Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Losing People

The past few months I've thought a lot about death and losing people.

My high school boyfriend died in late July. Probably anyone reading this can agree, when we lose someone the first feeling is often of regret. I regretted how little time I'd spent with Tom in recent years. I knew he'd been unwell, but partially because he was unwell it had formed this barrier to me visiting him-- even though I'd been on Lopez-- living nearby. I knew where he lived. If I could find time to play with the goats almost everyday I could surely have visited Tom. I can make excuses-- like how hard it is to see someone you mentally picture as handsome and young and vibrant in a reduced state. I could talk about the guilt that Tom had helped me, as an overly sensitive, dramatic, intelligent teen through a very difficult part of my life, and that after I left Tom (and Lopez) he had lived a difficult life, while I had earned my education, traveled the world, and felt (despite my fairly empty bank account) pleased with my life. When I had seen Tom since leaving Lopez (only a handful of times after the first couple of years), I had always felt that feeling of "what if..." or "if only..." and wondered if I should help him, somehow. I visited him in 1996 or 1997 (either right before leaving for Korea, or after my first year in Korea) and he was already physically ailing. I tried to smile and laugh with him, but it was breaking my heart that he was easily thirty pounds under a healthy weight (and he'd always been skinny), his skin dull, his energy level low.

I next saw him in 2010. At that time he was almost housebound, his body rejecting most foods, and his energy level too low to prepare the sort of foods he should have been eating. He was no longer able to move around easily, and in the conversation we had his bitterness was palpable. I wanted to do something, but what could I do? What Tom needed was someone to be with him and love him and help him as his body grew increasingly intractable, but I was not free to be that person. I only saw him once after that, in the parking lot of the gas station, where we exchanged a few words. We kept in contact, irregularly, on Facebook. Below is the last interaction we ever had, on a scanned page from an old photo album. I am so glad it was positive, and I really hope Tom saw my reply. He died less than a month later.

Tom's family and close friends decided to hold a memorial in October, and I knew I'd be here in Korea. All I could manage to do as I sprinted around the West Coast in August preparing to move was to unearth several sets of negatives from old rolls of print film. I wanted to create a sort of photographic offering that could be displayed at the memorial. I wanted others, many of whom had seen Tom much more regularly in the months and years leading up to his passing, to remember him as I still see him in my mind's eye-- as a handsome, charming man.

Of all of the relationships I have had in my life, or at least all the relationships that lasted more than a few weeks, Tom was by far the kindest and most tolerant. I was young and very willful and he was a few years older, in his early twenties, but due to the low population of young people on the island, he ended up dating me, his first cousin's age-mate and close friend. I was not an easy girlfriend. Although I didn't ask Tom to spend money on me, I was learning how to be in an emotional relationship with a man, and can remember being pretty awful. He was never awful back. He was faithful. Patient. Understanding. Loving. He loved me consistently, gently, forgivingly. My high school friends (not the friends like me who were bound for college, but the many other friends I had) would ask me if I was going to marry Tom. Or ask what I would do if I got pregnant. Tom's grandmother, Bee, who saw me often (as Tom was living with her and helping her construct her home), told me to leave him, get off the island, and get an education. I took her advice. I didn't marry Tom, in fact we broke up before I left for that tumultuous first year in college.

I've lost other people. In August, in mom's attic, I tried to repack my many stored boxes. Most of the things in the boxes could be described as "paper." Programs for shows, newspaper clippings, essays I've written, letters I've received. There are some other things-- a set of glasses, nice candlestick holder, my hiking stuff-- but most of it's paper. I tried to sort and throw away unnecessary paper (old issues of magazines, materials for reports, bank statements from the 1990s), but as I was doing this I was confronted by letters and photos from people who are now gone. Tom had just died. Two of the other significant men I've loved have also died. And back in the day we usually got duplicates of all our photos. One set is in an album, the other set is just running around--sometimes it makes its way to the people in the photos, but often not. Former co-workers, dead. Former lovers, dead. Former friends, dead. Letters and cards from my deceased aunt, deceased grandfathers, deceased grandmothers, a few treasured blurry snapshots of me and my uncle, the coolest uncle ever, an early casualty of the AIDS epidemic. I sat in the attic, and tried to quickly cull through boxes, but then I'd find a photo of Jesse on the beach on MDI and want to cry because he died on the morning of his own wedding in a car accident. Or see Kurt, goofy goofy grin on his face, and wonder if I should try to find his ex-wife and send them for his son to have. And then I found the corsage Tom gave me when he took me to junior prom.
Dress by Edi Blomberg. Photo probably by Gregg Blomberg. 

Now we are facing losing someone else, Karjam's father, who has been diagnosed with advanced stomach and liver cancer (or one type that has moved to the other location as well, since we're not in China, we have not been able to ask these questions). We don't know if Karjam has months to get to China, or days, at any rate, his plans to leave Lopez, pass through Korea and get to China have all been moved up.

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