August Farewell: The Last Sixteen Days of a Thirty-Three-Year Romance180
August Farewell: The Last Sixteen Days of a Thirty-Three-Year Romance180
It was August 7, 2009 ,when the doctor stood at the foot of the hospital bed and with a deliberation that was both efficient and compassionate, looked directly at David Hallman and his partner Bill Conklin and said, "Our diagnosis is pancreatic cancer, stage four." In his thoughtful and deeply personal memoir, David Hallman narrates the sixteen days after Bill was diagnosed with terminal cancer and intersperses vignettes drawn from their thirty-three years together as a gay couple.
With poignancy, humor, and affection, David describes the excruciating intensity of caring for Bill during those final two weeks while reminiscing about the joys and challenges of their life together. During their lengthy relationship, both were deeply committed to social and environmental justice, loved the arts and traveling, and embraced faith and spirituality-values that were never more important to them than during the final days of Bill's life. As David sat at Bill's bedside, he shares how the memories of their great love provided him strength and helped him prepare Bill for the end.
August Farewell offers an intimate portrait of a loving relationship brought to an abrupt end and affirms the power of love in the face of adversity.
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August FarewellThe Last Sixteen Days of a Thirty-Three-Year Romance
By David G. Hallman
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 David G. Hallman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFriday, August 7
* * *
"Are you awake?"
I groggily pry open my eyes. Bill is propped up on his elbow staring at me. He looks like he has been waiting for me to stir.
"Um, yeah I think so. What's up?"
"Now that you've had a few hours of sleep, there's something I need to tell you."
His voice is remarkably strong for 5:00 a.m.
"My doctor called last night and says that I should go to the hospital for some new tests."
Now I am awake. I had gotten home to our Toronto condo about midnight after a quick trip to our house in Stratford. Bill had been in bed asleep when I got in.
"What do you mean?" Maybe I'm not so awake. The words were clear, the significance less so.
"He's concerned about the results that came in from last week's ultrasound and blood work."
We'd been through endless testing over the past few months. Sorry, not we: he. I was just the chauffer. No, that's not right either. I had been the accompanier, the personal support system, and the primary caregiver, one of whose roles was to take him to the labs when his doctor ordered a new set of tests.
Each time we had gone back to his doctor for the results from these tests, we had different reactions. He was generally reassured because nothing serious had shown up. I was generally distressed because nothing serious had shown up.
There was something serious going on. I was convinced. And I wanted to know what.
Bill had lost fifty pounds since January. He was immensely proud of that because he had been trying to lose weight for years. Now the pounds were vaporising. He was convinced that he had discovered the best diet ever. Just eat half of what is on your plate. He became very enthused about his system and tried to encourage others to adopt it. For a while I objected that the weight was coming off too quickly to be healthy. I shut up after he repeatedly chastised me for raining on his parade.
The weight was the least of it though. Fatigue and pain were the biggies. He had so little energy that he was in bed most of the time. Though stoic about the pain, you could see the agony on his face. He would often get up during the night unable to sleep because of the discomfort. One night, I came out to the living room to discover him lying on the sofa, his body curled up against the pillows, one leg draped over the edge, and one arm up over the back. What looked like the most awkward of positions had been the best way he could find to mitigate the pain.
With all of this getting worse week after week, I wanted answers. The test results kept coming back showing little askew except for what they called a spasming oesophagus. That seemed a partial answer and he was given some medication that was supposed to help. He had been on it for weeks, yet things were still getting worse.
But now something had shown up in last week's ultrasound and blood work.
"He says that we should go to the emergency department as soon as possible. He's left a copy of the test results in an envelope taped to his office door. We can pick them up on the way."
"Okay, let's get going."
Anticipating that we had a long day ahead of us, we both showered and shaved. By the time he was ready, I had the wheelchair set up at the front door. For three or four weeks now, any time we went out, it was with the chair. He had surprised me by how little resistance he put up when I had suggested that it might be an idea to rent one. We quickly settled into a routine using it. Not that we were going out very much. Mainly just to the doctor's and to labs.
Thirty years ago, we didn't need to rent a wheelchair. We owned one.
When we first met, fell in love, and started living together, Bill was athletic and energetic, and was regularly out on the rink playing hockey with his buddies. Within six months of our meeting, his mobility became limited and he would tire quickly. He was diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis (MS). We often had to use the wheelchair when we went out.
That was a rough adjustment for him. No longer skating on the rink, he was now watching from the sidelines.
But he decided that he wasn't going to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. He didn't like the support groups that had been offered to him as a newly diagnosed MS patient. He found them depressing. He resisted the experimental drugs that the doctors proposed. He had always been disciplined about eating well and rarely took medication. He wasn't about to start, especially when they couldn't assure him of the efficacy of the drugs and when the list of side effects filled half the information sheet.
He pushed himself very hard. He struggled to get around without the chair, sitting down and resting frequently. His only compromise was to use a cane sometimes to reduce the risk of falling and injuring himself.
He would limit going out to times when he had had a chance to rest beforehand.
As a result, when people saw him, it was on one of those days when he was strong enough to be out and about. He looked fine. Lots of people who knew him casually had no idea that he had MS. They didn't realise that he was in bed much of the time. They just encountered him on one of his good days.
MS affects people in very individual ways. His was of a variety that, with sufficient rest, he was able to mask.
The deterioration, though slow, was inexorable. Every few years, he would have to reduce the number of music students that he was teaching. At his peak, he taught five days a week and had about thirty students. By the spring of 2009, he only had the stamina for one afternoon a week and six students.
Don't be locked. Please, please don't be locked.
As we pull up beside the mall entrance where Bill's doctor's office is located, I pray that we can get access to that envelope apparently taped on his office door with the copies of the aberrant test results. It is only 6:00 a.m. and I think it not unlikely that the place will be shuttered up tight against night vandals.
I'm out of the car in a flash, and as I approach the door, my heart sinks when I see the dead bolt securing the double door. I pull the handle anyway and am surprised by the amount of give. The two doors are indeed locked together but there is no bolt affixing them to the floor or ceiling so I am in fact able to pry the doors open quite easily. There is a God.
Once back in the car, we take a quick perusal of the reports. The blood work numbers don't mean anything to us except to note the capital A signifying abnormal. The ultrasound report concludes with a narrative description. "There is a marked presence of ascites in the peritoneal cavity that was not apparent on the previous ultrasound in late May." Neither of us has any idea what ascites is, but we are not in the dark for long.
We are at Toronto East General Hospital by about 6:30 a.m. Fortunately, the previous night's various crises have petered out and today's have not yet commenced, so the emergency department is remarkably placid. We're interviewed quickly by the triage receptionist, who is the only person that we are to encounter all day who seems slightly annoyed and perplexed about why we are presenting ourselves. She gives us a number and motions us to the waiting room. As I wheel Bill to the designated area, he spots an empty gurney parked along the corridor and directs me to it. These days, he's anxious to avail himself of any opportunity to lie down.
After what seems an interminable wait—though actually a relatively short time by most people's experiences in emergency departments—we are ushered into a room in the examining area. Bill is given a hospital gown and I help him change into it and then get up onto the bed.
A few minutes later, Dr. Kong-Ting comes in holding a chart with the triage forms and the test result copies that we had brought. She is tall, certainly, by Asian standards, almost statuesque. With a professional efficiency mellowed by a soft voice, she asks Bill to describe why he is here. He looks to me a bit plaintively so I interject with the crib-note version of his last few months, focusing on the intense fatigue and abdominal pain. I mention the weight loss in passing.
She begins to feel around his stomach area and asks almost immediately, "How long have you been bloated like this?" The question surprises me. I have been so focused on the extent of weight loss that I had not recognised what she saw right away. Her examination lasts only a moment or two longer and then she says that she'll make arrangements for a variety of tests right away.
Bill lies back on the bed and closes his eyes. I take the opportunity to slip out of the room and approach her at the nurses' station where she is writing on his chart.
"Excuse me, but is the bloating that you asked about related to the ascites that's highlighted in the ultrasound report?"
I'm expecting an abrupt response because she is clearly working at a feverish pace. But she looks at me reassuringly patiently and says, "Yes."
"Do you have any idea what that might mean?"
"It could indicate the presence of a tumour."
I was standing on the small landing halfway up the flight of stairs between the dance floor and the balcony lounge. This was my preferred place to people-watch at the Manatee. You got a good view of the dancers to see who was dancing with whom. You could easily move downstairs to join them if the DJ threw on Donna Summers or Gloria Gaynor. Likewise, you had ready access to the upstairs bar if you got thirsty. I was a regular at the Manatee on Sunday evenings. It was the end of the weekend and people went there just to have fun with friends free from the Friday and Saturday night dating pressure. The place didn't have a liquor licence, but that didn't seem to be a deterrent. It was always packed, especially on Sunday evenings in those heady days of the mid-1970s. Many gay men in Toronto and from small towns within driving distance had their own exhilarating variation of the coming-out story where they opened the door of the Manatee, paid the cover fee, and then walked in and were blown away by their first-ever sight of a sea of male pulchritude bumping and grinding to the reigning disco divas.
"Would you like to dance?" asked a hesitant voice behind me.
I turned around on my little perch and found myself face-to-face with my current number one "untouchable," my category for guys who were so good-looking that they couldn't possibly ever notice a nerd like me.
"Okay," I mumbled. He headed down the steps and I followed, hoping that my friends would see whom I was accompanying out onto the dance floor.
There was always that dreaded moment as the song was coming to an end when you would fret about whether Mr. Perfect would signal that he was up for another dance or he would nod thanks and wander off. My Mr. Perfect seemed slightly hesitant. Turned out his tentativeness had nothing to do with his own intentions but with trying to discern whether I was going to nod and leave. I was totally oblivious to his reality: that he had been smitten with me since he first saw me and it had taken him six months to summon the courage to ask me for this first dance. Unbeknownst to me, he used to come up and stand as close as he dared behind me just to get a whiff of my scent and then would be so overcome with emotion (a.k.a. passion) that he would have to leave the club.
Fortunately, our mutual indecisiveness lasted long enough to get us over that hurdle and into the next song. After a few slightly less stressful transitions from piece to piece, he took the next big step. He held out his hand and said, "My name is Bill." Oh my God! When someone introduced himself to you at a gay club, it was a pretty good sign that he was interested in you.
I shook his hand in a state of panic. Do I use one of my clubbing pseudonyms so useful when you expect that you're going to want to give the guy the slip in a while? When I heard "David" come out of my mouth, I realised that I was prepared to bet all my chips.
"So, where do you and your friends like to go for fun?" he asked. To launch into an actual conversation was another big step in our primordial courting rituals. My heart was pounding as I tried to think of something to say that he might find interesting and thus postpone his inevitable discovery of my inherent nerdishness.
"Oh, New York, I guess," I said flippantly. I didn't know where that came from, but it sounded sort of sophisticated to me and I hoped might intrigue him enough to keep this moment from ending. While I thought I was sounding urbane, he was shattered. This idol that he had been mooning over for months was no more than your run-of-the-mill pretentious little prick. Thank goodness he didn't turn on his heels and walk away. We continued to talk and my nervousness must have subsided enough to allow a less insecure David to emerge.
Before parting, we agreed to meet the next Sunday night at the Manatee. I arrived just after it opened at 9:00 p.m. and hung around, increasingly despondent as I waited for him to show up. Finally, a couple hours later, he came sauntering through the door in jeans and plaid shirt, having just driven into town in his pick-up truck from a weekend building his cottage up north. You don't get a gay fantasy more potent than that. We danced and talked some more that evening, and then he asked me if he could take me out to a theatre play on Tuesday.
Forever thereafter, we considered that Tuesday evening, August 17, 1976, our first date and celebrated it every succeeding year as our anniversary. By Friday of that week, we were living together.
She's as good asher word. Within minutes a male nurse, coincidentally called William, appears at our room, draws back the curtain, and declares that we are off to the X-ray department.
The modern hospital bed is a marvellous invention. William pulls the plug out of the wall socket, taps the foot brakes to release them, and wheels Bill out into the corridor. No need to awkwardly transfer from bed into a wheelchair or other mobility device. I scurry to catch up to the 'William and William show' after remembering to retrieve Bill's valuables. People distracted by crises apparently make easy prey for pickpockets and skulking thieves—who'd have thought.
The X-ray technician is laughing on the phone as we enter. Bill takes that as his cue. Perfect setting for his joke-du-jour.
As soon as she hangs up, Bill declares, "I have a joke for you." No hello. No is this going to hurt? Just right to the point.
"Okay," she says, obviously a little startled at this unique greeting.
"A woman takes her dead duck into the vet. 'I think my duck is dead but I want to make sure,' she tells the doctor. 'Okay, put him up on the examining table.' The vet gives the duck a quick going-over and confirms the woman's suspicions.
"'Yup, you're right. Dead duck,' he chuckles.
"'That wasn't a very detailed analysis,' the woman complains. 'Don't you need to do more tests to make sure?' The vet sighs, opens the side door and motions. In saunters a large Labrador retriever. The vet points toward the duck and the dog hikes himself up on his hind legs and sniffs the duck from top to bottom. The dog looks at the vet, shakes his head, and exits back through the open door ... You're sure you haven't heard this one?" Bill asks the technician.
"No, really I haven't. Go on."
I'm feeling a little awkward. This is a busy hospital. There is likely a list of critically ill patients scheduled for X-rays today. And here my lover is spending precious minutes telling a joke while the high-priced technology sits idly waiting. But I learned long ago not to interrupt Bill when in full flight, correct him in public, or kick him under the table. Such gestures were always counterproductive with him, to my usual embarrassment.
He continues, "The duck woman is more than a little taken aback. 'What the #/*! was that? I want the best medical advice you can give me.'
"'Okay,' mutters the vet and opens the door again and in wanders a cat, jumps up on the examining table, and sniffs the duck for several minutes. The cat looks at the vet, shakes her head, and walks out of the room. 'Definitely dead,' concludes the vet.
Excerpted from August Farewell by David G. Hallman Copyright © 2011 by David G. Hallman. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter One—Friday, August 7....................1
Chapter Two—Saturday, August 8....................26
Chapter Three—Sunday, August 9....................32
Chapter Four—Monday, August 10....................37
Chapter Five—Tuesday, August 11....................46
Chapter Six—Wednesday, August 12....................52
Chapter Seven—Thursday, August 13....................59
Chapter Eight—Friday, August 14....................67
Chapter Nine—Saturday, August 15....................75
Chapter Ten—Sunday, August 16....................82
Chapter Eleven – Monday, August 17....................88
Chapter Twelve—Tuesday, August 18....................96
Chapter Thirteen—Wednesday, August 19....................103
Chapter Fourteen—Thursday, August 20....................110
Chapter Fifteen—Friday, August 21....................118
Chapter Sixteen—Saturday, August 22....................122
Chapter Seventeen—Sunday, August 23....................130
August 23—Final E-mail Update....................155
September 1—Early Christmas Party Invitation....................156
September 13—Memorial Service....................157
- Service outline....................157
- Theological reflection— Thank God for Good Friends....................159
- Recorded music—favourites of Bill and David....................164
November 23—Interment Service—Good-bye, My Love....................166