Honoring Bob

I have been working on this story for many days. With an audience of even a few people, I have become self-conscious. When I speak quietly, mostly to myself and to some invisible, formless listener, I feel a sense of freedom.  I can only write with clarity and with honesty when somehow the inner critic goes quietly off to bed.   It is a struggle to find a way to articulate what I want to say so that it is reflects what is in my heart.

As I have been writing about life at the hotel and as I walk to Joseph’s House Hospice on the mornings when I volunteer, I have been thinking about my old friend, Bob.  Until now, I have not seen the thread that stitches these parts of my life together.

In the late 1970’s Bob and I worked at the hotel for senior citizens. It was an exhilarating experience for both of us. The hotel was a microcosm of society.

Men and women of every age and background and from nearly every continent comprised the staff.  Some grew up in the inner city and barely graduated high school and others had college degrees. The residents were equally as eclectic.  There were people like Pauline, men and women who spent most of their adult lives in mental institutions and there were women like Miss Potts and Miss Lovett, who came from small town across the country to work for the government during World War II and who never left. There were wealthy residents who moved into the hotel when the polish and glitter was untarnished and who struggled to maintain the air of exclusivity as lonely and desperate men and women bought cheap drinks in the front lobby bar, staggered to meals and had to be helped back to their rooms.

Into this world, Bob danced.  He was young, flamboyant, and he was gay. The hotel provided him a perfect backdrop to explore his identity.  Everyone was different.  No one worried about how to fit in.  No one was judged on appearance or sexual identity.  In this world of differences everyone belonged.  All that mattered to the residents was kindness and caring.  And that, Bob gave.

Our friendship grew outside the walls of work.  After we both moved on to other jobs, we continued to keep close contract.  He moved to New York.  We talked and he visited often.  Then, in the late 1980’s as the AIDS epidemic spread, Bob’s former partner was diagnosed and died two years later.   Then Bob got sick.  He was in and out of the hospital.  Each time he seemed to bounce back.  It was easy to pretend that he was going to defy the odds.

The last time I saw him was twenty years, one month and seventeen days ago. He came down to Washington on the train from New York to visit one week after my daughter was born.  It was a quick trip. He stayed for less than twelve hours.  He had to return home to go back to work.  He had missed too much work already. He was optimistic, and confident about the future. He was getting exceptional medical care.  It never crossed our minds that we may not see each other again.  There is always hope, but we were, given the reality, just two dreamers.

A few months later he was hospitalized again.  He called and said he was getting stronger.  Even as the days stretched into weeks and the weeks became a month, I did not go see him.  I was at home with two small children.  I was juggling motherhood and a part time job.  I was still nursing my youngest.  I was exhausted.   These are the facts, but the facts are just excuses.  As much as I wanted to believe that my time spent with people who were old and dying prepared me for life and death I was still standing at a distance from my own feelings.  I couldn’t face Bob’s illness.  I couldn’t face his death.  When the call came I wasn’t expecting it.  Sometime during the previous evening when the nurse had left his room, leaving him watching TV, his heart stopped.

My relationship with Bob and my volunteering at Josephs House have always been intertwined, but I wasn’t ready to own it.  At Joseph’s House the memory of Bob jumps out of my pocket and into the faces of the men and women who I have the privilege to sit with.  I see Bob without regret for a past that I cannot change or for the feelings I did not have the wisdom to understand. On the mornings when I walk from my home to Joseph’s House, when I climb the front stairs, when I enter the house, and when I take the stairs to the bedrooms on the second floor to visit with men and women who are ill and dying, there is no space, there is no time, between the past and the present.  I am sitting now with people whose names are not Bob, but they are, and will always be, a little piece of him.  There is no difference in how my heart opens to them and how it opened to Bob.  The only difference is now I sit.  I don’t run.

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  1. Arnold Kramer says:

    Emily– I know this story because I lived it with you, but reading it here, again, fills me with sadness for the fear that I felt during those days. But what astounds me about this story and the others that you have collected here is your ability to tell them with so much honesty and so much compassion for the people that you describe as well as for yourself. Each of these moments is an opening through which we can see you and ourselves. Thank you.