Tuesday, August 01, 2006

9. The Heart: Muscle vs. Vessel

Gregory died on a Saturday. Here is what I have been able to reconstruct about his final hours.

We started that day early. I had to catch a plane. I was going to a convention to promote my new book. A lot of mornings, Gregory and I unwound from our entwined sleep and made love. Not this morning. It was so early that the backs of my eyes felt gritty and grainy. We were doing well to stir.

We showered, and drank a little coffee. Gregory spent the usual time on his hair, progressing through different size picks in front of the mirror to get the right balance of kink and curls. He brought his car around to the front of my condo and loaded my luggage. As I was preparing to lock the door, he said, “Leave your keys here. You won’t need them.” And so I did.

We didn’t talk much on the ride to the airport. That was OK. I was so deeply happy and fulfilled in this relationship. We didn’t need to talk, to fill every void with a rush of words. We could ride in comfortable silence. But at some level, Gregory had felt bad about this, as I would learn later.

Stopping curbside at the airport, Gregory got my luggage from the trunk and placed it on the curb. He pulled me close and kissed me, and wished me a good trip. I remember watching him get back in the car and pull away, always looking forward, never looking back. It was the last time I would see him alive.

That day, as I moved through the convention, Gregory did what he always did on Saturdays, starting this one with breakfast at McDonald’s. I know. Don’t wince. He’d get the scrambled eggs and pancakes and sausage. It was his one junk-food indulgence, and he didn’t do it every week.

From there, he would go to his mother’s house and work most of the day in the yard. There were towering oaks that he would trim and pamper, a lawn to mow and edge, a border of other plants to tend, including grape leaves and the crape myrtle where Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal, as he always called the pairs, had had a nest.

Sometime later in the afternoon, he had stopped in at my condominium to feed the cats. He still had on his yard clothes – he hadn’t yet shaved and dressed for the party he was expecting to attend that evening for a client who was a photographer. He locked my unit and walked toward his own in the same complex. He crossed the courtyard and began to half-walk, half-run up the stairs to his own unit.

He made it just to the top, where he gasped, grabbed his chest, and fell. Two co-eds and a neighbor from nearby units saw him fall. One went to his side; the others called an ambulance. It got there quickly. Gregory was hustled away to the hospital, where they worked on him for several hours. To no avail. They could not revive him.

I believe Gregory died at the top of those stairs. He had one thing in his hand as stumbled and fell: the key to my unit. It was on a Perrier-Jouet Champagne keychain we had gotten at a wine event.

How do I know he was coming from my unit that day, and not just going to it? Because on the following Monday night when I came home and first found out that he had died, at the end of the evening spent huddled with a close friend and my son, when I finally said goodbye and dragged myself alone up the stairs to my bedroom, to the bed where I had last slept next to Gregory's warm, living flesh, I looked up to see on my chest of drawers an envelope addressed to me in his handwriting.

I slid the card out. It was a fool-the-eye image from Claude Monet of two men in a gondola in Venice. Inside, Gregory had written: “…flesh and blood needs flesh and blood and you’re the one I need.* …I apologize for slugging you with my frustrations. Hopefully, it won’t happen again. Love, G. *Johnny Cash and me.”

Well. He was right about one thing. It didn’t happen again.

A heart attack may seem like a sudden event. But it is not. When coronary arteries narrow and clog to the point of choking off their own life-giving blood, it is merely the climax of a slow-motion drama that has been shaped atom by atom and cell upon cell for years.

The heart may be strong muscle, but it is also a tender place – a place where many of us hold ourselves and our hurts away from the world as if, by shielding them from all eyes (including our own), our hurts will somehow evaporate and disappear.

I used to place my head on Gregory’s chest and listen to the slow, steady tha-tump, tha-tump of his heart, secure in its strong, unceasing rhythm. I thought I knew what that heart held, thought I had some sense of the wear and tear it had endured, both as muscle and vessel.

But this precious heart held vastly more than I had supposed.


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