While far from being a Scrooge, I admit to being more circumspect during the winter holidays of light, many stemming from a Neanderthal heritage with its understandable fears of eternal winter and death from hunger and cold. Paul and I went into a bit of hibernation each winter when he was alive. We ventured out quite a bit less. He took to wearing long underwear in late September. I would drag out red plaid flannel pajamas and shirts. Seed catalogs came in winter, too. We’d pour over those and find just the spot in our imaginations where annuals would add a spot of color. We sat if front of a fire and reminisced about our recent summer and fall garden successes and failures, adding those to our annual garden journal.
After our first 10 years together, we also added the tradition of deciding on December 24 or 25 where our year-end contributions would be directed. Our tradition evolved when we admitted to ourselves and each other that we didn’t actually enjoy getting or giving gifts at Christmas or Chanukah all that much. We much more preferred thinking of people throughout the year, inviting them into our lives, being generous with our time or perspectives. This tradition of year-end donations started with a breakfast or lunch during which we’d talk about our year, what we were grateful for, about whom we were worried, and what we cared about. Then we’d identify a stretch number — an amount of money that we’d feel for a couple of months, but would not break the bank.
Finally, we would say which organizations we wanted to support. Paul and I were both big fans of Planned Parenthood, so they were always in the mix. LGBT causes were usually among the group, but so were projects of our friends and colleagues in the arts, human rights, and social services. In the last few years of his life, Paul would sometimes get quiet during this selection process, waiting for me to make selections. Upon my prompting, he’d admit that he felt that since our resources were now coming completely from me, I should make the decision. He also felt he was less and less engaged in the world and thus had less of an informed opinion. In 2013, I recall that I told him we’d come back to the decision-making when he was ready to acknowledge our equal partnership and the importance of his perspective. That lasted about 10 minutes — he was back on track with his opinions. Ultimately, I figured out that the best way to clarify that these were all our resources was to establish a trust in both of our names, starting with his name first — alphabetical order be damned!
It was this process I was looking forward to in 2014 — our tradition of making philanthropic decisions together — when I got the call that Paul was unresponsive. I had left him alone for 45 minutes, heading off to work and to the store. I needed cilantro and peanuts as garnish for the Thai salmon over rice that he loved so well. When his home health aid arrived, Paul was on the floor. I flew through stop signs and red lights at over 50 miles an hour, but arrived to see the grief-struck, deflated EMTs leaving the house. One turned to walk me inside; he was the man who had held my hand in the ambulance when I came close to death myself in 2010.
They had cleaned up Paul’s body and covered him with blankets. He looked a bit like he was asleep, but he was very cold. It was likely his unregulated temperature from MS that killed him. He slipped into that death like a mountain climber might in an avalanche.
Yesterday, with my friend Martha, I devoted a half hour to memories of our 32 years together. I laughed and cried about Paul’s funny, determined, indecisive, brilliant, and beautiful self. I said aloud what I rarely share. Paul and I had arrived at a sort of peace about 10 years before he died. He would take the side of devoting his focus and energy to doing every thing he could to get better. I would devote my energy to doing everything I could to have us enjoy some semblance of an active life together. We knew these two positions would be fraught, but we took them and supported each other the best we could in holding our positions. Paul fought hard from December 14 through 18, 2014 to be well enough to leave the hospital. I fought hard to get him to a benefit performance of The Nutcracker where he would be honored for his time with Milwaukee Ballet. We both won.
I do not look at December 24th as a day of trauma, though that day and the weeks afterwards were certainly heartbreaking. Nor have I been depressed. I am grateful that I was not treated with trauma-informed care or medicated for depression. In my years of grief, I have maintained a sense of humor, expanded on our traditions of light and year-end giving, and hold a sense of wonder at what we developed together.
While everything changed on December 24, 2014, so had everything changed in the fall of 1982 when, during our budding relationship, he challenged the belief that I held for myself until then: I was a man of sorrow, acquainted with grief. He had asked if instead I might be a man of peace awaiting love. It turns out he was right. I had not been ready for love until that time, and I was waiting for him.