By 1988, there had been 61,816 deaths in the U.S. alone. I was twenty-one. Two years later, nearly twice as many Americans had died of AIDS as died in the Vietnam War. By the time I was thirty? 234,225 deaths. Forty? Nearly 600,000 deaths.
Just consider that for a second.
Six-hundred thousand dead.
That’s the entire population of Denver or Portland or Seattle or Austin, dead. Twice the population of Minneapolis, three times the population of Madison, Wisconsin, six times the population of Salt Lake City or Boise, dead. By the time I was twenty five, I’d attended more funerals than weddings.
It was so important to remember everyone who lost. Nobody deserved to be a statistic. Nobody was going to be the emotional equivalent of an unmarked forgotten gravestone. Our community lived for remembering. To do otherwise was unthinkable.
We queers became the experts at grief. We wore it openly on our sleeves next to our battered hearts.
Our personal calendars are always full of when friends and lovers lost the battle. Each of them live on through stories like this one. Stories about someone that touched our life in such a direct way, that you mark their passing each year on the calendar as a personal memorial day. When I was in my 20s, I had a couple that I called my ‘gay’ Mom and Dad.
It was the summer of 1988 that I met Mark Spencer. Mark absolutely defined ‘sparkle.’ He was a cabaret singer and local variety show performer. He was always spit-shine polished, and everyone knew who was responsible. Friends used to joke that his partner John was the stage manager for “The Mark Show.” It was never meant with even a hint of disrespect. We were all jealous of the complete adoration that was apparent in both of them every time you were around them. You’d see a slight, gentle touch on Mark’s collar while he was surrounded by boys telling some outrageously rude joke. You’d catch them stealing thick, bourbon-filled kisses in the kitchen at a dinner party full of house guests.
Pictures of them with fabulously feathered ‘70s hairdos, powder blue tuxedos and thick rimmed glasses looking like extras from an extra campy Magnum P.I. episode, adorned the entry way to their home. They would tell beautifully detailed, different versions of the same story depending on who got started. Always on special occasions they’d tell of the night they came home together down the gravel driveway to their woodsy, small home. It was like listening to someone recite the most romantic of all fairy tales. Mark’s little details always making John blush at the right moments. It all seemed perfect.
Watching him that day, he was the personification of celebration and remembrance. Even in Mark’s death, John was the supportive partner, putting on the perfect send-off party, determined to get it absolutely right. It’s crazy how I can remember that evening on the ocean vividly, right down to the most particular detail. Mark’s service was held at the labyrinth at Land’s End. Out on the end of the world, with the setting sun bouncing off the water, lighting up the Golden Gate like a picture postcard. You had to walk down the earthen steps and find your way down to the sea. Once we’d all arrived, John went around the circle as people continued to greet one another. He handed each person a paper lantern. A deep reverent hush fell over all of us as we each realized Mark and John had made these in advance. Written on mine in John’s perfect cursive handwriting was a long paragraph:
“We met you at the baths on a joyous Pride weekend. You had just turned 21. I am so excited to know you’ll finish college and make a real difference in the world,” I read, with tears welling up. “I know you’ll be brilliant. You’ll break through that trademark shyness of yours. I will miss you, bucky boy, but the world is going to get such a gift.”
I looked up around the circle, witnessing how these personal messages were affecting everyone involved. John walked out to the edge near the water and lit the candle in his lantern, passing it around the circle to the next person. The sun started below the horizon as everyone’s lantern bounced with candlelight and started to fill with warm air, making them light in our hands.
John let his go, and it seemed to hover, in fact, hesitate in his hands. He spoke in this incredibly almost unbearable soft voice, “No. No. It’s time for you to go, honeybear.” As if hearing his absolute command, the lantern lit off from his hands and floated up, catching the breeze, which took it up and out to sea, candlelight revealing that the entire surface of his lantern had writing upon it. He looked after it like a parent sending his child off to school on a fall morning. One by one, the lanterns in our hands followed suit, slowly rising into the sky and wandering away.
I’d always meant to keep in better touch with John. But Mark was right, I finished college, went to Africa in the Peace Corps, and my life had taken off like a rocket ship. I had always thought to myself that John had gone quietly and peacefully after his husband without regrets.
Twenty-one years later, there he was on Facebook. It was like a ghost came up on my computer screen. According to his profile, he’d gone on to get a doctorate and was now a counselor in Calgary. He was single, aggressively agnostic, and had a dog named Lucille. He still had that calm smile, like the entire world had become a “Mark” for him to adore from across the room.
The computer beeped, and a message from him came up: “I’ve missed you.”
_________________________________________________ This is an excerpt from “Brief Moments: A Collection of Short Stories” by Robert B. McDiarmid — available on Amazon.com in paperback and in Ebook/Kindle editions.
In today's world full of people pushing and shoving their way to everything, gentleness can be incredibly difficult. It is always worth it.
He hummed a small chant reverently as he labored in the small cabin. He returned affectionately to the window sill. He held the small dusty bottle up to the light triumphantly. The leaves had macerated since the last full moon. The sun had indeed turned it all into a lovely brown concoction.
Shuffling his feet in his esoteric rambling around the shed, he finally found the block of beeswax and began melting it slowly over the open flame. He dutifully strained the small bottle from the window. Smiling, he added the remaining oil to the beeswax, stirring it slowly with a thick, old wooden spoon. Forgetting his third ingredient, he indignantly scuttled back to the pantry.
“There you are cypress,” he addressed it, returning to his work.
He moved the softened wax from the flame and muttering under his breath used the dropper from the cypress oil over the top of the wax. As the strong aroma struck his sinuses, he allowed himself the pleasure of a satisfied smile. He reached down, taking a small sample and massaging it between his fingers.
“Perfect” he said, quite satisfied with himself.
Not giving it time to set, he spooned it into the waiting green jars, sealed them, occasionally returning to his fingers to breathe in the thick Mediterranean scent. Walking over to the sink, he washed his hands carefully, returning his apron to its hook. With a gentle blow he extinguished the lanterns, enjoying the silence for a moment and the fresh smoke in the air. He stepped over the book of herbs and closed it as reverently as someone might close their bible. As if on que, the grandfather clock in the corner struck six and the first fingers of sunrise peeked through the trees into the window. He dutifully toddled off through the yard to the house, returning back to the modern world.
He stood naked examining himself out of the morning shower. So this was what older looked like. He hummed Copland's shaker hymn as he carefully braided his hair and then his beard. He took the ring out of his nose, placing it carefully in a tray on the sink, and replaced the big hoops usually in his ears with carefully selected garnet studs. She'd asked him to shave - knowing he'd ignore her - of course the beard was never coming off. It was part of him like rings in an ancient redwood.
He arrived at the church in his construction man’s pickup. It was that kind of whirling dervish that made people pray for his safety every time he got into it. Stepping out in the perfectly tailored dark green suit with a fresh flower in the lapel, even he had to admit he looked pretty good. There she was on the stoop. One day a frightened girl he'd walked home from school, the next a mother marrying off her daughter. Damned if she didn't look older yet like he did. He supposed there were reasons for that. She greeted him with a smile and a strong hug.
"Try not to turn anyone into a frog today, shall we?," she teasingly whispered into his ear.
"For today. limited time offer, restrictions apply."
He walked up the center aisle of the cathedral. The memories of this place traced back to before any of them were born. He could still here the theatrical creak of the main doors the last time he'd left here and put his collar in the top drawer of his father's desk and never gone to retrieve it again. With no pause, the other participants and then guests started to arrive. He stood in the center as the groom nervously darted his eyes between him and the back door of the church. He wondered what generational stories the boy had been told about the esoteric druid uncle from the woods. He winked at the boy, which didn’t exactly have the calming effect that was intended.
His niece arrived in the back door, wearing his Mother’s wedding dress. She strolled forward with a disquieting adult confidence. Beginning his opening words, he found his cadence and cast his spell over the crowd.
You know that ringing in your ears after a loud Springsteen concert? The one where he sang every song you love and covered a few others. The one where you sang along to every word and let his voice flow over you like waterfall. Yeah, that one. All I can hear is the ringing, but I always hum Springsteen to myself when it bothers me, or for some odd mysterious reason, I am reminded that the ringing is there. The driver had been passing in a no passing zone. The road was a bit wet from the unseasonable summer rains from the night before. They came around a bend in tandem simultaneously in slow motion and at somewhere the sheriff guessed at 40 miles an hour. In other words, I’m lucky to be writing to you at any case.
My bicycle tire struck the front and I flipped over the cab of his pickup and into the empty bed behind. My right ear struck the cab and my left ear collided with the bed. Then I was thrown around as he slammed on his breaks. The photographs show me contorted, one leg still clipped into the bike almost like I’d magically gone through the accident and decided to nap. The pictures.
“Oh Jesus…” were the last words I ever heard.
They were from the driver of the other car. He had a soft southern accent, the type you hear in a comedy like Sordid Lives, only his voice was deadly serious. Considering I’m a Buddhist there is a fair amount of humor involved with that the end of sound in my life.
As with many accidents of this type there were a few weeks that were just a blur of pain management and couple of surgeries. It was explained through texting to my iPad that it was doubtful that I would ever hear again, but that the rest of me would heal and I would make a relatively full recovery. You know in those dinner party conversations that go like this, “what if you HAD to lose one of your senses, which one it would be and why?” I would always laugh and say I loved food too much to lose taste, loved my beautiful wife too much to lose sight, loved music too much to lose my hearing so perhaps touch.
My wife always thought that was a weird answer and we’d spend drunken evenings cleaning up supper dishes trying to decide what kind of catastrophe would have to happen to leave all your senses intact but your touch. After the accident such idle chatter stopped cold. I tried to make this joke to her when I first came home and she burst into tears and walked from the room.
I couldn’t hear her being upset, but oh my god could I see it.
The accident brought out this Edgar Allen Poe-ish dark sense of humor that hardly, if anyone but me, appreciated. I think it was because it was my way of not being angry, but dark humor always has a touch of anger, of undiluted truth to it - - that out of context, or suddenly in a conversation or a moment, it made a lot of people uncomfortable. Many people figure of all your senses, losing your hearing is not all that big a deal. Hey why don’t you just learn sign language? Hey, thanks for the advice but do YOU know sign language? Thought not.
A lot of people that reached out to help got a wall of ‘you can’t possibly understand.’ I tried going back to work but found the inability to socialize with coworkers embarrassing and difficult. They’d come up to my cube and start talking to me, completely forget that I could no longer hear them. Once my injuries healed I wasn’t visibly changed, but soon my boss ushered me into his office - and texting to each other, he suggested that maybe I could work at home and Skype into the team. That way everyone would be more comfortable.
So - without heading into the office, I became even more isolated. You learn quickly - that the body uses hearing as an important part of balance and in combination with your inner ear is responsible for the awareness of where you are relative to everything around you. I started having these intense waves of complete disconnectedness. Followed by worries about ‘what if she was injured and I couldn’t hear her? what if I had to call 911? as if!” If I would go swimming and go under water and close my eyes I would lose all sense of up and down or any positioning for that matter. It was at once curious, frightening and rather bazaar. And in trying to deal with all of it, the other senses (sight, muscle positioning, and tactile feedback) are heightened but are not a substitute for hearing. It took so much energy just to exist through a day!
Tired from trying to navigate my new world, I’d be left laying on the bed, the tin ringing reasserting itself. Always reminding me that nothing was the same. I missed what a violin and an oboe sounded like much more than a bus or a car horn. My wife and I were regulars at the symphony. After the accident I’d attended with her a few times. I tried to be brave and pretend it was still a special way to get out together. I apparently fell asleep hard in the second movement. She woke me and wrote on the program that I was snoring and we left at intermission.
She was doing her best to understand. She was trying to find some answers on how to make our new situation work. She said that I’d always hummed in my sleep, but that in the months since the accident I was losing pitch and it was just heartbreaking to listen to. I’d woken up a couple of times to find her sleeping in the guest room. I wondered for a long while whether in losing my hearing, I’d lose her as well.
I found myself one day tracing my wife’s face in a photo, like she was no longer my wife, and I grieved. I spent a whole day alone in my beautiful home crying - - crying is some weird ass shit when you can’t hear. You can FEEL it - but you can’t sense it. I could scream as loud as my lungs would let me - and I could feel the pressure leaving my body - I could feel the sobs move through me like an earthquake. She came home one day and I was playing Shostakovich so loudly it was probably vibrating the foundation on the house, and she recalls watching. I was on the floor, legs wrapped around the speaker, leaned against it gently stroking the fabric on the front of it with my eyes shut.
She can describe coming up me and realizing that I was trying reach out to the sound. She stood in the doorway for two full movements before letting me know she was there. She said recently that watching me in that moment was when she understood and when she fell in love with me again. We went to counseling soon after - armed with iPads so we could text. I agreed to take lip reading and we’d take sign language courses together at the local college. We had assumed this was how we’d live out our lives. Working together we became all the more determined to find solutions - a relentless search for answers – a lot of Facebook chat, voice to text for voice mail, and so many other little helpers to try to stay connected to my life.
The doctor emailed and said that he’d recently read a paper where a cochlear implant might be able to restore at least a little of my hearing. A cochlear implant is an electronic medical device that replaces the function of the damaged inner ear. Unlike hearing aids, which make sounds louder, cochlear implants do the work of damaged parts of the inner ear to provide sound signals to the brain.
It was like a “bionic ear” replacement. Insurance frowned about the idea, but paid for it reluctantly - along with some of the accident settlement money. He reviewed the nuts and bolts of what would be happening, “The cochlea hears bass at its center and treble at its opening. All the frequencies lie in between. A healthy human ear can hear up to 20,000 separate frequencies. The implant spreads its pulses across only 20 electrodes but algorithms spread sound amongst electrodes to manufacture many frequencies.” There is so much information and honestly, we just wanted to know if I’d hear again.
“You’ll hear but not the same, you’ll learn sounds and voices over again, but with most people they are hearing and understanding in the new way within four to six months.” My wife hovered over me as they came to get me from the ward to go in for the procedure. She looked at me, simultaneously worried and excited. I remember being wheeled away. We had to wait six weeks for my surgery to heal before they could do any testing. I usually pride myself on being a patient man, but Jesus this was the longest six weeks of my life. Our best friends and my kids flew in for the “day.” I hated being doted over and treated special. I tolerated everyone’s nervous excitement.
I remember the night before - sleeping next to my wife and laying awake. I watched the shadow of the evergreens from outside the window dance in the wind and make shadows on the ceiling with the streetlamp. I found myself thinking to myself, two years of silence had taught me so many things, what if I didn’t want the sound back.
What if I’d become a better person as a result of the silence, of the ringing?
What if I’d revert back to the kind of man I was before the accident?
I went into the exam room - and the technician connected the receivers that would become part of me. It certainly reinforced the bionic notions and jokes I’d been sharing with friends. Three years to the day since I’d done a bicycle pirouette, I sat across from a young hearing aid specialist. I was so nervous; but the click and the first faint recognizable tone was marvelous. Everything sounded very distant and like an AM station just on the verge of being tuned in. My impatient brain kept moving the dial too fast. Even though I was warned, I was disappointed but hopeful.
So lots of practice reading e-books while listening to the audio version, watching the closed captioned shows on TV - waiting for it to all start to become clear again. My entire life became that moment with the speaker, learning to feel and hear my world again. Everything became a daily joy as I could hear more and more - I could hear my dogs bark and growl and the tap of their claws on the wood floor. I could hear the turn signal clicking. Birds, wind, rustling of leaves. Conversations were still the hardest - because well, people speak so fast. Like I used to I supposed. I told people to keep talking and my doctors told me I’d eventually retrain myself to follow conversations.
I was singing to myself in the shower one day when I realized that the voice I could hear in my head was actually singing. I must have stayed in the shower for half an hour, singing every stupid song I could think of. My wife got my attention through the shower and held up her iPad, “You are still going to lose the karaoke competition.” As I started guffawing, she took her robe off and joined me in the shower, both of singing like school kids. I gross out my kids by telling this story of making love to their mother in the guest shower that afternoon, and they are all probably holding this story out at a distance and making “eeew, Dad, really?” face.
She had to deal with me all through the bad years and we are closer than ever. Hearing is the only sense that can be effectively replaced with technology. I am a fortunate man. Because I can hear again. I can enjoy Natalie Cole, Norah Jones, The Eagles, Steppenwolf and Styx. We can dress up and return to our seats at the Symphony. I look forward to hanging with my 3 boys. I enjoy my life again and am deeply grateful for the technology that has returned my life to me but with a more profound sense of how life can be without hearing. Helen Keller says “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.
Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” I’ll say that my adventure in silence taught me a great many things about the hidden places in your soul it reveals. I look forward to holding my grandchildren soon and being able to hear their first words. To be able to counsel on them importance of treasuring each and every one. I can remember hearing my wife again - distinctly - for the first time after the implant.
She was making dinner and talking to her sister on the phone. “Yeah Mike has started with audio books. He’s working really hard. He’s trying hard not to be disappointed but I think he’s just…,” she said, pausing, looking over at me because she realized I was listening to the conversation. She hung-up and knelt at my feet and snuggled in close saying my name over and over and over and over. Over her shoulder, the irremovable smile across my face that appeared from hearing her voice again has never gone away.
This post is an excerpt from my book “Brief Moments: a collection of short stories” available on Amazon.com in paperback & Kindle eBook.
This post is an excerpt from my book “Brief Moments: a collection of short stories” available on Amazon.com in paperback & Kindle eBook.