It was just 6 years since we had met, and close to his birthday, that Michael, my partner, phoned me and told me that he wasn’t feeling well and was going to see the doctor. This led to a visit to the local hospital where they identified a quantity of fluid in his lung, and so just a few days later he was admitted to Guys Hospital where they drained it away. Some further tests were made and one of the doctors off handedly asked him if he had ever been in contact with asbestos, to which he answered that he hadn’t and so we assumed that he had been suffering from pleurisy and that he would at least have time to regain his strength before Christmas. We spent the festival quietly and looked forward to a New Year’s gathering with friends. The remaining event on the horizon was a further visit to the doctor, hopefully to get the medication right, and then full recovery.
On January 8th 2004 Michael attended his appointment and I phoned later in the day for our usual chat, when we were not spending the night together.
“How did you get on?”
“Not very well” he said, after a short rather ominous silence.
“Have they told you anything?”
“It’s not good news” he said, quietly.
“I’m coming over” I said. “Be with you in half an hour”
When I arrived I felt that a chasm had suddenly been created from nowhere, and without warning. He was not smiling and was clearly burdened.
“What is it?”
“It’s something called mesothelioma” he said, cautiously.
“Is that serious?”
“Yes” he said. “It’s incurable”.
The bottom fell out right then. For God sake it was only a handful of years since my last partner had died from Alzheimers. WTF is going on with this life?
I didn’t need any prompting. I had been in this situation before with my AIDS buddy, my parents and my previous partner and so I just assumed that this was what life was all about.
“I’m not going anywhere. I will do whatever you need. I love you”
He went out of the room and poured us a drink.
“One thing else” he said quietly “I asked the doctor how I long I had, and he told me 6 months”.
We spent the evening quietly. Trying to watch TV. Occasionally throwing in an issue which the diagnosis had created. Trying to make some plans. Rescheduling and sometimes cancelling all the other plans we had made.
Our biggest and most important plan was that whatever happened it was going to be two people together facing this, right up to the end.
Bravely Michael did all the things he knew he had to do in preparation for the inevitable. He resigned from his job, he made the necessary legal decisions, gradually he told friends and family, and then eerily, we seemed to spend that January and February just waiting for death.
Michael was not ‘out’ about his sexuality to most of those in his world but we decided that neither of us could get the help and support necessary without making our sexuality and relationship clear to all who were involved with us.
Our first contact with the nurse from the local hospice led to her assuring us that there was no issue about our sexuality/relationship since everyone received the same care. Our response was that we thanked her for that but we didn’t want to be treated the same as everyone else, we wanted to be treated as two gay men, in relationship, in love, and joined at the hip!!! If she didn’t know what that meant then she needed to ask the right questions to find out.
So from that point we stopped sitting around for the visit from the grim reaper. We made plans for whatever holidays might be possible and, when medical consultations were held, we were both there together, and service providers soon learned that they were not dealing with Michael who had a friend called Roger, but were dealing with Michael and Roger, two men who were essentially one item.
Michael’s disease was taking its toll. The six months sentence was passed with relief but he was clearly weaker. The photo of him sitting on the beach in Cannes showed the beautiful man I loved, but also the man whose smile betrayed the knowledge that his time was coming to an end.
Eventually Michael accepted that a time in the hospice might help and he spent two weeks there while I was ordered to go away for one of them and get some respite. After this he returned home and the decline continued. The medication was giving him terrible sweats, and nightmares. Each night had features of him talking in his sleep about work, or something else in the past. It was difficult to get him to bath successfully and even with the electrically operated bath seat it was not easy. He was losing weight badly too and that wonderfully contoured bum of his was now nothing skin and bone. But he was surviving. Those, for whom, the news about his sexuality had been a bit of a surprise received the news with perfect understanding and empathy. The daily visit from the nurse became a pleasure since, once she had felt secure enough, told us about her gay friends and then her service took on an additional value because she was clearly more than treating everyone the same.
On Michael’s first stay at the hospice you could see other patients whispering to their visitors and clearly talking about us but it didn’t matter because we knew that the staff knew that they had no reason to do anything other than to celebrate our relationship, as we indeed did. On one occasion Michael said to me about the staff “They are watching us, you know.”
“What do you mean?” I said
“They know they’ve got to get it right.” He explained.
And so they did. When I went in each day I was greeted with “Hello, Roger. He’s just in there.” In other words I was publicly recognised as the significant other in his life.
One time one of the nurses said “He’s just having his bath. Do you want to go in and help?” In other words there was the recognition that I had been and was now central to his care. After all I had been bathing him for months before.
Then on his second stay at the hospice, like many gay couples, and without yet the legal right to be in a partnership, we nevertheless had a day which was recognised as our anniversary. We had flowers and cards in his room and the staff suddenly realised that gay people might have anniversaries too and they took it further and wanted to know how we met. We related the story we had told so many times before about how I advertised in a gay magazine and found him.
Inevitably Michael declined further. The pain remained and he found it such a trial coping. I wrote him a letter telling him how I felt about him. I arranged for two friends to be at our front door so that I wouldn’t be alone once the dreaded moment happened, and at just past 5 that evening on November 30th he died. The nurse said “You two have been magnificent. You have been there for each other right to the end”. A compliment to both of us, and especially to him, but also an acknowledgement that our relationship had just the same significance as the other straight relationships which were going through the same experiences.
At Michael’s funeral we passed the final hurdle where the officiating priest had been told, and accepted, that there was to be no fudging and avoidance of the fact that this was about one gay man dying and being mourned by others but, especially now, by his gay lover.
Every day I think about Michael and miss him but I know that he would be his usual self in rejoicing that I have found Nigel as my loving married partner, a worthy successor to a lovely man.