WHY I LEFT THE DREADFUL REVIVAL OF “COMPANY” AT INTERMISSION (In Which An Anniversary Approaches, I Have A Midlife Crisis, and Several Axes are Ground)
February 3, 2011 in Life
My friend Greta’s therapist apparently likes to tell her, “Not everybody was meant to be a part of your life forever. Sometimes you just have to step over the bodies and keep walking.” Lately, though, there have been an awful lot of bodies to step over. It’s like a fucking George Romero zombie movie here sometimes. For a change, though, this is mostly a metaphor.
It’s been a rough couple of years. Two years ago, I came down with severe sepsis—what we used to call “blood poisoning” in my day—and spent ten days in a coma. My biological family, with whom I hadn’t spoken in five years, was notified that I would probably die, and flew in to New York City from Atlanta and Nairobi, presumably to testify for the prosecution should there be any final judgment.
Now this may or may not be related to the fact that April 4th will be the twentieth anniversary of my HIV diagnosis. Quintana Roo Dunne, the otherwise perfectly healthy daughter of Joan Didion, who went to my college and was close to many of my college pals, also had severe sepsis. Like me, she went to the ER, was diagnosed with pneumonia, sent home with antibiotics, and collapsed a week later—her system overwhelmed by an autoimmune reaction kicked off by bacteria. Unlike me, she died. When I left the hospital after two months, my leg muscles had wasted to the point that I couldn’t really walk. Still, the ICU doctor that I ran into in the elevator on my way out of the hospital compared me to “one of those salamanders that can re-grow a severed leg or tail.” So not only had I dodged the death bullet, but I was getting the OK to rise Phoenix-like from the ashes.
When you can’t walk, you have limited life options for a while. For me, this meant going to live with my mother in Atlanta. I know, I am, as always, completely au courant, a New York Times trend piece jumping off the page. And truly, though it may not seem so, I am grateful to have had someplace to go. But for any grown person, being forced to live with parents is at best a mixed blessing. For me, being forced to live with my mother in Atlanta is like being confined to some heretofore undescribed circle of Dante’s Hell, with boiling pitch and Newt Gingrich-y demons dressed in pleated khakis raking at my flesh with hooked tridents while screaming racial epithets and denouncing socialized health care. She seems to find it easier than I do, but then, theatrical martyrdom has always been la specialité de sa maison.
Anyway, the gist of all of this is that, because of my HIV status, I’ve spent the past twenty years with no idea whether or not I should be making long-range plans. For most of that time, I’d just given up on much of what I wanted to do with my life in terms of “the future.” Those things seemed to require unreasonable time commitments, so, y’know, I kind of gathered my rosebuds. When effective treatments came along, I didn’t do well on them at first: they had really, really terrible side effects and didn’t work particularly well for me. Then newer treatments came along, and suddenly I was in my late thirties and had, for the first time since adolescence, a measurable life expectancy. Surprise!
On the other hand, even if I died at a ripe old age, anything I wanted to get to before I died was kind of urgent. The clock didn’t stop ticking. I’m not a kid anymore, kiddo. This meant a complete rejiggering of almost everything: life priorities, long-range plans, and, yes, close personal friendships. Time, as the Petit Prince wisely observed, is really the only investment one ever makes. Standard midlife crisis stuff, really. Then, of course, came the sepsis, and the long-range was off again, but now it’s sort of back on again, so basically what do I know?
But the funny thing is—well, not funny “ha-ha,” but funny “oh shit”—is that when you start making major life changes, you find that some of the people you’ve been closest to don’t like it one bit. They liked you just the way you were, and aren’t so crazy about the new you; hence the piled-up bodies. At one point, I was trying to explain this to my then-best friend. “OK,” he asked, “but how long is this going to last? When are you going to be normal again?” And the thing is? I’m not going to be normal again. Never. I have never been “normal.” Nothing about this has been normal. Nothing about this is going to be normal. I’m playing it entirely by ear, making it up as I go along.
My friend Skip would understand; he put Elizabeth Taylor to shame. After heading up two major New York/Metro-area hospitals, he was badly injured in a terrible car accident. Then, during the long recovery, he got addicted first to painkillers, then to old-fashioned crack. By the time I knew him, though, he was pasting his life back together, one step at a time: off the crack, new job that he loved . . . But in December of 2009, he went into the hospital for another surgery to repair the damage to his back from the accident, and the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) that he’d gotten from the crack (which, it turns out, isn’t very good for one’s lungs), didn’t react very well with the anesthesia, and he died on the table. He didn’t get his Phoenix break like I did. Skip had been to the dark side and back several times; he was smart and funny and incredibly kind, and that guy knew how to listen. I miss him a lot these days. But . . . another body to step over, this one more literal.
My mother completely freaks out when we’re driving and I get lost, which, since I don’t really know Atlanta, happens fairly often. She’s a panicky sort, who’s always afraid that THIS time, we’re REALLY lost, and we’ll never find our way back to the beaten path, and years from now, explorers will find her rusted SUV covered with weeds by the side of the road, with our bleached bones still in the seat belts, having been cleanly stripped of all flesh by vultures and rodents. Me, not so panicky. I know what to do when I’m lost, how (roughly) to find my way again. When you spend half of your life not knowing precisely what you’re doing, you get used to winging it. You develop strategies.
And that, for me, is entirely normal. It’s the way it’s always been, and it’s not going to change.