This has turned out to be much longer than I originally intended, but that’s as it has to be. It’s something I’ve been putting off for a long time. Now I have to let it see the light of day, or the pain will never go away. It’s deeply personal, so whether you read on or not is up to you.
I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on the rewards I get, and have gotten, from writing the story of Karen and Laci. There are no monetary rewards involved, but there are other, even better and more satisfying benefits I’ve been blessed to receive.
Of course there’s personal satisfaction of discovering I have a previously unknown ability to write in a way that’s more than purely functional. The process of turning what I see and hear in my head into something you my reader find compelling and entertaining is deeply satisfying and ever challenging.
However, the most gratifying rewards are the people I’ve met, and the friendships I’ve made. They number in the dozens. Some are brief, short-lived exchanges, others have withstood time. Some have been casual, others emotionally intimate. All, regardless of length or depth, are deeply cherished by me, more so than I can possibly express.
The most powerful of these friendships come with an inherent risk. These connections are, and must always remain, within the realm of the cyber. For various reasons related to protecting myself from a disastrous “outing” and promises I’ve made to my wife, they can never be direct and in-person. That is a non-negotiable price to pay, and sometimes it can hurt. Badly.
Some of you who first met our heroines on Leslita when I first started writing and posting their story may remember someone who occasionally posted comments under the name Sarge. He contacted me by email, and slowly we began to forge a friendship that would become very strong. Sarge, whose name I later learned was Chris, was a much older gentleman. He was retired from both the Army and Civil Service, and he settled in the tropics to enjoy his retirement.
Chris was totally smitten with Karen and Laci, and from Chapter 5 through Chapter 17, he was my constant companion, the person I used in my head as the avatar for my reader. He was, for a man in his 70s who lived and traveled around the world, quite naïve in some matters. He told me early on that he’d never met a lesbian before. That made me chuckle and respond, “Yes you have, you just didn’t know it.” Most lesbians don’t fit the stereotyped masculine image, because that’s just what it is, a stereotype, an easy way to pigeonhole the unknown.
I often think my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters are much too quick to take offense over perceived slights, and I certainly understand that. However, I’ve always believed that things said out of ignorance shouldn’t be taken as offenses; ignorance after all can be fixed. Use these times to refute and repair the ignorance. Very few people want to insult or injure other people. Once you put a human face on a bigoted point-of-view – once people see it as so much more than an abstract concept — the bigotry begins to erode.
So it was with Chris, though he was never hateful or intolerant in any sense. He felt indifference to the plight of gays and lesbians, and mild distaste at the concept of gay marriage. He had never had a real person attached to those concepts to show him we are ordinary human beings, and most of us would rather not have our identity wrapped up in something as… inane as our sexual orientation. I identify as a wife, mother, and nurse before my homosexuality even enters the picture.
Over time, our friendship deepened into a powerful bond. He was a father figure to me, or rather the big brother I never had. He was one of the first readers with whom I felt close enough to share some of the details of my private life. He always said he wished we were neighbors so we could share a cup of coffee and try solving the world’s ills over our kitchen tables. He gave me an open invitation to visit him and his wife in the tropics, something I could not do.
He was a man who loved art, especially music. Before he came into my life, I thought I “liked” Classical music. In reality, what I liked were catchy outtakes, the equivalent of singles from an album – the third movement, “Elvira Madigan”, of Mozart’s Piano Concerto #21, or the “American Airlines” commercial parsed out of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”. In other words, I didn’t even know what classical music was.
Chris changed all that. He did it slowly, and probably without intent. He simply and gently urged me to not just hear the music, the melody, but to really listen to it. Listen to what the composer is trying to convey, the message, and the way he or she is offering it to you. If you open your ears and your mind, no matter what the musical genre, and listen, you will be touched and the music will take on a meaning and power beyond anything you ever imagined.
I won’t ever forget the moment I came to understand that truth on an elemental level. It was a genuine epiphany, one of the few I’ve had in my life. Even realizing I’m gay came to me through a process that lasted years. But this was the Real Deal, and it was Chris who removed the blindfold.
After we’d spent a month or more swapping emails, sometimes every day, on the subject of music, I mentioned that I’d stumbled across the Ode to Joy of Beethoven’s final symphony, the 9th, in a snippet from the movie “Immortal Beloved.” It’s about the search for the eponymous secret love of Beethoven’s life after his death, his anonymous “Immortal Beloved”.
Of course I thought I knew all about the choral climax of the Ode to Joy; it’s one of the most recognizable works of music in the world. I asked Chris if he’d seen the movie, and of course he had. It was good but flawed he told me. Instead, he challenged me to listen to the entirety of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, not just the excerpt (which itself is powerful and moving; I used part of it in Laci’s Chapter 14 epiphany). Chris spoke and wrote German, and he sent me a copy of the Schiller poem Beethoven used as the basis for the Symphony, both in the original German and the English translation.
I answered his challenge. I listened. It was the middle of one of those sleepless nights I’ve lived with most of my life. I lay on the bed next to my sleeping wife, earbuds in, eyes closed, mind opened. From the subtle opening notes through all four movements, I listened. By the time it reached the third movement, I was completely in its embrace. I wasn’t simply hearing it. I was seeing it and I was feeling it right to the cockles of my heart. I was shivering and trembling as it carried me along like a fluff of down on a river raging with the spring torrent. When the chorus and soloist took stage, it didn’t matter that I didn’t understand any German beyond “Gesundheit”, I understood it with crystal clarity (there’s a line in the poem that, when sung by the chorus, still sounds to me like “The moon lights up the silver sky”, which remains very apt, as an even casual reading of Karen and Laci will show).
By the time it reached the choral climax so familiar to the world, I was crying, and not just a few tears leaking out. I was sobbing. Something elemental had been revealed to me, and at least I was wise enough to understand that. I’m sure some readers will understand what it means when I say it triggered a manic spell. That manic spell resulted in Chapter 7, written in a white heat as if I needed to get it out of my head before it exploded.
I’ve never listened to music in the same way since. If for no other reason than giving me the gift of finding the musical part of my soul, Chris is forever enshrined in a very special place in my heart. It’s a place occupied by my wife, my father, my mother, my son, a couple of teachers, and a handful of patients I’ve crossed paths with over the years, people who have touched and changed me in fundamental ways, people I can speak of using the word “love”.
The gift he led me to was by itself enough to make the story of Karen and Laci worth every second I have and ever will put into it.
Of course nothing in life is free. Everything has a cost, and often the cost is pain.
Chris and I became close enough to share secret parts of ourselves, things ordinarily shared only with our wives in the sanctity of the bedroom, or especially close siblings. We had developed a bond. From then on, we referred to each other as Brother and Sister, and so it was. I’d found my big brother at last.
I’m sure you’ve all noticed I’m speaking of Chris in the past tense. The reasons will become apparent soon.
In the course of our friendship, I came to know that my beloved Big Brother had medical issues. As a nurse, it was only natural for him to share these conditions with me, not in a search for sympathy or pity, but to clarify things he didn’t understand. He’d send me copies of his lab work, and I’d explain to him what they meant. He’d tell me about this encounter or that, and I’d explain what was going on. Even as this was going on, I was fully aware of just how bad his issues were. It was one of those cases of knowing a little being a bad thing. I knew how sick he was, and I knew he was walking around with a ticking time bomb inside his elderly body.
One of the core tenets of my nursing philosophy is “Never, ever steal someone’s hope.” There are few graver sins than that. Even working in end of life care, there is always something to hope for – a pain free day, the return of a long lost loved one, a kind and benevolent God waiting on the other side. As such, I never told him just how tenuous his hold on life was. He was ever the optimist, and woe betide me if I tried to rob him of that hope. I’m sure he knew, but hearing it from me would be devastating, so I simply shut up reflected his optimism.
Then last autumn, some of the things he was telling me alarmed me greatly. I knew he was, if not terminal then very close to it. He had a condition which could only be left to run its course, or treated by a very dangerous surgical procedure, extremely risky for someone in otherwise good health, which Chris was not. A lifetime of smoking had done in his lungs, and his heart was old and scarred. Still, he wasn’t ready to go. I was sure he had unfinished business he wanted resolved before he said, “There, now I can just let the car run out of gas, and enjoy the ride as much as possible until it does.”
He went into the hospital in early November. The last time I heard from him was around Thanksgiving, a short, cryptic note written from his hospital bed on a tablet, something he admitted never mastering. His wife sent me a few brief, optimistic notes, then those stopped by December. I understand that. I’m not family, just a disembodied, nebulous someone he cared for. They have bigger things to be concerned with.
I have to assume he’s dead, but I’ll never know for sure, and that is what hurts. Death I can handle. I deal with it on an almost daily basis, and I know it’s not an end, only a step to another realm, whatever it may be. Not knowing, that’s what hurts; not being able to say good-bye is sheer agony. It’s the necessary price to be paid for the gifts I’ve been blessed to receive from him.
There are other friends as dear to me who have changed me in profound and elemental ways – Jacques, my other Chris, Sammie, Amy, Heather, and my precious little enigma Tonya. Other, newer friends are managing to nestle their way into my heart, and yes, I love them all. As steep and painful as the price might be if the piper ever shows up demanding to be paid, I would never ever trade the gift of knowing the friends I’ve made here.
I just wanted you to know.