My Mother’s Museum

Mark Brazaitis


When my mother died in May of 2022, at age seventy-nine, she left me and my sister her house in Washington, D.C. I visit the house frequently, ostensibly to clean it in preparation to put it on the market. Less a dutiful housekeeper and more a curious visitor to a museum, however, I never fill more than a few of the 13-gallon trash bags I carry with me. I am reluctant to disturb anything when every room is a wing of a compelling exhibition, and each object in it—photo, T-shirt, letter, knickknack, receipt—is a revealing relic of my mother’s life.


The manner in which I tour her house determines the way I read her story. It’s like inhabiting a work of experimental prose: the beginning and end are arbitrary; characters appear unexpectedly; there are frequent and abrupt jumps in time; and the narrative is nonlinear, digressive, and sometimes redundant. Occasionally my mother recedes from the tale, and I move to the forefront: a ten-year-old, a high-schooler, a college graduate, and—in a bathroom mirror—a middle-aged man still coming to terms with his past.


The following is one of my visits to my mother’s museum, her story—and mine—conjured by four objects:


A mini cassette tape labeled “Step People.” (Exhibit location: top drawer of my mother’s dresser.)


I made the tape as a humorous gift for my mother in the summer of 1989, when I was twenty-four, combining audio from my father’s second wedding and my droll (or such was my intention) commentary on the ceremony. For good measure, I mixed in snippets of pop songs, including the Kinks’ “Destroyer,” over which I shouted lyrics I invented. I named the tape “Step People” after my four new relatives—my stepmother and three stepbrothers—whom I equated with figures from a horror film, even if my oldest stepbrother was my good friend.


For my mother, my father’s remarriage was a double injury. It represented a final betrayal by her former best friend, my father’s soon-to-be wife, who’d encouraged her to divorce my father, then, a few months later, started dating him. And it was the culmination of my father’s cruelty toward her, which had begun years earlier, when we lived in East Cleveland, Ohio, and he had an affair with another of her close friends.


Periodically after the divorce, in the spring of 1982, my mother sobbed in her bed late at night. Invariably, I pulled myself from sleep and sat by her as she revisited my father’s transgressions. To comfort her, I mocked my father and his lovers past and present. My goal was to make my mother laugh. If she was laughing, she wasn’t crying.


My mother’s tears ceased before morning. Perhaps she didn’t think she could afford to let her sadness slow her down. She was the tireless, inventive, and accomplished editor and publisher of Hammer and Dolly, the monthly magazine of the Washington Metropolitan Auto Body Association. She’d turned Hammer and Dolly from a 16-page provincial digest into an 80-page glossy with an international readership. The magazine featured news from around the world on everything from computerized estimating systems to new paint technologies to controversies over aftermarket parts, as well as profiles of people in the industry and lighthearted features, including a cover story on the best “whoopee” cars.


Nor did my mother cry when one of her boyfriends was on the scene. Did she not feel the urge to cry, or did she refrain because she was worried that the man she was with would feel diminished by the feelings—negative but powerful—she still had for my father? I never asked her.


My mother would marry my stepfather a few months after my father’s wedding, but this didn’t mean he wouldn’t suddenly exit her life, as he’d done before, when they’d been dating. Meanwhile, I’d graduated from college, would soon leave for Guatemala with the Peace Corps, and wouldn’t be around to soothe and amuse her. I decided she needed something to comfort her in my absence. Whenever she felt blue, she could listen to “Step People.”


Before my father’s wedding, I placed my microcassette recorder in my suitcoat pocket. Immediately before the ceremony, I pushed “record.” I was my father’s best man. Standing with him at the altar, I might as well have been wearing a wiretap. I alternately felt like a righteous informer and a stool pigeon.


Clearly eager to appear learned and worldly in front of what he must have judged a sophisticated crowd—both my father and his bride were reporters; their wedding guests included well-known politicians and journalists—the pastor interspersed Bible verses with wisdom from other religious traditions. And he couldn’t resist sprinkling his service with lines from Kahlil Gibran, the author of The Prophet, whose overquoted words had something in common with greeting card rhymes.


At one point in the service, my stepmother’s middle son read a poem he’d written, its final couplet rhyming “Tom,” my father’s name, and “Mom.” My sister and I, trained by our maternal grandmother to be literary snobs, had to think sad thoughts so we didn’t howl with laughter.


At the reception afterward, the husband of a local news anchor protested that his wife—who was clearly used to getting whatever she wanted immediately—had yet to receive a piece of wedding cake. The cake had been cut only a couple of minutes before, but never mind—her sweet tooth needed instant gratification. He chanted his demand: “My wife needs cake! My wife needs cake! My wife needs cake!”


I captured all of it on tape and spliced highlights, or lowlights, together with music and my oh-so-funny (or snarky or sophomoric) observations.


I wonder how often my mother listened to “Step People.” Because I found the tape in an open box in her dresser’s top drawer, I suspect that she must at least have looked at it long after my father’s wedding and probably long after his death, of kidney cancer, in 2005.


From time to time, I’ve felt guilty about mocking my father’s wedding. I would have been ashamed had he ever listened to “Step People.” But staring at the cassette, titled with my long-ago handwriting, I imagine a sorrowful night in which my mother, alone in her dark bedroom, clicked “play” on her mini tape recorder. If her tears gave way to laughter, I don’t have any regrets.


A photograph of my sister and her then-boyfriend, when they were in college, sitting on an armchair in my mother’s living room. (Exhibit location: a drawer in the vanity of my sister’s old bedroom.)


My sister’s boyfriend broke up with her on Christmas Day, 1992, but only after he’d celebrated the holiday at our house and loaded the trunk of his car with the gifts my family had given him. An hour after her boyfriend drove off to his home in New Jersey, my sister shared her sad news with our father, who was living down the block with his second wife. My father grieved—not for my sister’s loss but for the money he’d spent on the guitar tuner he’d given her now ex. “My God,” he said, “he might as well have robbed me at gunpoint. It would have been more decent.”


What strikes me about the photo, however, aren’t its two subjects but what is visible at its edges. Under the lamp on the table beside the armchair is a collage picture frame with photographs of my silver-haired, tanned stepfather. Above the lamp is another collage of photos, this one featuring a baby, my stepfather’s first grandchild. On the mantel above the fireplace is a 10-by-13 high-school photo of my stepfather’s younger son. Behind my sister’s head, in an open cabinet, is the television my stepfather watched endlessly as he smoked one cigarette after another, the fumes sucked into an electric air filter my mother insisted he use.


I’d forgotten how much of the house, which became my mother’s after she and my father divorced, my stepfather had claimed. Now I remember returning to it at various times after I’d left home for college, for the Peace Corps, and for graduate school, and finding it each time a degree stranger than the house I’d felt most comfortable in, which wasn’t when my father lived in it but in the months immediately after he (and his temper and his obsession with tidiness) left.


My stepfather, who was then my mother’s boyfriend, moved into my mother’s house at the beginning of my junior year in high school. In the aftermath of a divorce, it isn’t uncommon for children to live with the stranger who is their parent’s new partner. By extension, we children of divorce live with the stranger’s family and friends, their habits and hobbies, the foods they like, the entertainment they entertain themselves with. Do most of us grow comfortable with the arrangement? I never did. The longer my stepfather lived in my mother’s house, the more it felt to me like a bed-and-breakfast whose walls, weirdly, held a few photos of me, my sister, and my mother.


After twenty years, my mother divorced my stepfather. But even now, more than a decade after he last stepped foot in the house, I find traces of him: golf tees engraved with the name of the insurance company he worked for; videotapes of his favorite comedians; a pennant from a professional football team he liked. Although I call my stepfather every Christmas and faithfully send birthday cards, I’ve never stopped thinking of him as an interloper. After my father’s exile, I was, briefly, the king of my mother’s house. I’d thought this was the way it was supposed to be; I was next in the line of succession, after all.


If I have more perspective on my Oedipal ambitions now, I am no less interested in reclaiming my territory. Anything of my stepfather’s I come across goes straight into one of the trash bags I’m carrying. Discarded item by discarded item, I begin to restore my mother’s house to the place I felt most comfortable, the place I believed was most mine, the place I would most call home.


A box full of empty boxes. (Exhibit location: the attic.)


It’s a metaphor, I decide. But of what?


Do the dozen small boxes, each large enough to hold a necklace or a tie, represent the gifts we never gave each other?

What gift would I have wanted from my parents?


When I was growing up, they gave me model airplane kits, books about dinosaurs, a baseball glove. Later: a Bruce Springsteen album, a black sweater, War and Peace in the original Russian. (A lazy Russophile, I read no more than a page.) But if I could go back in time, to when I was ten or twelve or fifteen, and ask my parents for a gift, I’d wish for something immaterial.


It wouldn’t be that they remain married, which would be to wish for both the impossible and the undesirable. They’d had two wedding ceremonies, one Catholic, one Protestant, in order to appease their Montague-and-Capulet parents, who’d deigned to attend only the ceremony they preferred. A more mature and compatible couple might have overcome this inauspicious start, but my parents’ marriage soon became strained, contentious, and, most damaging, adulterous. It needed to end.


If I wished that my parents had never married, I wouldn’t be wishing myself out of existence. I’d been conceived two months before they exchanged vows. But as resilient and tough as my mother could be, she would have found single-parenting challenging, especially because my father would have been, at best, a reluctant contributor to my welfare, stingy with his time and his money. And they wouldn’t have had my sister.


No, the gifts I wish they’d given me are the gifts I wish they’d given each other.


I wish my mother had given my father the gift of her forgiveness. From the start, he was an unsuitable partner, expected to live up to Father Knows Best standards that his own father, an alcoholic who abandoned his family when my father was eight, never came close to meeting. Tormented by his Catholicism, which sanctified sex only if procreation was its aim, my father found sin tempting not only for its pleasures but for the middle finger it waved in the faces of oppressive authorities. Early in his marriage, my father and one of his lovers received a citation for public indecency. My father considered it a kind of medal—proof that he’d defied God, the Catholic Church, and the law. When he told me the story years later, he seemed unconcerned about the only person his behavior had actually hurt—my mother—who’d found the citation in his desk drawer.


If my mother had forgiven my father, she would have freed herself from the debilitating anger and resentment she felt toward him. But even in the months before her death, she belittled his character and blasted his failures as a husband and father. She’d forgiven him nothing.


From my father, I would have wanted the gift of clarity and compassion—clarity about how he’d made my mother miserable and compassion for her pain. Had he acknowledged my mother’s sorrow and told her he was sorry to see her suffer, he might have lessened the bitterness in their relationship, thereby liberating me from my role as my mother’s confidante and consigliere—and his secret critic and lampoonist.


What gifts would my parents have wanted from me?


My mother, at her angriest and most wounded, might have wanted even more of my loyalty—perhaps my outright refusal to have anything to do with my father.


My father, I suspect, would have liked me to be less sensitive. If I’d been less attentive to my mother’s needs (or neediness, as he might have put it), I would have been more accepting of his relationships, particularly with his second wife. For a long time, I saw her only as my mother did, as someone deserving scorn.


What gift would I have given myself if I could reach across the years and place it in my teenage hands? The equanimity to accept my parents’ flaws, including their failure to temper the rancor in their relationship, and the wisdom to realize I had no power to make either of them happy—and no obligation to.


Of course, to gain such equanimity and wisdom, I needed to have lived the years I’ve lived. I imagine myself, as in a science fiction novel, returning to the time of my parents’ divorce. Do my parents notice I’m a fifty-six-year-old man with gray hair and spider-web-thin lines at the corners of my eyes? Am I able to retain my transcendent tranquility, or do I become, again, the boy I’d been, caught in the tempest of the never-ending end of my parents’ marriage?


Even now, I would have nothing more to offer than a plea—Be kind to each other, please—which is what I wanted to say a thousand times but never did.


A Rolex watch. (Exhibit location: a bottom drawer in the vanity in my mother’s dressing room.)


I’ve always thought of Rolexes in the same category as Ferraris: showpieces beyond the means of most mortals. Evidently, the watch wasn’t beyond my mother’s means, although it was difficult to determine what her means were. She was open about much of her life but deeply secretive about money. My sister and I watched her spend it sometimes in what we considered frivolous ways—she bought more Beanie Babies than should have been legally permitted, for example—and we braced ourselves for the day she would confess to bankruptcy.


I don’t remember my mother buying a Rolex. I think I would have. Although she was circumspect about her money, she was ostentatious about her purchases. Her Beanie Babies occupied half of the shelves in her house. Her Diane Freis dresses filled an entire closet. She bought enough books on tape to listen to John Grisham, Stephen King, and Anne Rivers Siddons over the course of three lifetimes.


Did my mother inherit the Rolex from her mother? When my grandfather wasn’t arguing with my grandmother, he worshipped her. Perhaps the watch had been one of the few extravagant gifts he’d bought her. Having survived the Great Depression and worked his way into the middle class, he was a devout believer in the American Dream. A Rolex would have been proof that he’d achieved it.


I’ve never imagined owning a Rolex. I’ve lost enough Timexes to wonder if I should own a watch at all. But even if it’s a woman’s watch, too small for my wrist, it’s mine now. Therefore, I’ll need to revise my idea of who I am: poet, former Peace Corps volunteer, teacher, environmentalist, and…Rolex owner! The latter puts me in the company of such luminaries as tennis star Roger Federer and jazz singer Diana Krall.


The Rolex has stopped ticking, but HNP Jewelry and Watch Repair is less than a mile from my mother’s house, conveniently tucked in the basement of Rodman’s, which sells everything from Greek wine to organic dog treats to Tylenol. HNP is owned and operated by an older Asian couple, and when I hand the watch to Corey, a soft-spoken man with a subtle wit, he smiles and says he’ll have the battery replaced in ten minutes.


As I’m wandering the aisles, I have a sweet fantasy of Corey returning my watch and, after an appreciative whistle, telling me it’s worth $20,000.


When I return to his counter, he says, “You’re the man with the Rolex?”


I nod as modestly as I can.


He retrieves it from his worktable and gives me a sly smile. “You know it’s a fake, right?”


“It is?” Surprisingly, my voice doesn’t rise in plaintive disappointment. I’ve prepared for this possibility. What’s too good to be true usually is. I ask, “How do you know?”


“From what’s inside it.”


Instead of platinum springs and wheels—or whatever the inner components of a Rolex are—I imagine aluminum and plastic.

The new battery is $25. I wonder if the watch is worth half as much.


“More fake Rolexes than real,” Corey says. His shrug suggests this is true of so much in our imitation world.


Driving back to my mother’s house, I wonder if Bob, one of my mother’s former boyfriends, gave her the “Rolex.” It was Bob, after all, who, as he asked her to marry him, presented her with a ring made of cubic zirconia. He claimed the ring was diamond, but, suspicious, my mother brought it to Tony Bonanno, a famously discerning jeweler with a workshop in the Maryland suburbs. In his gravely, Godfather voice, Bonanno told my mother, “It may be worth $3, but I wouldn’t give you a dollar for it.”


When my mother confronted Bob about the ring’s inauthenticity, he tried to reframe its value by telling her it was “made in space.”


When my mother shared this information with Tony Bonanno, the jeweler said, “Lady, I think your boyfriend was made in space.”


In my mother’s last conversation with Bob, she told him, “Either you’re lying or you’re stupid. Either way, you’re out of here.”


I helped Bob load his belongings into the back of his truck before he drove off. His last words to me were: “Go out with your hair on fire.” To this day, I have no idea what he meant.


In later year, stories of “Diamond Bob” never failed to draw a laugh from people, even from my mother, who, despite her general good nature, was sensitive about certain portions of her biography. My grandfather found special delight in “Diamond Bob” stories, perhaps because he was susceptible to conmen.


My grandfather believed not only in the American Dream but in its accelerated version. He made several investments with acquaintances who promised fast and fantastic returns. One involved a self-healing asphalt. With the technology, my grandfather told me enthusiastically, potholes would become extinct. Potholes defied predictions of their demise, and my grandfather lost $5,000.


To the end of his life, he hoped to cash in. Even as he slid into dementia, he mailed off checks to sponsors of sweepstakes, one of which, American Family Publishers, had a prominent (and seemingly trustworthy) spokesman, Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson’s chuckling sidekick on The Tonight Show. My grandfather was convinced that McMahon would soon be knocking on his door, million-dollar check in hand. “But don’t tell your grandmother,” he said to me. “I want it to be a surprise.”


I wonder if my grandfather received the “Rolex” as part of “winning” a sweepstakes. My grandmother would have known it was fake. But, respecting his dignity, she would have kept this insight to herself.


On my drive back to my house in Morgantown, West Virginia, I think about giving the “Rolex” to my younger daughter, who is twenty and about to leave for a junior-year-abroad semester in Italy. I picture the delight on her face as I hand her what I’ll allow her to believe is the genuine article. I imagine my pleasure at being the author of her joy. How long would I allow her to keep her illusion? Tony Bonanno is dead. He can’t tell her that her father was made in space.


I don’t lie to my daughter, but she wants the watch anyway. She’ll have fun pretending it’s authentic, she says.


I hand it to her. She places it on her wrist. I’m disappointed: It doesn’t fit perfectly. But: “Good enough,” she says, and, laughing, goes to look at herself in the mirror.


Excuses for My Disability

Miriam McEwen

This is the part where I make a call to determine my eligibility for a new power wheelchair. Excuse me. My phone is breaking up. Yes. This is the part where I drive. Yes. In my blue bus. This is the name we have for my wheelchair-accessible vehicle. Yes, really. I drive for an hour to reach this appointment with an apologetic-looking doctor. I am late. I am sorry. Excuse me, the doctor’s gray-gold eyes seem to say, but you are late. I nod. This is the part where the doctor sighs and takes me into his office despite my lateness. This is the part where he settles into his creaky office chair and says, “Yes. What seems to be the trouble?” And I say, “My wheelchair. It’s breaking. It’s seven years old. I need a new one. I’m eligible.” I show the doctor how the metal parts which hold my foot pedals on have been inexplicably crushed. This part right here is why my foot pedals dangle like that. The doctor nods. I show him how the wheelchair’s driving console keeps flashing green and red and yellow. I don’t know why. But this is the part where I confess I’ve had the wheelchair out in the rain quite a lot. The doctor’s gray-gold eyes are surprised, seeming to say, Excuse me, but you are in a power wheelchair, so small wonder the wheelchair is breaking. No. I mean—yes. But I like the rain too much not to be out in it. “The wheelchair is seven years old,” I say again. This is the part where the doctor asks if I believe I will always be disabled. “What?” I say. “Yes, yeah.” No, somehow, too. But I’m eligible.


On Love and Duty

Joyce Dehli


“Will you help me?” Michael whispered in my ear as plates of his mother’s rhubarb pie were passed around the table.


Michael had asked my partner Grace and me to join his family’s brunch one late-summer Sunday in 1995. Before others took seats, he’d motioned for us to sit on either side of him. I understood: we were his sentinels. As it turned out, he didn’t need our protection. Michael’s family had gathered for him, but they mostly left him alone. His three brothers ribbed each other incessantly, occasionally enfolding their mother into their banter. They hadn’t seen Michael since his AIDS diagnosis, though they lived only thirty minutes away, near the farm where they’d been boys together. Michael’s two sisters and a few friends cared for him.


Michael was really Grace’s friend. A decade earlier, they’d gotten sober together as part of a tight group of gay and lesbian AA friends. They were all in their early twenties then, except for Michael who was about ten years older. By the time I met Grace a few years later, her circles were widening. Still, her core group stayed tight, and I saw Michael at potlucks and picnics. We talked a little. In their boisterous group, he was the shy one. His hair was summer wheat, his eyes sky blue. I liked his field-worthy jeans and checkered, short-sleeve shirts buttoned over white tees. He reminded me of the farmers on organic cereal boxes, happy amid their grains. He tolerated discos but adored country line dancing. If he could, he would have traded his graphic-design job for tending gardens, hands in soil, and fresh blooms always in the offing. That’s all I knew. Grace was our only link; I had my own friends.


Things changed when Jonathan, the youngest of their sobriety group, died from AIDS. He was the one they’d tried to protect, the dashing and needy one who, in his late teens, had fled his small hometown in northeastern Wisconsin for Madison. Before long, his dreams of a writerly life with worldly men took him to Chicago, but he kept his ties to Grace and Michael. After Jonathan’s death, his parents whisked his body back to the town he’d despised and to a church that prayed he would be forgiven for the life he had lived. His friends drove two hours to his funeral. They did it for Jonathan, though they knew the ceremony would be brutal. I went along. On the ride home, our car overflowed with stories, hilarious and tender, of the man they loved. Michael didn’t talk much. We didn’t know then, but he was already sick. HIV had become AIDS.


One Sunday, not a year later, Michael called our house in a panic. He said his brain wasn’t right; it switched off and on, off and on, froze up and split in pain. Grace and I took him to the emergency room. After hours of tests and waiting, a doctor said he’d had a series of ministrokes called TIAs, or transient ischemic attacks. Blood flow to his brain had sputtered for a spell. AIDS was to blame, the doctor confirmed. He sent Michael home, warning him to expect more attacks.


Michael called us regularly to take him to the ER, usually on weekends. Looking back, I think he was being considerate of our time, knowing we worked long hours during the week. He contained his terrors until they burst on weekends. Most of his other friends—gay men and an ex-boyfriend with whom he still lived—were exhausted by the needs of those dying around them. They were devastated by relentless loss. Some turned away from Michael. Grace loved Michael like an older brother, but she sometimes grew annoyed when he called. Still, she remained steadfast. Unlike Grace, I could keep my distance. I wasn’t bound to Michael in the same way. I sometimes wondered: what is my duty here?


In the decades that followed, I asked myself that question often—when dying friends lingered in illness and when cancer took my dad, slowly and painfully, during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. What was my duty, and could I bear it? Could I watch what dying inflicts on a human body? Could I bear the grief that precedes death, gathering into itself like darkness before a storm? Could I bear knowing that whatever care I gave, it couldn’t be enough? And when I wanted to flee, would I stay or turn away?


As Michael’s circle shrank, his anxiety swelled. The sicker he looked, the clearer it became to everyone: this man had AIDS. Nobody took open seats near us in the ER waiting room. If he’d wanted, Michael could have lived most of his life passing as straight. But as he grew gaunt and weak, he was seen as a man with AIDS. And, given that this was the mid-1990s, people assumed he was gay.


He wouldn’t have hidden if he could. When Michael got sober, he committed to being himself in the world. Grace lived that way too, but not me. Although I was generally out, I excelled at managing what people knew about me: more truth for some, less truth for others. I calculated the risks of being out against the pain of hiding. Standing beside Michael, I felt vulnerable to derision. I didn’t always speak up for him.


Once, two white-coated ER residents ridiculed Michael for being scared. As he trembled in a gown on the edge of a hospital bed, they—a woman and a man—stood several feet away, practically shouting their questions: “What year is this?” “Who is the president?” When Michael answered incorrectly, the woman laughed at him. The man accused Michael of seeking attention. Clearly, they wanted Michael to go away. Grace and I were outraged, but we said nothing. Perhaps Grace thought it was better for Michael if we didn’t complain. We didn’t want him to get kicked out. But maybe I also feared their disdain for Michael would extend to me. I’d speak up today, but I knew less of life then.


Michael’s regular doctor said he could stay home as long as he had people caring for him. A few friends set a schedule and divided tasks, until Michael’s ex-boyfriend-turned-landlord kicked him out. He said he couldn’t watch another death. That’s when Michael’s younger sister took him in. She lived alone in a small house nearby and delivered mail in the mornings. His older sister flew in from L.A. and stayed for weeks. Before long, the sisters proposed the family brunch. The family hadn’t gathered in a long time.


By then, Michael looked twice his age of forty-three—all bones, covered by bruised and mottled skin, with wispy patches of hair on his head. If his mother and brothers were shocked to see him, they didn’t show it. The brothers came in with fists jammed in their jean pockets. They didn’t hug Michael or even touch him. All morning, the sisters were up and down from their dining-room chairs, bringing out an egg-bake and plates of cinnamon rolls to the table, filling coffee cups, and clearing leftovers for pie. The brothers talked of the growing season and how farming had changed in the years since their father’s death. Mostly they joked, drawing out their mother’s laughter to the point that she had coughing fits. One of her lungs had been removed for cancer, and now the other had it. The family had known loss and soon would know more.


Michael spoke little and ate less. Now and then, he smiled, though seemingly not about anything in particular. His eyes held one person, then another. Grace jumped into family stories, asked questions, and laughed appreciatively. I could not. I was stunned, then furious that nobody asked Michael about himself. Nobody mentioned his illness. They knew he had AIDS, just as they knew he was gay—another secret that wasn’t a secret. Yet, his brothers barely glanced his way.


I was quick to judge Michael’s brothers as cowards. Quick to assume that what Michael needed from them were words. I was certain Michael needed to hear that his family knew him, loved him, and could bear his illness with him. Now, in the second half of my life, I wonder if I was wrong. Maybe Michael didn’t need words as much as he needed his family’s presence. His brothers came as close as they dared at the Sunday brunch. And he welcomed them, though with Grace and me and his sisters at his side. Michael didn’t speak the words: gay, AIDS, dying. He put aside radical honesty in order to receive his brothers’ love as offered. This was more than Jonathan got, and maybe it was enough for Michael. I don’t know. It wouldn’t be enough for me.


Much is expected of those who love the dying, and those expectations are often enough to scare a person away. But my role with Michael seemed limited and clear. At the brunch, I knew my place: the loyal sentinel, bound not by love but by duty. I fumed, but I kept quiet and refused my slice of pie.


When Michael whispered—“Will you help me?”—I was glad for a reason to leave the table. He clutched his cane and gave me his arm. As we shuffled down the hallway, the table talk faded. I expected he wanted to nap.


“I need to go to the bathroom,” he said.


All of my anger at his brothers turned into fear for me. I didn’t want to be afraid, but I was.


AIDS deaths peaked in the United States that year. Within several months, the FDA would approve antiretroviral drugs that would turn AIDS into a manageable, if chronic, disease for many people. But for Michael, like those before him, the diagnosis was a death sentence. We had brochures from the local AIDS Support Network to guide our caregiving since we didn’t have the Internet then. Touching was okay. We knew AIDS was transmitted through blood and semen, as well as vaginal fluids, but not saliva, sweat, or urine. But what if Michael had a cut, an open wound? He had thin skin and bouts of incontinence. When his sisters cleaned him, they wore gloves. Nobody was completely sure how careful to be. I tended toward caution and focused on doing chores and running errands for Michael, not bodily care. Mostly, he and I talked, often about gardening. Grace did more. I held back not only because I was afraid of AIDS. I was afraid to watch a person die. It was my first time.


I opened the bathroom door, and we squeezed inside. Toothpaste and brushes, soap, rubbing alcohol, and creams crowded a shelf above the sink. I guided Michael to a narrow space between the toilet and the tub.


“I need you to help me,” he said.


“Okay, with what?”


“Everything,” he said. He leaned heavily toward me, exhausted.


Why me? That was my first thought. I heard his brothers’ laughter, those men who had grown up with him and had bodies like his. Why not them? Why not the mother who gave birth to him? His sisters? Even Grace? Why did Michael ask me? How did I get here? 


“Okay, so you just need to pee, right?” I asked.


He nodded. I undid his belt, unzipped his fly, let his pants drop to his ankles, and pulled down his underwear.


“Okay,” I said again. But I knew there was more to do. Michael wasn’t steady, and I didn’t want to get wet. What if there was blood in his urine? I wondered if doctors were absolutely sure urine didn’t transmit HIV. If I got AIDS, Grace would be there for me, but not my family—I felt sure of that then, but I didn’t really know. It would be just Grace and me and, as it was with Michael, a few friends. The thought of dying, as Michael was dying, terrified me.


It’s strange how many thoughts can blaze through a mind in a second or two, leaving—one hopes—no outward sign. I did what I needed to do. I held Michael’s penis, aimed at the bowl, shook off the last few drops, and wiped him.


“Thank you,” he said.


The brunch ended soon afterward, and I don’t think his mother or brothers saw him again until his funeral several weeks later. In the weeks between, AIDS-related dementia took over Michael’s mind, slowly at first, then swiftly. When Grace and I came for our shifts during the week, or just to say hello, Michael was always in bed. He’d lost language and could no longer speak with words. But I felt sure we communicated even toward the end.


One rainy day, Grace and I found Michael agitated, rustling on his bed with gym shorts over his diapers. He was as small as a skinny boy, his body was withered and worn.


It was Grace’s idea to put something on the turntable. She thumbed through the dozen or so albums on a shelf, pulled one out, and dropped the needle. She nodded at me and smiled at Michael.


“If I should stay …”  


Michael stopped moving. Grace turned up the volume until Whitney Houston’s voice swelled through the room, through the whole damn house. Grace and I sang along to Michael: “And I will always love you / I will always love you…”


Ardent and loud, we kept singing. I fumbled the lyrics until we returned to the chorus, then I belted it, and Grace did too. “I will always love you.” We twirled at the foot of Michael’s bed. We drew our hands to our hearts, then threw our arms out to him. He flung his arms toward us with glee. His eyes shone. His smile was radiant. His sounds merged with our song. We hugged him, enfolding him, all the while singing. We were happy. I believe we were all happy in that moment.


Grace had to return to work, but I stayed a little longer. I sat on the bed beside Michael, who was half-raised against pillows. I reached for his hand, surprised to feel content. Michael curled onto his side and nudged his head onto my thigh, where he fell asleep.


I wondered then, as I still do, why Michael let me near in his dying days. It’s true that he needed help and I was there. Still, he kept plenty of people out. Maybe his trust in Grace extended to me. Maybe he’d decided I was basically kind. And with me, the stakes weren’t so high. Not like they were with the people he loved, the people he wasn’t sure would come, would stay. It’s the closest ones who have the power to hurt you most. He knew that, and maybe that was reason enough.


I gave Michael so little, and sometimes not enough. At times, he asked more of me than I thought I could bear. That was a gift, but one I didn’t appreciate until years later when friends and my father were dying. Every time, I felt afraid. Every time, a voice told me to run. Still, I showed up. I stayed. I made mistakes. Too often, I said the wrong thing. By the time my father died, I knew that while words matter, you can’t say everything at the end. You don’t have to.


I went to my friends and my father out of love. But love wasn’t what drew me to Michael, and love wasn’t why I stayed through his illness. He might have been at the edge of my circle, but he was there. I went to him as I go to my garden: duty-bound to tend what is in my backyard. That’s how I imagine Michael tended his garden, from shoots through blooms through winter beds at rest. Maybe that is what he and I were doing from the start—tending each other—from those early talks at parties, through the days of his illness, to the end when silence replaced words. I think that’s right. I wonder if Michael knew how much I grew, tended by him.


Sometimes love follows duty. And, as every gardener knows, tending offers its own rewards: the rhythmic turning of soil, pressing seeds, pulling weeds. You pray for sun one day and rain the next, as if you had a say in what lives and what dies.