Tuesday, 4 March 2014

A Late Tribute to a Late Friend

I was doing some online banking this morning, when I noticed the date – March 4. It took me a moment to remember why the date is important. It’s the birthday of friend who died almost 2 years ago, but then I remembered another friend, who died 17 years ago. Wasn’t his birthday also in March? I couldn’t remember if today is his birthday or if it’s the 6th or if his birthday is in October or if today is the day he died. It upsets me that I can’t remember and I’ve been wracking my memory all day but I still can’t remember either of those dates. Troy died in 1997 before our lives were documented online and I don’t have any way to find out.

He was my best friend for most of my life. We met when I was a freshman in high school. We were dance partners in our high school production of West Side Story. We were both 14, but he was a year ahead of me in school. I should have known he was gay when another boy in the show came up to us at rehearsals and said, as he was looking down my top, “Man, I wish she was my partner.” To which Troy replied, ‘No, you don’t. It’s just more dead weight you’d have to lift.” He was kind of brilliant that way - matter-of-fact and bracingly honest. There were times I was never sure if he was joking.

I often think about how he affected my life and how I wouldn’t be who or where I am if it weren’t for him. 

He found out about auditions all over the East Bay and took me, sometimes kicking and screaming, with him. He got me out of myself, out of my head. He either didn’t see obstacles or he didn’t give a shit about them.

When I was 16, I made a pretty serious suicide attempt and had to be hospitalized. After the mandatory 72 hour hold, I was allowed to go home for a weekend before having to admit myself for another 30 days. He came over the night I got home and decided to get me out of the house. When my mom asked what movie he was taking me to, he said as deadpan as ever, “Better Off Dead.” I can still see the look on my mom’s face as he grabbed my arm and pulled me out the door before she could recover from her shock to say ‘no.’ Needless to say, that movie was just what I needed.

When I got out of the hospital, I dropped out of school and after a couple of months of being pretty much agoraphobic, he showed up at my door and told me to get dressed and come with him. He spent the next couple of hours taking me to stores and restaurants to fill out applications. In a few days I had my first job.

A few months later, when he was doing a show at a nearby community college, he would pick me up to go out with the cast after the show or to cast outings. He went out of his way to include me and I ended up marrying one of the cast members.

I could go on, there are more incidents of his influence on my life, but those are the major ones. He eventually got cast in a national tour and I didn’t see him for years at a time, but he came to visit me in Long Beach in 1996. 

He had been in the hospital with pneumonia. He mentioned it vaguely while we caught up on each other’s lives. (This gets a bit complicated because by 1996 I was divorced and living with a new boyfriend.) At some point, we had to go to the store and as we walked there, he told me he had Pneumocystis. I had been involved with AIDS Project Los Angeles as a volunteer and had done a fair amount of work on a piece about AIDS that included in depth research on the disease and interviews with the head of AIDS research at UCLA. I had read And the Band Played On and much more. I knew that Pneumocystis is AIDS but he never said he had AIDS.

I could tell by the way he said 'Pneumocystis,' that he didn’t want to talk about it. When he left the following day, I was unsure if I had really heard what he said. It was all so vague and I was unable to grasp what he meant. I was unsure of how to handle the news or myself. I didn’t know what to say and my fear kept me from asking questions.

A few months later, Troy called and told me he was moving back to Phoenix. When I tried to ask about his health or if moving so far away was a good idea, he just shut me down. Again, I didn’t know how to talk to him. I felt helpless and cowardly.

Somehow in July or August, I decided to go to Pheonix to see him. I think we had talked on the phone. I knew he was working for AT&T out there and he had a nice apartment but I can’t think of what made me go there in the middle of summer. I drove out there on a Saturday morning and arrived in the sweltering afternoon.

If I had met him anywhere but at his address, I would not have recognized him. He was shockingly thin and his skin was dark. He had always suffered from eczema and he didn’t have Kaposi sarcoma but his skin was leathery and his eyes were very sunken with very dark circles under them.

He wanted to go out for lunch so we jumped in his car and headed to the mall across the main road from his apartment complex. He ordered a big meal but ate almost nothing. He told me that he had an ulcer in his throat and it was excruciating for him to swallow. He was also telling me stories about work that didn’t make much sense and he would fade out when I was talking, but I only realized the extent of his condition when we left the restaurant.

He had trouble remembering where we parked and he resisted me when I walked to where I knew the car was. When we were getting into the car, he said that I looked pretty in yellow, but I was wearing a black and white outfit. When we started to drive out of the parking lot, he kept making right turns taking us through the long mazes of the mall lot. I tried to guide him out to the main road, but he ignored me. As we went around and around, I could see his apartment complex. At one point, I thought about asking him to park again and just walking back to his place. It took us 2 hours to get out of the lot. I have no words to describe those 2 hours, the language to convey that experience has not been conceived.

When we got back to his apartment, he laid down and didn’t get up again for another 23 hours, well past the time I needed to leave to get back to LA but I couldn’t go. When he finally woke up, I asked him how he was still working and he admitted that he hadn’t worked for the last 6 weeks. There was no food in his apartment, only juice and there was a big hefty bag of different pharmaceuticals in his bathroom. He was on an AZT cocktail that required him to take something like 30 pills 3 times a day. He wouldn’t talk to me about any of it (I inventoried the pills and dosages while he was sleeping.) When I asked him why the pills were in a garbage bag, he explained that the ulcer in his throat made it impossible to take them.

I resolved to move him to Long Beach with me and my boyfriend, Joe. Joe didn’t hesitate when I called to ask him if we could take Troy in. I drove back to LA through a harrowing lightening storm in the middle of the night completely undone by how surreal the situation was.

Our landlady refused to allow us to take Troy in so we started looking for a new place to live. I also called the Phoenix AIDS project to find out if someone could go check on Troy on a regular basis. I was told that was not possible and that unless I had power of attorney, I could not advocate for Troy’s care unless he was in a critical condition. The definition of critical being when the person is unable to call 911 themselves. I found myself caught between the rules of patient autonomy (which I applaud) and common sense, which didn’t seem to be very practical.

It was an unfathomable situation. I don’t recall what came next but somehow I convinced Troy’s mother to let him move back in with her. She had moved to Manteca, California and I had convinced Troy to make the move there until Joe and I could find a place where Troy could stay too.

So on September 1st, Joe and I went to Phoenix to move Troy back to Manteca. We packed up everything while Troy puttered and slept. At this point his dementia was quite bad. When I put on gloves to clean the bathroom, he flipped out a bit. It wasn't until much later that I realized I had offended him. He thought I was protecting myself from him. 

The next morning we got our truck and Troy’s car packed. When we went to leave, Troy refused to let me drive his car. He wouldn’t give me the keys and he just sat in the driver’s seat. It was frightening. Joe wanted me to ride with him if Troy was going to drive, but that couldn’t happen either. We refused to go for about half an hour but Troy still wouldn't move so in the end, I went with Troy.

All I can say is thank god for cell phones and dumb luck. We got on Arizona highway 17 heading South and Troy got in the fast lane driving very slowly. I thought he knew where he was going, but he wouldn’t get over to get on the 10. Finally at the last minute, he crossed 4 lanes of highway (thank god there was no one in our way) and got on the 10. The problem was that Joe couldn’t make the same move. It took about 30 minutes for Joe to get back to where Troy and I were.

The rest of the drive was beyond description. Troy drove 40mph in the fast lane across Arizona into California. I lost count of how many times we were almost killed before we reached the central valley. It took us 18 hours to get from Phoenix to Stockton and still Troy refused to let me drive. Finally, after he drifted over a lane and almost plowed into a semi, I screamed at him to pull over as I grabbed the wheel to pull us back into our lane of traffic. When we pulled off the highway, Joe was sheet white and shaking. He told me he was sure he had just seen me killed in a car accident; he couldn't believe that we didn't crash. I drove the last few miles into Manteca.

At 3am we arrived at his mother’s house and we still had to unload his things. Troy went straight to bed, furious at me. No one was awake to welcome Troy home. When we left, Joe was really upset and we still had a 2 hour drive to Castro Valley.

Joe and I left for Maine the following day to get engaged. When we got back to Long Beach we started looking for an apartment where Troy could move in with us. In the mean time, I had a consultation with a friend at AIDS Project Los Angeles. He was going to law school and he implored me to get power of attorney before allowing Troy to move in.

By this time, Joe and I had found a place 2 streets from the old apartment and the landlords where more than happy to let us move Troy in, but Troy refused to give me power of attorney. He would barely speak to me on the phone. The problem was that without POA, I couldn’t do anything on Troy’s behalf and the more incapacitated he was, particularly from the dementia, the more important it was that I have decision making power over hospital or hospice care.

I can’t remember the day I got the call from a mutual friend that Troy had died. I know I was in our new living room because I was staring at the still unpacked boxes. As I recall, there was no funeral for him and he was cremated without a burial.

I think I left a message for his mother, but I don’t remember talking to her. I felt a kind of guilt I have never spoken of because I was relieved that Troy hadn’t moved in with us. He begged me to come get him. He didn’t want to die in Manteca and I was too afraid of what would happen if he lived with us in Long Beach.  

Troy was 29.  In one of the last lucid conversations we had, Troy told me about the night ‘he got sick’ (his words). His contract was ending with the show and he had auditioned for the next tour and didn’t make the cut. While he was still on the road, he spent one of his last nights with another cast member he knew ‘was sick.’ He couldn’t explain what he had done, but he told me he had no regrets. He was resigned to a fate he couldn’t bring himself to name.

I wish there was a moral to this story. I was hoping to find some redemption as I wrote it, but more often than not there is no answer. There are no conclusions to draw, but that doesn’t mean the story should remain untold or unexamined. Life is irrational and murky, and particularly in this case, it shouldn’t be sentimentalized. I just don’t want to wake up years down the road unable to remember more than what I’ve already forgotten.

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