friend Kim Everett-Martin (Thanks, Kim!)  introduced us when we joined the cast for dinner after the show (where I also met the guy who’d become one of my dearest friends, box office manager Mike Sweeney) and the rest was, well…a long, frustrating, drawn out ordeal of me pretty much stalking Patrick for nigh on a year, up to and including taking a job I didn’t need as house manager at The Groundlings just to have more opportunities to make him fucking notice me.

Nothing seemed to work. He was pleasant, but barely paid me any attention at all. Which, of course, only made me more determined.

One of the earliest photos I have of Patrick and I together. Taken at our first home in Silver Lake.

One of the earliest photos I have of Patrick and I together. Taken at our first home in Silver Lake.

Finally, one Sunday night at the Groundlings Mike and I got a little drunk in the box office and I finally worked up the nerve to actually ask Patrick out. I think Mike was as surprised as I was that Patrick agreed to the date, and walking home together down Sierra Bonita on our way home from work that night, Mike…who had known Patrick for several years, told me: ‘Patrick’s a good one. Hang on to him.”

He is. And I have.

Since falling in actual love on that first date at Farfalla Restaurant in Los Feliz,  this man and I have shared some amazing times…we’ve traveled the world, we’ve both had career highs that neither of us could have anticipated, we’ve been blessed with wealth and with nice cars, AMAZING friends, and our lives are rich with the love of two families who have never made us feel like a “gay couple,” always just couple…not to mention four nieces and nephews who have never known a life without Uncle Patrick in it.

There have also been some truly terrible times: the deaths of his parents, the suicide of a nephew. Financial hardship, the forfeiting of said nice cars. Medical crises, and of course, my years-long addiction to crystal meth, during which he was never a doormat: if I was willing to work on myself, he was always there for me. Even when he was protecting himself by changing the locks on our home, I never doubted his love for me. And when I was screaming at him in a meth-fueled rage, telling him how much I hated him, I have no doubt he knew I loved him.

So even though we were only “allowed” to get married three years ago, and still aren’t recognized in our own state as a married couple, this wonderful, evolved, spiritual, and plain damned FUNNY man – the only person who can make me laugh when all I want to do is cry –  has been my husband for a long, long time, despite what it says on our Connecticut marriage license.

me and p

Advocate article, 2005

Sometimes, when I tell people my husband and I have been together for 19 years, the response is one of astonishment. Frequently, I’m asked how we’ve managed to stay together. First, I usually advise them, put aside your bullshit “requirements” for a spouse: Handsome. Blonde. Dark and swarthy. Successful. Swimmer’s body. Nice car. Whatever you think is your ideal is probably not ideal. For years I’d chased the archetypical, masculine, GQ magazine ideal of a mate. Sometimes I got them. Sometimes they were wonderful, like an early boyfriend of mine, Kevin. Most of the time, however, the person inside the archetype couldn’t live up to their own hype (and I’m sure a few felt that way about me as well.) If you’d told me in my early dating years that i’d find true happiness with a quirky looking, wiry red-headed guy, I would have scoffed.   What I saw in Patrick that first time at the Groundlings was something I didn’t even realize I wanted. No, needed: gentleness, humor, intelligence. Something instinctively told me that this was someone I wanted to be around. I went with my heart and not my preconceptions.   Patrick too had to push away his expectations of a partner: the reason he barely talked to me that first year before our date is because he assumed I was a shallow, West Hollywood pretty boy (don’t laugh, in 1993 it wasn’t as ludicrous an assumption as it sounds now). He was in search of an intellectual type, a more sophisticated and less obviously insecure type. We both listened to that quiet voice coming from our hearts.

Staying together is the hard part, of course. I’m not sure how we’ve done it, to be honest. I do know that we make allowances for each other’s humanity, that we worked hard early on to communicate honestly. We’re patient with each other regarding our differences (he loves classical music, I tolerate it. I freak out about getting older, he couldn’t care less, etc, etc, etc.), and we celebrate our similarities. We understand that we have a richer life together when we each have our own, and then come together to share our adventures. But most of all, we honor our commitment. Whatever happens. And I mean, whatever.  There have been a lot of  ‘whatevers,‘ believe me.  But we process them knowing that we have to solve the current problem with the end result being “staying together.” Breaking up is never an option.  As Patrick once said about our relationship in an interview with The Advocate, “Commitment only counts when you need it…and that’s when it’s the most difficult to maintain.”

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Oahu, 1995.

My husband just got home tonight from being on tour for three weeks with the adult improv puppet show he co-created with our friend Brian Henson of The Jim Henson company, and it was a long and lonely three weeks. Even though he’s jet-lagged crashed in our bed already and we haven’t had much time to catch up, it’s not really necessary. Knowing that he’s curled up in a near coma in the other room, snoring away loudly while being snuggled by our three dogs who have also missed him terribly (he’s the nice daddy, i’m the disciplinary daddy), once  again, our house feels like a home. OUR home.

There is so much love under this roof . And you know what, any of you who feel icky  just reading about gay couples? There’s far more love and friendship here than there is sex, not that you should be thinking about that anyway. I don’t immediately picture straight couples banging uglies, and you shouldn’t be thinking that about us. Unless you enjoy it, of course, in which case feel free, hypocrite. We’re just two people committed to taking care of each other, supporting each other, and being there through..well…richer or poorer, better or worse.

I love you, Patrick. Until death do us part.

Screw Prop 8: Happy actual anniversary, my husband, my best friend, the most amazing human being I’ve ever known.

It’s your turn to do the laundry, btw. So glad you’re home.

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I Love You, Jonathan Bierner

The man who helps me stay clean and sober every single day has begun his own blog. Please give it a read, and perhaps a follow: http://jonathanbierner.com

Though I can’t talk specifically about how I’ve stayed clean and sober for nine months, I can say that after ten years of failed attempts, THIS time around, miracles started happening almost immediately even before my sobriety date of July 7, 2012.  It actually began months before, when my lovely friend Maria introduced me to her friend, Phillip. Phillip and I quickly became friends as well, and when just a few months later I found myself drowning – yet again – in a meth-induced ocean of psychosis and despair, Phillip is the person I reached out to for help.

Sequoia Camping Trip, August 2012: Jonathan B. (left), Me, and Mykee B (right)….these guys help keep me clean and sober every single day, and have been there for me without fail when I’ve needed a shoulder, a sounding board, or just a hug. I love them both more than words can express.

Phillip then introduced me to what I call my Tuesday night family, where I found people like myself, people who are facing the same struggles and who will love me until I am able to love myself. (I’m getting there, btw. After nine months, I’m starting to feel the relief of liking myself.  Loving myself is close on its heels, though, I can feel it.)  Not long after meeting this amazing group of people, Phillip needed help moving out of his home in the Hollywood Hills, and one day in late July of this year, I met Jonathan for the first time. We were charged with moving a refrigerator out of the basement of the house and up an incredibly small, rickety wooden outdoor stairway to street level.  The stairs jogged back and forth three times at sharp right angles, making it a nearly impossible task (The 110 degree temperature and 6,000% humidity that day didn’t help a bit either, nor did the fact that I was borderline emaciated and a bit addled, having so recently abandoned the pipe.)

It was the most unpleasant of circumstances, but this guy Jonathan, wiry and handsome, made it tolerable with his sense of humor and hilarious, wry asides.  Later, riding in the U-Haul truck together to a storage facility deep in the San Fernando Valley, boundaries worn away the exhaustion of a day of intense heat and physical labor, we  began to talk.

The commonality of experience was almost mind-blowing, and before the day was over I had asked him to be my guide as I began to navigate the choppy waters of early sobriety.

He’s walked beside me these past nine months every step of the way, and has quickly become more than just a friend. He is my family: taking my phone calls whenever I need his guidance, sharing his wisdom and strength with me, and calling me out on my bullshit when it’s necessary. Also of great importance is his ability to make me laugh, even when crying feels like the more logical option. The truth is that I couldn’t do this sobriety thing if I couldn’t laugh about it on occasion, or find a bit of over-the-shoulder amusement in some of the pitiful and incomprehensible situations my crystal meth addiction placed me in.

Yesterday, Jonathan celebrated eight years of clean and sober living. He marked the occasion with an incredibly honest, brave and intensely personal Facebook post and blog entry of his own. I want all of you to know this amazing man who has played a large part in not only saving my life, but enriching it and opening my eyes to the joys of living a clean and sober existence Please give it a read and leave a comment of encouragement, and follow it if you enjoy reading smart, brave writing.  Also, if you enjoy my blog even a tiny bit, you could also thank him for that, because without him I would never have found my way back to my creativity.

I love you, Jonathan.

http://jonathanbierner.com

Life and Death at Three Thirty Three

NOTE: At the end of this month, it will be eighteen years since I lost one of the best friends i’ve ever had. Even though so much time has passed and so many wonderful – and truly awful – things have happened since, I still think of him almost every day. I loved him so much. This story is about the last year of his life.

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?”

Mike and me, parasailing on Maui, May 1995

“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.

Genhos

Rochester General Hospital

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.”

Mike Sweeney, 1982 yearbook photo. He was class treasurer.

“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?”

“Excuse me?”

“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.

gsh

CLICK TO WATCH “GOD SAID HA!” .. Mike’s sister Julia’s poignant and hilarious one-woman show about The House of Cancer. Julia nails Mike’s funny but often trenchantly sarcastic personality. I’m so glad this film exists to remind me of my friend.

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.

from left: Mike, Patrick, Cheri, Andy at our friend Amy’s wedding, 1994.

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.

me and mike

Last photo of Mike and I together, March 1995. The next morning he would enter the hospital for the last time.

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.

Sober Musical Interlude #1

Sinéad_O'Connor_-_How_About_I_Be_Me_(And_You_Be_You)

“The Wolf is Getting Married” can be found on Sinead O’Connor’s 2012 release “How About I Be Me and You be You?”

If you follow this blog (and thank you SO much if you do)  you know that I write dark, depressing stuff full of angst and anger and, well, as my husband puts it: “meth, death and bated breath.” The reason for this is because it’s the way I process feelings like guilt and shame for all the wreckage i’ve caused in my life and the lives of those who care about me. And believe me, there’s been so much wreckage I could tattoo “brought to you by Irwin Allen” on my forehead.  But here’s the thing: I don’t want anyone getting the impression that I am a depressed, miserable person. Even in the midst of the melodrama I write about were many, many moments of joy. My dogs, my husband, long walks, time spent with family and friends.

I also want to let you know that the last eight months have been the happiest of my existence. I’m restricted by tradition, so I can’t provide specifics as to why or how, but let me say this: I am learning, at the bruised-fruit age of 48, to like myself. I’m not talking about my looks, or my career, or my belongings…all the things I have mistakenly thought were me and which caused great despair as one by one, they began to disappear.  I’ve learned to let myself be loved even on the days when I feel utterly hideous and unloveable. I’ve learned that being kind to others is a far more uplifting and productive pursuit than sitting around hoping others are going to be kind to me. There are still days when the thorn-bush has roses, but overall, I’m feeling extremely optimistic.

Which brings me to a favorite of what I call my “sobriety songs,” The Wolf is Getting Married by the amazing Sinéad O’Connor, who became one of my personal heroes the moment she tore up that photo of the pope on Saturday Night Live (I have my issues, as does she, with the roman catholic church).  The title is an obscure Arabic expression meaning, loosely translated, “a break in the clouds.”  The song seems to have been written for, perhaps, a love interest. When I listen to it, I think of a collective of people: my family and old friends who have always loved and supported me (even when I was stumbling around like an early Walking Dead prototype.) I also think of all the new people in my life: the sober ones – particularly my new Tuesday night family – friends who are guiding me and helping me and crying with me and rooting for me and loving me, until I can transition from mostly liking myself to actually full-on loving myself.  I also think of my trio of spiritual advisors who brought me home to my higher power.

Their smiles make me smile. Their joy gives me joy. Their hope gives me hope. I am so absolutely surrounded by love these days. Maybe I always have been. But I’m actually able to register it now, and it’s powerful. There’s been a break in the clouds, and the sun feels fucking amazing.

I used to have no wolves around me
I was too free, if that’s possible to be
No safety, is what I mean
No solid foundation to keep me

But the sun’s peeping out of the sky
Where there used to be only gray
The wolf is getting married
and he’ll never cry again

Your smile makes me smile
Your laugh makes me laugh
Your joy gives me joy
your hope gives me hope

 

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