I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, November 20, 2011

My friend Robert

Robert died on Friday the 13th in July 1990. I haven't thought of him very much in years - decades, even. But something happened last Sunday that has brought him into my thoughts daily since then. I met Robert when I first moved to Boulder in the mid-1970s. He and his life partner David had lived in Boulder for years and were some of the first people I became close to. It's funny how a situation can change your life, and moving into a rooming house on Boulder's university hill was the catalyst for friendships that have lasted a lifetime. The old house had maybe a dozen small rooms and a central kitchen. As I became friends with the other residents, we would gather at the kitchen table and have communal meals. That's where I met Robert, and we became immediate friends. Although he didn't live in the house, he visited often and I learned to appreciate his intellect and droll sense of humor.

I knew Robert was gay, it was hard not to know, since he was effeminate and "swishy" in his manner. I found it rather refreshing that he didn't make any fuss about it, it's just who he was. We became fast friends and he taught me a great deal about art, one of his passions. Every time he would travel out of town, I would receive an art card from him with a nice note, letting me know he was thinking about me.

At one point in my life in Boulder, I was without a place to live and moved in with David and Robert into their lovely rural home. Although I was working half-time at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, I didn't want to live alone, and the time I spent there was memorable because of Robert's touch. While there, I took a six-week leave of absence from work and went to Peru. It was a wonderful time, but apparently while eating something from a (probable) street vendor, I picked up infectious hepatitis. It didn't appear immediately because of a gamma globulin shot I had had prior to my trip, but showed up about a month after my return. Robert took me to the doctor when I woke from a terrible sleep and looked into the mirror to see that the whites of my eyes were yellow as egg yolks.

Robert nursed me back to health. I was so sick that walking up the steps from my room once a day was all I could manage. I missed another ten weeks of work and could do nothing but read and rest. I think Robert saw my situation as a perfect opportunity to teach me about some of his favorite things. He brought me book after book of art appreciation, and he introduced me to Emily Dickinson, one of his favorite poets. I became as enamored with her as he was. He fixed my meals and eventually took me for walks when I was able. It was shocking how weak and sick I was, but there is nothing for hepatitis except to rest and let your body recover. It also made me incredibly appreciative of the good friend that Robert was to me. He thought constantly of things that he hoped would make me happy and contributed a great deal to my recovery. We became even more fast friends, and he told me stories from his life that made me realize that Robert was really a woman in a man's body. He thought like me, was gentle to his very soul, and never hurt a fly.

That is what caused me to remember him so much this week. Last Sunday I went to see the opera "Tosca" by Puccini at the cinema, with English subtitles. Although I had heard the famous aria before, since Robert loved it beyond all others, I never knew the meaning of the Italian words in Vissi D'Arte (the aria), but he did. When he knew that he was dying of AIDS, Robert asked me to be in charge of his memorial service, and he was adamant about certain parts of it. At the time I lived in a basement apartment with a spacious and lovely back yard. He asked that I play that aria from "Tosca" as I slowly ascended the steps from the apartment into the yard with his ashes in an urn. It was very moving, but even more so now, more than twenty years later, when I learned the meaning of that aria sung by Tosca.
I lived for art, I lived for love,
I never did harm to a living soul!
With a secret hand
I relieved as many misfortunes as I knew of.
Ever in true faith
My prayer
Rose to the holy shrines.
Ever in true faith
I gave flowers to the altar.
In the hour of grief
Why, why, Lord,
Why do you reward me thus?
I gave jewels for the Madonna's mantle,
And songs for the stars in heaven
That shone forth with greater radiance.
In the hour of grief
Why, why, Lord,
Ah, why do you reward me thus?
When Robert was very sick, I would give him foot rubs and read to him. He would tell me what he wanted me to read, and I watched as David grew more and more distant. Sometimes when a loved one is dying, it's so difficult that one pulls away; it seemed cruel to me that David would not even sit with him. But I did, and I was happy to spend as much time with him as I could until the end. And now as I enjoy remembering him after all these years, I thank God that I was blessed with his friendship.

Robert was one of the best friends I ever had. I hope he is sitting somewhere in Heaven smiling as I write this. If he is, I'm sure he would be laughing gently and correcting any inaccuracies I've introduced. Or he would start to tell me a story, always with a moral that I might learn to be a gentle soul, too.


Meryl Baer said...

A beautiful eulogy to a friend lost but with you still after all these years.

Anonymous said...

Amazing that Tosca conjured up your tender memories of your friend. Isn't it wonderful to have subtitles in English? It's sad that David did not spend more time with Robert when the latter was dying. What's up with that? I am glad Robert was there for you when you were sick and alone, and that you reciprocated when he got sick. Beautiful tribute, DJan.

Linda Reeder said...

Wow. Your life experiences continue to amaze me. What a blessing Robert was in your life, and I think, you to him in his all too short one.
The words of the aria seem to fit perfectly. How wonderful it would have been to have known the words at the time of Robert's passing.

wendyytb said...

I think you learned the lesson well. You are a gentle caring soul...molded by painful and joyful life experiences.

Mel said...

The words to the aria are heartbreaking. I lost a kind, gentle, sweet, funny friend to AIDS when I was pregnant with my first child. His family shunned him when his illness revealed to them that he was gay, and it was his friends who nursed him, sat vigil with him and planned his memorial service. I've always struggled philosophically with life's cruel fates, and losing him while ushering in a new life was a surreal experience for me. I find hope and acceptance to be very hard to find most days.

Your tribute to Robert is beautiful, the serendipity involved in your meeting has given you decades of a priceless ripple effect, so there is that.
When I think of Buddy, which I do often, I don't think so much of his death anymore - I think of his smile, how much he made us laugh and, despite his family turning from him in hate and ignorance as he died, how the love of his friends saw him through to the end. Thanks for sharing Robert with us today. I'm going to listen to the aria from Tosca now.

Rita said...

Oh, Djan! I am sitting here crying. But it is an excellent, positive cry. How blessed you were to have each other. He nursed you and you nursed him. You touched each other's souls. Forever embedded in each other's heart in fine crystal compassion. Thanks for sharing with us the honor of his memory.

Dee Ready said...

Dear DJan,
This posting is a moving and memorable eulogy for Robert. How blessed you both were to have one another.

As I read I was remembering another Robert. I met him during the three years (1988-1991) that I worked with men who were HIV-positive. I watched Robert develop full-blown AIDS and sat next to him in the hospital, singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" to him.

His mother came and wept, for her beloved son was dying. His father could not face the reality of having a son who was gay. That time was holy for me--grace filled.

The time you spent with your Robert was rich in love and tenderness. Thank you for sharing this holy time of your life.


Linda Myers said...

Oh, DJan. What a memorable post you have given us this morning. Thank you so much.

I was good friends with a gay man in the 80s, when I was first single after my divorce. He helped me redo my living room in "cheap chic" mode. When I moved to Washington I lost touch.

I found him again this year on Facebook. He is still alive, still outrageous. I'm grateful he was one of the survivors.

Rubye Jack said...

It is as if he gave you a part of himself when he nursed you back to health and you then were able to return the same to him when he was sick. What a good friend he was for you DJan.

Beth said...

A very touching tribute to a beloved friend, beautifully written.

Gigi said...

This has touched my soul! And brought me to tears. How wonderful to have had such a true friend in your life; for both of you.

#1Nana said...

This is a lovely memorial to a dear friend. I think it is one of the gifts of grief that we get to a point where we can remember a loved one with joy. It helps to know that we never really lose them when we have such lovely memories. This was beautifully written.

Red said...

It's great that you can sit down and write about your experience with Robert. If we don't write about these things we gradually lose them.
I really have to wonder about the harsh negative stand many people take towards gay and lesbian people. It saddens me that some other people cannot see the human being but only the sexual orientation.

CiCi said...

First Robert nursed you back to health and you were able to come to his aid as his health deteriorated. What a truly loving friendship.

Pamela Kieffer said...

Djan, how lucky you were to have such a loving friend.

Sally Wessely said...

Your friend Robert was wonderfully memorized for all of us in this. He obviously touched and enriched your life. i wonder what you would have done if he had not been there to care for you. Not all would have repaid the favor by caring for the caregiver when they needed help.

This was beautiful, DJan.

Stella Jones said...

How sad that such a gentle person should die such a horrible death. I'm sure he appreciated you in his last days as you appreciated him when you needed a friend.
Sometimes we are sent a certain person to help during a difficult time.

Arkansas Patti said...

That was just beautiful and terribly sad. You were blessed with an amazing friend and he you.
What a gentle man.

Heidrun Khokhar, KleinsteMotte said...

God bless those souls that move us. What a treasure!

Grandmother Mary said...

Of course. He was a good friend and you cared for one another as friends do. How rich your lives were with each other. Thanks for sharing Robert with us.

Sandi said...

What a sweet, sweet story of a person who obviously changed your world for the better. I like to think that we have the experiences we have for good reasons. I agree that Robert is surely smiling and wishing all good things for you.

Choco said...

I welled up while reading this.
To be blessed with one good friend is better than having a hundred false ones.
Robert will be proud of this post. May he rip.

Buz said...

I haven't even had breakfast yet, and here you've already got me crying. Robert was obviously the kind of man whom other men can only aspire to be.

Buz said...

aspire to be *like. (I swear--I will never learn this English language.)

CrazyCris said...

A True Friend if ever there was one! And it sounds like you were one for him as well DJan.

No wonder he chose that aria, from your description it fits him to a T!

A beautiful and poignant memory DJan.

CrazyCris said...

As I read the other comments here, I realise how much things have changed for my generation, particularly the stigma towards people who are gay... Among the people I know being gay is no big deal, just another personal life choice that has nothing to do with the rest of the world. I don't know if I'm explaining myself correctly. I just mean that even though I know intelectually that gay people had a very hard time "coming out" and being accepted (and still do in many families and societies), for me, the way I've been raised, hearing someone is gay is just another information point about a person, just one part that helps to sum up the whole.
I will admit to reacting sometimes "that guy's gay? DARN!!! No fair!" but those are my hormones reacting not my brain ;o)

California Girl said...

Happy Thanksgiving DJan. Wonderful memoir of your friend.

Friko said...

How blessed you are to have known a friendship like this. And for you to know that you were a true friend to him too.

Not many people can stay with someone through their last illness, particularly a messy one like AIDS.

I admire you.

Crazy Life of a Writing Mom said...

Robert must have been amazing. Isn't it wonderful when the right people come into our lives and we learn from them? :0)

I love the way you write!

Trish said...

Wow. You tell this story so well that I could see Robert taking care of you- and vice versa. What a beautiful friendship, DJan.

Donna B. said...

Thank you again for sharing yet another bittersweet memory of your dear friend Robert. What a blessing you both were in one another's lives. I got chills reading the words to Tosca...how beautify and appropriate. I agree...you have lived quite the interesting life!

Far Side of Fifty said...

He sounds like a good friend..good memories are like a fine wine, meant to be shared:)