Saturday, 30 July 2016

Flickers: Henry, AIDS, and Aiding

My Scottie lamp is flickering beside me, in need again of a switch upgrade. The lamp features a brass mother dog, her beard nicely combed, her body squished impossibly into a basket brimming with pups. I was smitten when I saw it, stunned that I could afford it; I have glanced at it happily thousands of times since, always on some level reminded of the day it came into my possession, the life I was living then, and the people I knew and loved. In a way that no other object does, this friendly-looking little lamp, with all its kitsch and charm, represents a period of my life and a dear companion, and all the adventure and sorrow those times bestowed.

I picked up this lamp with my friend Henry at a store in Toronto's Kensington Market sometime around 1979, for eleven dollars. The store was called Courage My Love, of a sort common now but then unique in my experience, with quirky and comely clothes and knicknacks filling all available space. I bought a couple of old tuxedo pants, as well, the ones with the narrow satin stripe up the side, black on black. I’m not sure what my look was exactly, in those days—there are few photos of me. But I do remember being thrilled with those pants, the most handsome clothes I had ever touched.

Henry introduced me to the store, as he did many things. I tried to persuade him to get a pair of tuxedo pants for himself, but his own look was very well established, and he shook his head mutely and walked away.

They were strange and wonderful times, those two short years in Toronto. I worked in a gay diner, washing dishes and bantering with the other employees. I was one of three women; the rest was all dark moustaches and well-defined baskets, or at least, that’s the way you would picture it if you only heard the talk. It was actually a teeming narrow world of high hopes and healthy hormones, creative aspirations and silent spiritual quests, terrible puns, wounded feelings, and camaraderie.

 I was back in Toronto this month for the first time in several years—the first time, I believe, since my best friend from those diner days lost his life to AIDS, and I went to Casey House to mourn.

When Henry and I met, he was the terse, surly, very efficient cook in whose kitchen I worked washing up. I was not a great dishwasher, but I tried hard to do the job well, I worked as fast as I could in that busy place, and I was friendly with the waiters who hurried back in anxiety for glasses, plates, cups, and cutlery. In the other half of the kitchen Henry was swiftly and masterfully assembling the Paris Burger, the Hawaiian Burger,  the New York Burger, the spinach salads and  other savoury delights our diner was famous for. He was a looker, our Henry, with his smokey eyes, his well-shaped brown locks dropping across his forehead, and his white apron folded neatly around his waist. (I went more for the long dangling shapeless look in aprons, myself.)


The other staff liked Henry a lot, as I did, but I was the only one, perhaps because of my privileged position in his domain, who ever really got to know him. First in his kitchen habits, his singsong greeting when he answered the phone, his selfless sacrifice of staying with me to wash the mountain of pots at the end of the night and soon, too, in five AM runs to the doughnut shop, subsequent excursions to pick up Choo Choo from his apartment, and the long pre-dawn walks together to my shared warehouse digs at Queen and Bathurst. When we visited on our days off, we might hang around his place while he pointed out outrages reported in Der Spiegel or one of the gay magazines. Or we would go for endless walks all around downtown Toronto, ride the subways, go to demonstrations ... I know we sat still sometimes, but I don’t remember that so much. Always on the move, always soaking up everything around us, always utterly alive. Whether happy, angry, or indifferent, we had our radar dishes open to the universe, and responded to every signal.

Henry was an amazing guy. At least, he amazed me. I made a lot of friends while I was in Toronto, but lovely as those friendships were they were of the emphemera; only Henry hung in, saw me as life-long important, became family. When I moved back to Vancouver, as I had always intended to do, I tried to get him to come, and he forever hoped to, but he never did. Over the subsequent decades he wrote long, long letters, diatribes against bad policies and idiots, or filled with talk about his life, his lover, his family, his art. He taught himself papier maché and a primitive painting style that was simple and painful and beautiful, covering topics from a deer lifting its head to listen, to bloody barbed wire against snow. Some of his art incorporated tubes, needles, anti-bacterial soap packages—but I am getting ahead of myself.

Henry was gay first, Swiss second, and Canadian to the core. He left his country because he was so pissed off at it, at enforced military duty, for one thing. He wanted a place where he could have a life more in keeping with his own beliefs. He tried Israel for a while. That didn’t work out. So he came to Canada. Toronto, with its large gay population and densely urban life, seems to have been his best fitting habitat. Although he always sought out the natural areas amongst the concrete—he was the first to introduce me to urban raccoons, and the floods of earthworms that arise to stalk the earth when no one is awake, and he knew his way through every ravine and parkland for miles around—I don’t think his restless nature, at least in the early days, would have been content if taken too far from the gritty place. Toronto was his home. But he was always standing back a few steps, looking at it from the perspective of a life lived in other places, in other ways, from the perspective, too, of knowing how our societies ought to be, but never were.

In that setting, we became fast friends.

It was hard though, to remain as we were. He wanted to be with me, and I wanted to be with him, but I believed that I had strong roots in Vancouver and that I belonged here. I see now that what I thought I had here was already slowly vanishing, but new connections were made, and Vancouver truly is my home now. Part of me wishes I had foreseen those endings before coming back to them. That I had stayed instead with Henry. I didn't feel okay about living so far apart. And then he died.

I have never recovered from the loss of Henry. It is a wound that moves beneath the flesh, like an underground channel, filled with love and sorrow and regret and gratitude, ever-replenishing, never empty, never still.

Yet another part of me knows that for all that I love Toronto, and wanted to be with, and eventually to care for Henry, my own natural habitat is here. Where I can look out my window and see mountains, not skyscrapers (well, okay, they’re there, too, but I can ignore them), where there is still a little elbow room, where it is a simple matter to get to meadows, marshes, cascades, hills, the sea.

Over the years Henry would keep me up to date on the significant events in our former co-workers lives. Like when one chap came on to him in a particularly annoying way. And when our beloved Peter died. More and more, Henry's letters contained obituaries, tiny rectangles of type snipped out of newspapers. Dear names, dear faces, dear lives cut frighteningly short. Some lived on. These he would mention, too, and I would hear the news almost with a sense of wonder. Survival was becoming less expected than death.

Eventually, he told me that his lover had tested positive for HIV.

Henry didn’t want to get tested. He didn’t want to know. I cried relentlessly. I knew. And I wanted him to verify it but I didn’t push too hard. What would be the point?

After a year or two of reporting on the ups and downs of Curtis’s health, and the ups and downs of their always tempestuous relationship, Henry went and got the pronouncement. From that moment on, his life was no longer “normal”. From then on, he lived in the hands of the medical establishment, he did no paying work, he isolated himself more and more from the world outside, he delved into his art, his heart, his life. He swore to stay with Curtis no matter what. He would take care of him until the end. And he did.

He was not happy, but he was finding some kind of peace. He was a brave, beautiful man.

How much of the story do I need to tell? Do you need to hear? Would Henry want me to divulge? I suppose I could go on and it could be good for all of us but I feel like I have almost reached the end of what I want to say.

But not quite.

I have two regrets.

When I went to live in Haiti, Henry became very interested, and started thinking about coming to visit me. I panicked and persuaded him not to. So many diseases he would be exposed to there. The trip could be his last. He was disappointed, and I felt bad. I would have loved for him to come.

When someone is ill and slowly dying, do not do as I have done and deny him his desired adventure. Even if, especially if, it ends up being his last. Is it truly better to “protect” someone so that you can have them around longer, so that you can put off saying goodbye, when they have no choice but to die, and have had an idea at last that, after all they have faced for years on end, inspires in them a sense of desire and interest and aliveness once again? I wish, oh, I wish I had said, “Yes! It’s what we always wanted to do! Come and see Haiti with me. You will love it.” And if I had then had to live with the guilt of introducing him to the virus that picked him off, would that have been worse than living with the guilt of taking away his last hurrah?

And I regret, so deeply that it cuts, that I did not go out to spend Christmas with him just a few years later when I had said I might. Because I was tired, and broke, and not up to travelling.

One thing I learned about Henry in those final months was that he was kind of a liar. He told me he was well enough to walk his dog when what he meant was he could still totter down to the sidewalk and watch her pee. He said he was eating when he was barely taking food. And he said it was okay if I didn’t come, that I could come later, when it upset him very much, and when he very likely knew there would be no later, that he was coming to the end.

I didn’t get that he was really, really looking forward to me coming. I learned it from a neighbour of his when it was far too late. And I can guess how upset he was with me about it by the fact that he never did let anyone tell me he was dying. That he didn’t allow me to come out and see him one last time. That he threw away every letter I ever wrote and my address, too. If when I was unable to reach him for weeks on end I had not called Casey House, the place where I knew he had gone for various programs over the years, I would never have known what had happened to him, or his dog, or his family, back in Switzerland.

So what two lessons can we take from this?

*      Don’t try to protect people from their own inevitable deaths. Don’t try to keep them alive for you. Let them live for them.

*      Assume that your presence really does matter to your loved ones, even if they are too proud or angry to tell you that it does. Go. Be with them one more time. Show them your love even if you are too tired, too broke, don’t feel like travelling. And even if they act like grumpy cats the whole time you are there. They will feel your love. And you will be glad you were able to choose generosity over its alternatives.

So last week when I was in Toronto, in the no longer familiar neighbourhoods that Henry and I once walked, I was introduced at long last to the AIDS Memorial. My friend and I searched it and under “2004”, we found his name. Henry Raetzo 1955-2004. My Henry. My family. My dear, dear friend, whose death cut the legs out from under me.

Last night I was turning off the lights and locking the windows before going to bed. There was a strange flickering on the porch. At first I thought it was a moth inside the old kerosene lamp I had hanging there. I squinted up at it. The light in the third floor stairwell was flickering on and off behind it. Maybe it was just that.

Then I thought again that I saw movement in the lamp.

It was very late, and I was tired. I had had a challenging day, both because of physical pain and because I had lost my glasses and had searched endlessly and fruitlessly for them. They would cost a lot to replace. I didn’t want to have one more thing to do. I considered not responding to the trapped moth.

A whole lot of unremembered incidents flickered through my thoughts, leaving a residue of discomfort and a tiny bit of impulse to not turn away from someone else because I was tired. I stood up on the porch chair and wiped the outside of the glass. Nothing moved. Good. Maybe I was dreaming. I got down, went inside, turned around once more.

No doubt about it. Damn.

I try to be merciful. I am grouchy, and easily tired, and not the angel or saint I grew up kind of hoping I would be. People are not drawn to me as moths, curse their well-tuned lunar minds, are drawn to things that shine, even, apparently, to light reflected on glass. But I do have one thing in my favour. I care. And I can at times compel myself to do some small thing about it.

I turned off the kitchen light, closed the windows and glass door, climbed up onto the chair again, and got the lantern down. It took several minutes but I was able to free two beautiful dark brown moths and the bodies of four or five more. I had no idea that I had set up, so long ago, a trap for beings as harmless and beautiful as moths, cousins of whose I have rescued from walls and ceilings and released outside on countless occasions. So it’s a no-brainer. The lantern stays down.

Both moths headed immediately for the glass, trying to fly inside my still dimly-lit apartment. It was with weary pleasure that I climbed down, caught them one by one, and reoriented them toward the dark and moonless yard. Goodbye, beautiful moth. Goodbye, other beautiful moth. Courage, my loves.

Goodbye, Henry. My beautiful, emphemeral, wonderful, beloved friend. Courage, courage, courage, my dear love.


wrongwatch said...

And so, dear Casey, in death, Henry continues to provide you opportunities to learn about yourself. What better are friends for?

Casey Wolf said...

You're right, Ron. One of the greatest gifts we can give each other is a deeper knowledge of the world, and that has to include ourselves. I am very grateful.