Letters to the Dead

If you ask a dead man what he’s learned from dying, he’d say give and give and give—that’s how to live.”

-Lovers, “Cedar Falls”

 

His name was Neal. In the photographs, his hair tumbles to his shoulders, a flowing mane of midnight silk framing a weathered, beautiful face: guarded eyes, nearly black, and a steady, square jaw rarely softening for a smile. He towers at six feet, two inches tall, with wide, well-built shoulders. The beginnings of a beer gut peak over the waistband of his jeans, and well-loved cowboy boots lend him a firm, solid stance.

 

I am barely two years old when Neal walks into our home in Gastonia, North Carolina with an armful of groceries and kicks my mothers out of the house.

“Go on a date,” he says. “Go to dinner, go to the movies, go anywhere—just get out of here for a while. I’ll take the girls tonight.”

For my mothers, a young lesbian couple in the late 1980’s, Neal is a savior from the responsibilities of parenthood in the midst of new love. For me, he is the man who takes me to the zoo and reads me bedtime stories. When people ask who my father is, I point to Neal. No one refutes my claim.

When I am four, the Ku Klux Klan marches openly in the Christmas Day parade. My mothers are afraid, so we move to Richmond, Virginia that summer, a month before my fifth birthday. Neal stays in Gastonia, but he writes me birthday cards and calls often. When I talk to him, he tells me that he still loves me and misses taking me to the zoo. I smile at the plastic phone bungeed to the wall and tell him I love him too. I tell him I have learned to tie my shoelaces and that people aren’t much nicer in Virginia than they were in North Carolina.

Over the years, the phone calls and letters slowly taper off. Periodic visits gradually stop and all I have are photographs to illustrate the memories that feel fuzzy and blurred around the edges. Pictures become the small fragments of truth that I cling to with all the hopefulness and uncertainty of a ten-year-old: I have a father and his name is Neal. He is no blood relation to me, he lives in North Carolina, and he is HIV-positive.

 

At twenty-five years old, I want to remember the Neal of my childhood, but I do not. In my memories, Neal is not beautiful. He is not young, he does not tower, and his hair does not shine like water at midnight. In my memories I cherish, the ones that are mine and not the recreation of other people’s stories, Neal is dying.

I find myself writing letters to Neal when my mind goes quiet in the small moments of the night. Dear Neal, I write, do you remember that time when…? There are too many memories. I haven’t found the zip code where people send letters to the dead, but I write them anyway because I am afraid of forgetting.  Dear Neal, I write just before old memories begin to replay like remastered home movies.

 

May, 2003. Home. The front bedroom.

Dear Neal:

Do you remember the day you moved to Richmond to die?

I am fourteen-almost-fifteen, peering out of the bedroom window as my mom parks the car and walks around to open to the passenger door. In the seconds before I see him, I recall the conversations leading up to this moment.

“He doesn’t look the same, honey,” they had said as we sat around the kitchen table, talking about bringing Neal to live with us—and ultimately die with us. “It’s scary. You won’t recognize him at first. Are you sure you want to do this?”

At the time, I had nodded solemnly, confident that I was prepared to see Neal again, certain that I was capable of helping care for him. In truth, bringing him to live with us had seemed so hypothetical, something to talk about and consider, an idea that would never come to fruition. Now, the idea has become a reality and, catching my first glimpse of him in almost seven years, I realize how ill-equipped I am to care for someone in the end stages of HIV.

My mothers’ warnings become a stark reality as I watch them help the draconian caricature of Neal slowly crawl from the passenger seat of the Jeep. I recoil from the window, my stomach rolling with nausea and fear, but I cannot stop staring. He is diminished, shrunken and hunched; I can see that, at five foot seven, I will tower over him. His emaciated body is further dwarfed by oversized flannel pajama pants and a faded grey t-shirt that is splotched and stained. His thin, stringy hair has fallen out in clumps, leaving pieces of his scalp exposed. As I take one final look, his face turns and his weary eyes stare past our house into nothing, hopelessly looking through the last place he will ever call home. I shiver and take a moment to catch my breath, then make my way slowly to the door where I hug my father—the stranger—on my front stoop.

 

The house slowly develops into a comfortable rhythm, one that I use to hide from him. Neal frightens me, and I don’t know how to let myself learn to love him again. When Neal moved in, I gave him my bedroom, electing to live on the screened-in back porch of our condominium. Although we have a third bedroom in the condo, part of me likes the novelty of living on the porch. Mostly, though, I like escaping to a sanctuary where I can breathe fresh air that does not smell of disease and rotting skin. Every morning, the dawning sun wakes me with the same foreboding thought: I wonder if Neal died last night.

I face the sliding glass door and steel myself for the pungent scent of sterilized decay that has permeated my home. Pulling open the heavy door, I make a quick trip inside. He is still alive, eating a bowl of cereal on the couch with slow, careful precision, the spoon trembling and dropping bits of cereal back into the bowl with a dull splash. I avoid eye contact and murmur a brief, “Good morning.”  We have come to an unspoken impasse: I can’t face him, and he won’t force me to. Grabbing something to eat, I walk quickly back my room and shut the door, my heart pounding. I regret bringing Neal to die with us, and there is no sanctuary for the shame and guilt permeating my conscience.

 

June, 2003. Richmond, Virginia.

Dear Neal:

Do you remember Byrd Park?

Neal has built up some strength, and my moms think it would be good for him to get some fresh air. There is a park on the outskirts of the city, a little out of the way from our house but with a paved path circling a lake where children feed the ducks in the summer. Mom can’t push the wheelchair around the entire lake by herself, so she asks me if I will come. My gnawing guilt finally breaks, and I agree to go, trying to hide my panic. This will be the longest stretch of time I have spent with Neal since he arrived nearly three weeks ago.

At Byrd Park, I push Neal along the walking path. We pause while he takes off his shirt and I grimace; his weight has plateaued at 100 pounds. His bare back presses against the wheelchair, his taut flesh stretching tight across his bones. I half-expect the skin to split, exposing pieces of his spinal column. I begin to silently count his protruding vertebrae, building a rhythm in my head as we walk. Looking around, small details of the park come into focus. The trees are changing from pastel spring hues to bold summer tones. The leaves are ripening to a deep, rich green. The wind is blowing ripples across the water. People are staring.

A mother sees us approaching and pulls her child off the path, not bothering to mask her disgust as she glances at Neal’s bare chest. Some stare openly as we pass; others avert their eyes quickly, trying to pretend they haven’t seen us, but steal furtive glances when they think we can’t see. Watching their faces feels like a shifting reflection, each one an echo of faces I have worn, faces Neal has seen. I taste acidic bile in my mouth and swallow hard, starkly aware of the sudden churning nausea inside my gut. My mother pushes the wheelchair as I walk beside Neal, sneaking peripheral glances in his direction.

His ribs are more visible than his vertebrae. He looks unfinished, as though an artist drew the rough sketch of a person, but never bothered to soften the edges or proportion the body. His arms are disturbingly thin and his chest flutters slightly with each heartbeat. Jutting cheekbones and dark, sunken eyes give him a perpetual scowl, yet he seems brittle and fragile. My heart pangs, each beat like a lead weight dropping through my gut. Without thinking, I reach for his hand.

His skeletal fingers are more calloused than I expect. His palms are crossed with deep lines like dried riverbeds, and his nails are yellow from years of smoking. He flinches at my touch, and I look over to meet his eyes directly. For the first time, I see the depth of his shame as an HIV-positive man in need of perpetual care. Unexpectedly, however, I also see his gratitude. Thank you, he says with his eyebrows, furrowed and pointed upward in surprise. Thank you, he says with his lips, slightly open and slowly curving toward a tentative smile. Thank you, he says with the hopeful tilt of his chin, relaxing the protective hunch of his shoulders. Thank you, he says with his eyes, still desperate, lonely, and afraid, but no longer looking through me.

 

June, 2003. Home. The playground.

Dear Neal:

Do you remember the gazebo?

After Byrd Park, everything changes. We reconfigure the schedule in the house, and I take the overnight shifts, lifting his torso up so he can cough the mucus out of his throat, waking him for his 2 a.m. antibiotics and his 5 a.m. antiretrovirals, helping him to the bathroom, guiding him back to bed. Those are the easy nights.

Neal watches TV most days, but one afternoon, he asks if we can go on a walk.  Shortly thereafter we meander out of the house, one tantalizingly slow step after another, my body stabilizing his until we make it to the small gazebo by the house. We sit in the shade so he can rest. Once he catches his breath, he begins to talk.

“I was angry,” he says, “but I ain’t no more. I made my peace with God.”

I nod, listening. He continues.

“I’m not from here, y’know. Born’un raised in Gasto’ia. My sista’s still down there. Got me a daughter there, too. Best lil’ girl ever. Name’s Abby. Love her like she’s my own.”

My heart skips a beat and my muscles tighten. “Neal,” I say. “Neal, it’s me. I’m Abby.”

“Hmmm?” he says, looking over at me, his eyes glassy and confused.

I try to toggle his memory: “Neal, I’m Abby. It’s me. You’re here with me, remember?”

He shakes his head, trying to dispel the fog. “O’course y’are. Abby. Love you like you was my own.” He shakes his head again, eyes unfocusing.

I stand, trembling. “C’mon, Neal. C’mon. Why don’t we get you inside? It’s getting warm out here.” I reach out my arms to gather and support his frail body as he stands, shaking, from the bench. “C’mon, Neal. I gotcha. C’mon…”

 

July, 2003. Home. The bathroom.

Dear Neal:

Do you remember the time I nicked you shaving?

He sits on the shower seat, freshly bathed as I lather his face. Pressing a razor to his skin, I scrape the stubble with slow, steady strokes. With practice, I’ve gotten better at learning the contours of his bony face. He shifts impatiently, eager to be done. That small movement is all it takes, and blood blossoms from a small cut above his jawbone.  My hands freeze, the razor hovering centimeters from his skin. I am not wearing gloves.

My vision tunnels in, seeing only the pinprick of blood stark against the frothy shaving cream. His blood. I wipe his face with toilet paper as the bathroom walls press in until it is just me and his blood with no room to breathe. In a daze, I finish shaving him quickly, methodically. Find him fresh clothes, dress him. Walk him to the front porch to smoke a cigarette.  Politely excuse myself.

I retreat to the back of the house.  My lungs feel tight and my face tingles, pins-and-needles like it’s falling asleep. Breathe, I coach myself silently, just breathe. Focus. I should go fix lunch. I am distantly aware of the rubbing alcohol sitting by the sink. I should start laundry. A slow burn spreads across my hands, interrupting the to-do list forming in my mind as I realize I am scrubbing at my trembling hands with alcohol. My nails are bitten to the quick and my ragged cuticles are riddled with miniscule cuts. Each new burn intensifies the terrifying truth. I touched his blood. Poisoned, viral, infected blood. HIV blood. My mind quiets as the indisputable reality settles in. My father’s blood is not my own. Shame and anger build behind my eyes, spilling over in tears that burn worse than the alcohol.

 

August 19, 2003. Home. The front bedroom.

Dear Neal:

Do you remember the day you died?

His sleep deepens in the night to a heavy coma from which he will never wake. His breathing labors and his eyelids flicker, releasing small tears while a pulse flutters weakly under his taut skin. I am alone with him now, save James, the hospice nurse that will not leave his side. Neal said he wanted to die next to a man that loved him; if this isn’t exactly what Neal meant, it is nonetheless clear that James loves Neal and has no intention of leaving his side. We smile at one another, and I wrap Neal’s fingers around one hand while James holds the other. I feel the smallest bit of pressure from his fingertips, so slight it may not be real, but enough to remind me that Neal lives somewhere beyond this wasted, comatose body.

Together, James and I watch the pulse growing weaker in Neal’s neck. When I can no longer see the rhythmic beat beneath the skin, I look over at James and he nods at me. I press two fingers to the artery and count the last fluttery beats. One. Two. Three. A final breath, and Neal’s chest lays still in a deep silence, the resounding echo of absence.

 

His name was Neal. I know more now, new truth melded with old. He died quietly, age thirty-nine, under his daughter’s fingertips, next to a man who loved him. His name was Neal, he was beautiful, and he was my father. No one yet has refuted my claim.

 

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