My mother is suffering from uterine cancer and all I can think about are the 80s
when my gay friends died of AIDS and I ditched their funerals,
pretending I had a cold and didn’t want to get anyone else sick,
especially those with weakened immune systems,
because then more people would die and there would be more funerals
and our calendars were already filled with remembrances
of friends’ uninspired suicides and upcoming estate sales,
which never brought me any goodies except a pink flamingo lawn ornament
that I gave to my mother after explaining that it had a high “kitsch” value,”
to which she replied, “If it has worth, then you keep it,”
to which I replied, “You put that pink bird on a gay man’s lawn,
all it becomes is camp.”
The other day I read some lines of a poem by a popular young gay poet
and he criticized the AIDS quilt
and I wanted to search for his address and send him hate mail,
telling him that he will be punished for his lack of generational respect.
In the same magazine, he wrote a poem about PrEP, and I don’t know
if it was good or bad writing, only that I wondered if any of my friends are still
alive and taking the drug themselves.
Like Marcus who whenever he had sex put a smiley face
on the designated day of his kitchen calendar.
Once I noticed that there were four smiley faces on May 4, Labor Day,
and I wanted to say, “You definitely must have been working hard,”
but I didn’t: the fantasy of him screwing men while I ate
overcooked barbeque at my mother’s house proved momentarily entertaining.
I told him to be careful out there, and he spit
on my shoes, and said, “We’re all going to die.
I want to go out doing what I love.” I don’t dream of my dead friends,
not because I’m afraid that I’m going to be overwhelmed by sadness,
but I never liked them. They were shiny and dumb.
Why am I so judgmental of those who didn’t go to college?
Why am I thinking such things when my mother is sick in a hospital bed,
bored with crossword puzzles, hoping that if she succeeds in conquering them,
she’ll be able to convince herself her mind is in tact
and then be more able to make a decision about chemo?
My mother never graduated high school;
however, I found her lack charming, but with my friends, it was disgraceful. When I
went to college, they promised that when I visited for the summer,
they would lavish Gap’s Friends & Family Discounts on me,
which I would never cash in on, because dressing poorly
was proof that I was better than them.
I was too busy searching for knowledge while they were looking
for that pec-hugging sweater or ass-caressing pants that made them
more than fuckable. Once my mother asked, “Why aren’t you more like them?” I
didn’t know how to translate her question so I simply said, “Because
I don’t want to be like you.” Her response: “Makes sense.”
Now, the nurses have used restraints after my mother tore her IVs from her wrist
and I wonder what she would say if I mocked her gown,
her bland, disposable single article of clothing. So I do.
I say, “You look good,” which gets no response
except from the male nurse who smiles and says,
“Your mother is not an easy patient,” and then puts on a pair of plastic gloves and
readies the needle, and I say, “Why are you wearing those on your hands? Do you
think my mother is unclean?” and I can’t stop myself,
so I continue: “She is not a dirty woman,”
and, of course, that’s not enough either, and I add,
“You made her soil her bed. When are you going to clean it up?”
He puts the needle down and raises his hands in the air and says, “I give up,” making me
think of one of the few times I went to visit a sick friend with AIDS:
I stood outside of the hospital room and saw the ventilator move up and down,
and said, “I can’t go in. What if I disturb the harmony with my footsteps?,”
and the nurse said, “Don’t be silly. Just put these on,” and gave me
a pair of plastic gloves, and I said, “Another,” and he said, “You only need
one pair,” and I said, “Another pair to put over these,” and he said,
“So you’re the coward your friends talk about,” and I said,
“You can’t be too careful,” and he said, “Yes. Actually you can.”
Everyone is despicable for at least one reason.
Like my own undergraduate students who don’t know how
to rhyme their poems. They’ll never become familiar with gay poet
Thom Gunn who everybody once loved for being the first to write
about AIDS in classical forms. From one of his back covers, you can tell
he’s quite attractive and I’m sure everyone wanted to fuck him
as they would now, and I don’t know how he escaped
without contracting HIV (he died of a banal heart attack!). I know, I know,
we shouldn’t assume the narrator of the poem is the author himself.
That’s the kind of man I am: I don’t believe in any lyric “I.”
I don’t have time for any mind games.
The “I” is either you or the poem’s a fraud.
Does the fact that my mother adopted me make me a sham?
Am I as entitled to grief as my father is even though he ditched her for a woman who
looked exactly like her which caused her to exclaim,
“You could have found plenty of upgrades,
why settle for what you already have?”
and then said to me, “That’s why I adopted you. I knew I’d get a son
that was better than one I could produce,” and rather than seeing that
as an expression of love, which it was, I wondered if even back then
my mother knew something someday
was going to happen to her uterus, and didn’t want to risk
that cancer would happen then, to me, by extension.
Did she save my life before I was even born?
Now, my mother shakes from being cold in her hospital bed
and I imagine cutting off a piece of the AIDS quilt
for my mother and draping it across her body,
and then if she still was shivering, I would cut another piece
and another and another,
the whole time transforming the pieces of the quilt into something wholly
ridiculous, a cross-stitched hazmat suit. The last time I thought of contamination was
1983 when I had to call an ambulance for my friend who had AIDS
and the audacity to slit his wrists in his bathtub
after we had spent the entire night watching re-runs of The Golden Girls,
which I never liked, even though it’s blasphemy
to be gay and to talk ill of Bea Arthur whose cheeks I wanted to pinch
until she begged me for mercy which I would give
as long as she agreed to commit to an emotion other than embitterment.
Two men arrived at the house and they were both wearing hazmat suits.
My suicidal friend’s apartment was in the gay neighborhood
and they must have received a number of phone calls from the dying.
I walked up to one of them and poked at his hazmat suit,
because I always wanted to know what one felt like,
and it was worth the indiscretion.
I received what I needed right then and there: the chance to touch death.
One of the men unzipped his arm coverings and touched my shoulder
(the closest thing to good sex I’ve ever had!).
He said, “You are going to live. Don’t worry.”
My response: “Oh.”
If I were a real poet, I would be exclaiming O!
A big fat O. A big fat O Mother.
O my big fat motherfucking Mother, don’t begin to moan because
all I think is, “You did this to yourself,
you should have had a hysterectomy,”
which is so gross to feel toward any mother,
or any woman,
especially your own, but I do, and to stifle my anger, I imagine cutting
that same AIDS quilt into handkerchief sized pieces, and shoving them
into the mouth of the nurse, and then yes, O yes, and then into my own.
Until he and I can’t breath and we beg for mercy that no one can give,
not even an indifferent God.
I wonder if my mother’s hospital bed was ever occupied
by someone who had AIDS,
and I even say that to my mother who replies,
“Which do you think is a more painful death: AIDS or uterine cancer?”
and I say, “It’s a toss-up,” but my mother isn’t satisfied with that answer,
so she presses the emergency button
for the nurse who looks bored with my mother’s faux urgent pleas,
but answers her question nonetheless: ALS.
I want to crawl into my mother’s womb and hide from a world
that has nothing better to do than kill men dressed in clothes finer
than any words some embarrassingly over-educated poet could utter.
Once I ran into a friend of a friend of a friend who died of AIDS.
At first, he didn’t recognize me, and then did a double take,
and said that he heard a story about me way back when:
one of my friends had been diagnosed with HIV,
and he was taking the news quite well, talking about his medication
and the teams of doctors he had organized, and I said to him,
“Why am I not happier than you? I’m not the one who’s going to die.”
Once my mother accompanied me to the funeral of a neighbor’s son
who died in a gruesome way from AIDS, and after the wake,
my friends and I stood in a corner and gossiped
about how many men he had slept with.
It took them a moment to admit they had sex with him,
and my mother flashed me a disappointed look that said Why-didn’t-you?
It was one of those horrible moments when all you can say is the truth:
“I’m sorry.” And I’m sorry for not know what a uterus is,
no matter how ridiculous that may seem, as it provokes my mother to say,
“Are you stupid?” which causes us both of us to laugh, and I don’t know
if I should be offended or happy that my mother has accepted my gayness
so completely that she accepts I’m indifferent to the female anatomy,
which, of course, I am. Or was.
“It’s inside,” I say, and she says, “Pretty good guess,” and then she says,
“Don’t ever feel bad for not being a slut. It just wasn’t your thing.
You’re not ugly. Some of your friends were just beautiful.”
I want to tell you this poem would have been better if it wasn’t for AIDS,
but that would be a lie.
If I wasn’t avoiding funerals, I would have found
something else to do. Like volleyball. Like calligraphy. Like arts and crafts.
Once I did visit a friend in a psychiatric ward who was suffering
from AIDS-related dementia,
which might have been a pleasant reprieve from all the physical pain,
and he was so happy that I visited he made me a ceramic blue piggy bank.
It sat on my bedside table, the one my mother found at an estate sale
of an unremarkable community leader who died of AIDS.
A day after my mother’s cancer diagnosis, she came into my room
and saw the pig and she snorted, claiming it was odd
that I would exhibit my own grade school creations.
But then she said, “It’s a small miracle. I hope I told you that
when you were a kid.”
I didn’t say it wasn’t mine. I offered it to her.
Of course, she took it.
She put it on the mantel above the fireplace.
“Maybe one day you can put my ashes in it,” she said. “I’ll be your pig.”
Steve Fellner has published two books of poetry: Blind Date with Cavafy, winner of the Thom Gunn Gay Poetry Award, and The Weary World Rejoices. He teaches at SUNY Brockport.
Image: “Christmas Surprise” by Yousef Abdelmagid