Friday, May 02, 2008

The Drugs Don't Work

“Who would want to take this on?” Jon shrugged as if it were a foregone conclusion that the idea of a girl wanting to date him was absurd.

“You are being completely selfish.”

Our friends from the bar gasped at me. How dare I talk to the guy with cancer that way?

“No, you are. Just ‘cause you think you know your expiration date. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow.”

Jon had been given a six-month diagnosis. Five years before.

The Verve’s “The Drugs Don’t Work” was on the stereo. A song about watching a beloved friend die. I gracelessly forwarded to the next song.

“I mean I’d rather be with a great guy like you for six weeks than with some schmuck for sixty years.” I’d meant it as a hypothetical in the moment. And it was true. All of it. He was being selfish not sharing himself with someone. He was one of the most extraordinary men I knew. And I did want to be with someone great. Like him. But him?

I met Jon a year earlier when my dot com went bust and I started waiting tables with all the other over-educated who got hit in the post 9-11 upheaval. I thought working at the local Irish pub would give me – newly single – a safe place to hang out and meet people. Jon was a regular. He wasn’t hot, or tall, or even age-appropriate. He was just always there with his caustic wit at the end of the bar. I thought it was odd that someone so young could spend all his days at a bar but I didn’t wonder why.

Jon organized the music for the pub and he and his brothers had a band that would play on our small stage from time to time. My favorite though was Sunday afternoons. Jon would bring a song book and his acoustic and we’d all loll around on the back patio of the bar picking songs for him to play and us to sing.

At some point, I realized he was brilliant. One of the most intelligent people I’d ever met. It must have been around then that he made a song mine. “There She Goes” by the La's. I’d ask him to sing it and he always did, his bright tenor unfailingly hitting the chorus high notes.

It must have been not long after that that I’d found out. Wendy, the bartender, was on a break with me in the back alley.

“I’m so relieved to hear his new treatment’s going well. Think they’re onto something.”

“Whose treatment?”

“Jon’s cancer.” She must have seen the stricken look on my face. “You didn’t know? Everyone knows. It’s not like it’s a secret.” His long days at the bar made sense.

She finished her cigarette and went back in. I bent double and hugged my knees. How could this amazing man have cancer? How could this friend of mine be dying? Why did this news hurt so much? I realized then that I loved him. I just didn’t know how. I mean, he was fifteen years my senior. Shorter than me. A bit pudgy. Nothing I said I was looking for in a mate. So maybe it wasn’t romantic love. But it wasn’t like an older brother either. I stared at the pavement and ached.

Over the next year we were part of the same circle. I wanted to be close to him but I thought he’d laugh at me – just a silly girl. When I had an art gallery opening, he charged in, swept over my pieces with one glance, pointed at one and handed me his credit card. “You can bring it and the card to me later at the pub.” And he was gone again. At the time, I think that was as much love as he could allow himself.

I made my decision to move to LA and a few nights before my departure, Jon and a few friends from the bar were sitting around my packed-up living room. And there he sat, denying wanting any more love in his life than he already had. It was clear that the opposite was true but he would never admit it. I packed my u-Haul and left.

In LA I wrote my first screenplay about him. It was trite and melodramatic. About an artist who finally opens himself to love although he’s dying. Home on my first visit, I found Jon in the bar and told him about it. I felt silly offering him this tribute. He seemed unsure of how to take it. I promised to let him read it but I never sent it. I couldn’t bear to disappoint him with my first thin effort. I didn’t know what to say about the fact that in my script, his character died.

The years went by and Jon had ups and downs but more or less kept up his fight. He started an annual benefit concert at the bar for cancer research. I couldn’t afford a plane ticket but I promised to come next year.

He and his brothers recorded and album called “The Big C” about his experience living with cancer. Not satisfied with that, he created an in-home editing suite and made a documentary about people dealing with cancer called “The Cancer Journey.” Proceeds from both went to cancer research.

I stopped going home so much as more of my family moved away. My email contact with Jon was spotty at best. I always wanted to matter to him more than I did. I was always scared somewhere he’d say “Why does this girl keep writing me? Why does she think we’re such good friends?” I didn’t want to bother him.

Last month I went home to help my mom pack her house up for sale. I got a few hours’ break from the boxes to go see Jon. He wasn’t well enough to meet me at the bar. Something about a treatment he’d had that morning. So I went to his house.

He was on permanent oxygen assist now. But the sores he’d had on my last visit had healed and his eyes were bright and his hair thick and brown. I told him he looked good. He did.

“Hair. It’s like some sick consolation prize with cancer,” he quipped. He told me that it was in his lungs and his brain now.

He went to his room for pills and I looked around. Pictures of him when he was young, holding a baby nephew, smiling with his brothers – never with a woman, nothing romantic. It dawned on me I never knew if he’d had a great love. A marriage. Kids. Had be been left? Anything. I knew so little. He shuffled back into the room.

“Snooping around on me, eh?”

I wanted to know everything.

“Jon, is there anyone, you know, here with you?”

He talked about his brother across town and otherwise evaded the question. It ate at me that no one was there with him full-time taking care of him. We kept chatting about our lives.

After half an hour he sighed.

“Time for me to go?”

He nodded wearily. “I’m sorry.”

“I’ll be back in September for my cousin’s wedding. I’ll see you then… if not before.”

He nodded and opened his arms to hug me.

I squeezed him as hard as I dared. “I love you, Jon.” I still didn’t know what it meant but I’d said it.

“I love you too.”

I cried all the way back to my mom’s house.

It gnawed at me that he was alone. I felt a pang in my heart that I couldn’t just let this be. I got home and started working it out: Would he be OK with my dog in the house too? What about my cat? My school year was almost over and I could finish teaching and go spend the summer with him and after that we’d see. My professional life wasn’t working anyway so what was I really giving up? I thought all these things but was afraid to tell him. What if he rejected me? What if he didn’t want help and I was just being over-dramatic? What if I was just running away from my own failure? Was that still altruistic? Did I just have a Florence Nightingale fixation? What if taking care of someone dying of cancer was really hard?

For two weeks I tried to work all this out on my own and I finally gave up. I emailed Jon. I said I knew it was a crazy idea but I hated the thought of him alone and I didn’t know if me helping him was a terrible idea nor did I know how to work out all the logistics but there were my thoughts and he was welcome to them.

A day passed. Then: an email that he was trying to digest everything I said. I said I knew it was a crazy idea and not to worry. I comforted myself by talking to my friend Kim. She had just lost a friend to cancer and she said to help someone you care about is never crazy.

He emailed me back that he’d kept the art piece of mine in his room. It was a black and white photo of a rock jetty in Ireland reaching out to an empty, bright sea. He told me it gave him peace to look at it.

The next day another email came. He said he was scared half to death by the whole thing. The idea of opening himself up to another person. Being vulnerable. And he was ready. Maybe, he suggested, I could come and just hang out with him for a week or two and we’d see how things went. That let us both off the hook.

I wrote back that I was leaving town for the weekend but I couldn’t wait to talk more about it with him on Monday.

The next morning Bridget, the pub manager, called. My heart thudded heavy. My ears rang and I missed most of the details. Just that he’d passed away in the night.

It was Coachella Music Festival weekend and there were plans. I hung up, cried for a while and we went to the concert. That evening, the Verve came on for their set. When they hit the opening chords of “The Drugs Don’t Work” I sobbed and thanked goodness it was dark already. A few verses in I suddenly remembered “There She Goes” and I could only hear Jon’s voice singing it to me. What would I do the next time I heard it? I clamped my hand over my mouth and sank to the grass in the swaying crowd.

I wept for the loss of a friend and the loss of what that time would have been like. It was like I was finally going to get to know someone I’d made up in my writing and my mind forever - this amazing, beautiful man. I cried for the five years we’d known each other that could have been so much more than the six weeks I’d scolded him with before I moved to LA. I still don’t understand if it was romantic or platonic love. It was just love. Is.

As I sat crouched on the dark grass listening to the Verve, something else hit me. His unwillingness to let love in was what I’d harassed him for that night before I left. His last message to me was that he was finally willing to be open, as much as it scared him, he was ready. Maybe that was the last thing his soul needed to do here.

It seems Jon had gone to the pub after he’d finished emailing. It was the first time in a while he’d been up for it and no doubt everyone was glad to see him. He’d had a few beers with the crew there. Early in the evening, he walked out to his car in the alley and had a seizure. Someone found him and called the paramedics but they were never able to revive him. He died in the hospital that night.

The thought of spending a few weeks with him next month never quite had seemed real to me. Now it fades to another scene in a script. I am grateful that he went quickly and painlessly after being surrounded by friends who love him. I am so thankful I said ‘I love you’ while I had the chance. I am so honored that his life touched mine for a while. I am so sorry that I didn’t give more.

Miss you, Jon.

love, h

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Blogger Kid Sis said...

I'm sorry sweetie.

12:50 AM  

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