Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Moment

Olivia Chow walked slowly toward the flag-draped coffin. Silence pervaded the foyer of the House of Commons where her husband’s body lay in state. Just steps away inside the chamber where they had both served as members of parliament, a bouquet of white flowers had been placed on Jack Layton’s desk marking the spot where he had so passionately fought for social justice and environmental protection – a politician of compassion, courage, and integrity. 

Olivia stared at the coffin as if to pierce through the wood and see once more the love of her life. Lips quivering, her right hand gently stroked the side. She raised her left hand up to her mouth, a small white handkerchief ready to mute a sob or dry a tear.

In that moment, she was alone, her beloved now gone, dead of cancer at sixty-one.

In one sense, she was not alone. The ceremonial guards stood close by heads bowed. Family members paused just around the corner ready to join her at the coffin. Hundreds of dignitaries, members of parliament, staffers, and special guests assembled in a nearby room preparing to pay their respects. Outside, thousands of ordinary Canadians waited patiently in line for their turn to file past the body. And respectfully positioned about twenty feet away from Olivia and her Jack was a phalanx of cameras and media representatives recording and beaming these scenes to a nation stunned by this too-early death of an inspiring leader.

As I watched on my television, I knew what Olivia knew in that moment. In the midst of it all, she was indeed alone now. The visceral intensity of the grief was in proportion to the profound love that she and Jack had shared.

In 1989, Olivia and Jack acted as auctioneers at Gay Pride Day in Toronto raising funds for AIDS. The two of them offered a personal contribution for the auction – Jack would provide a guided bike tour of historic Toronto for twelve people to be followed by dinner at Olivia’s parents’ Chinese restaurant. Bill and I thought that this would be a great way to celebrate our upcoming thirteenth anniversary. After a vigorous bidding war, Bill and I eventually triumphed on the Jack/Olivia offering.

On that anniversary date in 1989, Bill showed up at the designated meeting spot with T-shirts on which he had emblazoned in bright glitter the names of all our friends whom we had invited to join us. At the 2008 Gay Pride Day, Bill and I were chatting with Olivia and Jack and reminiscing about the 1989 anniversary party. Olivia threw her head back and laughed, “I still have my glitter shirt from that party – I love it.” Bill beamed.

On August 23rd, 2009 my Bill died of cancer.

On August 22nd, 2011 Olivia’s Jack died of cancer.

We have our moments.

* * *

August Farewell – the Last Sixteen Days of a Thirty-Three-Year Romance describes the two weeks between my partner Bill’s cancer diagnosis and his death. Integrated into that narrative are vignettes from our thirty-three year relationship as a gay couple. I’ve also written a new novel on love and loss entitled Searching for Gilead

Information on both books is available on my website at http://DavidGHallman.com

A short YouTube video about why I wrote August Farewell can be viewed at http://bit.ly/jZrEbf

Both the memoir and the novel can be ordered on-line through http://amazon.com, http://amazon.ca, http://barnesandnoble.com, http://chapters.indigo.ca  

The photo below shows Jack, Bill and me at our 13th anniversary party hosted by Jack and Olivia at her family’s restaurant.

 

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Belonging/unbelonging

They couldn’t have been nicer. By that I’m not damning with faint praise but mean it literally. I was welcomed into their community with genuine hospitality. 

Sponsored by the Soaring Spirits Foundation, Camp Widow was an international gathering that brought together two hundred and seventy-five widows and widowers for a weekend of mutual support.

I was invited as a function of having written the memoir August Farewell about the sudden cancer death of Bill, my long-term gay partner.

Through workshops, plenary sessions, and social events, we got to hear others’ stories of their life journey after losing their beloved partner and to share our own.

Facilitators led sessions on writing as a creative outlet for grief; dealing with children’s mourning; grappling with being ‘mad at God’; deciding when/how one could consider dating again or opening oneself to another relationship; the pain of revisiting places that held special meaning for you and your partner; and many more topics.

What made the weekend so intensely meaningful for participants was the opportunity to be in a community of peers where everyone ‘got it’. Though the specifics of our situations varied, we all knew intuitively the pain that each other had been through and were continuing to experience from the loss of our beloved partners.

On that common ground, I felt more at home in this community than I have almost anywhere else since Bill died.

And yet…

Of the two hundred and seventy-five participants, only two of us were gay. Nine-nine percent were straight.

The difference in sexual orientation shouldn’t make a difference. Huge personal loss is huge personal loss. And never once did I experience the slightest awkwardness or reservation on anyone’s part when they learned that I was gay. Everyone was either nonchalant about it or made a point of emphasizing their inclusiveness – not in a patronizing way but genuinely and with integrity. 

It shouldn’t make a difference, but it did for me. Because despite the profoundly significant common experience we shared as widows/widowers, there remained a profoundly distinct identity that we didn’t share. And that identity is intrinsic to who I am and the relationship that Bill and I had together for thirty-three years.

I guess what is, just is. And for the moment, that’s my loss because I ache both for Bill and for community.

* * *

More information about August Farewell is available on my website at http://DavidGHallman.com including a short YouTube on why I wrote the book viewable at http://bit.ly/jZrEbf

August Farewell is available for order through on-line book retailers such as http://amazon.com, http://barnesandnoble.com, http://chapters.indigo.ca and others.   


 

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Thank God for Good Friends

“And Jesus said,…I call you friend…” John 15:15 

Four days before we got the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, the L.L. Bean catalogue arrived in our mail box. Bill liked the classy yet rugged look of the clothing lines carried by L.L. Bean. He devoured each page of the catalogue and in no time had picked out several shirts that he wanted. After all the weight he had lost over the previous months, he was proud of his new svelte figure and determined to have a smart new wardrobe for the fall. He asked me to phone the 1-800 number and place the order. I was happy to do so because I knew this would make him happy. After all, what are friends for? 

We both knew that he was sick. We didn’t know how sick. But at that point, pre-diagnosis, Bill wasn’t thinking about dying. He was thinking about looking dashing. Or maybe he was thinking about dying and with his characteristic obstinacy was determined to be the first in history to defy the adage “you can’t take it with you”.

We have been friends a long time. Our thirty-third anniversary occurred on August 17th, while he lay increasingly incapacitated in a hospital bed in our living room.

In days gone by, those of us in a certain community used to say when introducing our partners, “he’s my ‘friend’ ”. The implied quotation marks around friend were indicated by a raised eye brow, a wink or a nudge. It signified that this person was a lot more than a mere acquaintance.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few weeks about what it means to be a friend. And my reflections were prompted by two incidents with Bill on the day we got his diagnosis. 

At around 5:30 pm on Friday August the 7th, we were sitting in a room at Toronto East General Hospital waiting for the doctor to return with the results of the tests that they had conducted during the day. Bill was in a bed and I was sitting beside him. We were holding hands. In walked the doctor, looking grim. In a sensitive yet professional manner she said, “I have the results of the tests particularly the CAT scan and I am very sorry to have to tell you that it is very bad news”. She then described the virulence and pervasiveness of the cancer indicated by the tests. Bill looked at me and in a calm voice said, “Are you alright?” “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”, I cried. Thinking back, I was in shock but he was calm and, as the best of friends, his immediate reaction was one of concern for me.

We drove home in silence. We had already agreed that whatever the results, we wanted to have him cared for at home. Once we got back up into the apartment, he went to bed to rest as I convulsed on the living room floor, trying to stifle any sound so as not to disturb him.

About an hour later, he awoke laughing. Not a little giggle but hearty robust laughter. I ran into the bedroom. Bill’s eyes were radiant. He described a dream that he had just had walking in the garden with Jesus who had just called him His best friend. They had laughed together and kibitzed. Jesus had even told him that he was looking sexy. Bill loved that. Jesus also told him that he should drop any burdens that he was carrying, forget any of the things for which he felt guilty. All was forgiven. He was loved and Jesus was ready to welcome him into heaven. His pain would soon be over.

My prayers of the past few months had been answered. My most fervent prayers had been that Bill would experience spiritual peace. Spiritual peace he now had in spades!

For the next few days, our conversations and our prayers were of thanksgiving – for the wonderful life we had had together, for the wonderful experiences that we had, for the wonderful friendships with which we had been blessed, for the vibrant communities of which we had been a part.

Later, our prayers did turn more toward petition because, though Bill’s spirit was ready and anxious to leave, his body would not set it free. The pain and the distress worsened. We prayed that it would be over soon. After about two weeks, on Sunday evening August 23rd, quietly and with me by his side holding his hand, my friend breathed his last.

In John 15:15 we read that Jesus said “…I call you friend…” The thrust of Jesus’ message was that He was signalling a new relationship with his disciples, one of equality between Him and them. What is the implication for us? We are to love each other as Jesus loves us.

Bill specified only one thing that he wanted to make sure I would say at his Memorial Service. He asked me to tell his family members and his friends this simple injunction: “Be kind to each other”. That’s what he wants of us. To be kind to each other.

That is one of the key ingredients in being a good friend.

Jesus called Bill His friend. And now He has also called this friend away from us and into His arms.

Thank God for good friends. 

* * *

Information on “August Farewell” is available on my website http://DavidGHallman.com

A short YouTube video on why I wrote the book can be viewed at: http://bit.ly/jZrEbf

August Farewell is available from on-line booksellers including http://amazon.com

1d_-_bill_in_massey_sq_condo

 


 

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Living a Life with Death

Living a life with death – it seems that this is the place I’ve come to in my life, or rather been brought to, quite unwillingly. 

Without nuance or subtly, I would describe it as a place where death is as prominent a feature in my life as is life itself.

Michael Cunningham helped me name it. I’ve been reading his novel A Home at the End of the World. I finished the book last night. Cunningham wrote it in 1990 but I hadn’t read it before. What prompted me to pick it up was that I watched the 2004 film earlier in the week for which he had written the screenplay. I have been intrigued lately by the process of transforming a novel into a screenplay and had thought that Cunningham would be a good example to study since he had written both novel and screenplay in the case of A Home at the End of the World.

But I got ambushed.

My somewhat academic interest in the literary process of transforming a novel into a screenplay was assaulted halfway through watching the film when I suddenly realized that I had seen it before. The previous occasion was just after it came out in 2004 when I had seen it with my now-deceased partner Bill. This week, six years later in 2011, I was watching the movie again, this time alone. And, as happens in a myriad of ways virtually every day since Bill’s death, I was thrust into that increasingly familiar place where my life is infused with the reality of his death.

But then Michael Cunningham tossed me an unanticipated insight. As I was finishing the last few pages of the novel last evening, Bobby, one of the main characters, realizes how profoundly his life has been impacted by the tragic death of his brother years earlier. “I followed my brother into this world and I’ve never left it, not really.”

This “other world, a quieter place”, is the world of Bobby’s brother’s death. Bobby’s life is pervaded by a constant reality of death.

As it seems is mine. Bill died a sudden death from pancreatic cancer in August 2009. We had been together for thirty-three years as a gay couple. Six months earlier in January 2009, my younger brother died. In the previous few years to that, my mother and father died as did Bill’s mother who lived with us. Five deaths within a few years. The final two, my younger brother and my lover, were the closest people in my life.

I am a writer. I used to write academic books on environmental ethics. Now, I write very personal books, apparently about death. August Farewell is a memoir about Bill’s two weeks of dying interspersed with vignettes from our thirty-three years together. My novel, Searching for Gilead, is fiction and not autobiographical, in storyline at least. In substance, it is pretty dark.

So thank you, Michael Cunningham. And thank you, Bobby. You’ve helped me name the place in which I find myself.

I am living a life with death. And that’s okay. I can be in no other place. For now.

* * *

For information on the memoir, August Farewell, and the novel, Searching for Gilead, visit my website at: http://DavidGHallman.com

Both the memoir and the novel are available for order on-line through http://amazon.com, http://barnesandnoble.com, http://amazon.ca, http://chapters.indigo.ca, http://amazon.co.uk   

 A YouTube video in which I describe why I wrote August Farewell can be viewed at http://bit.ly/jZrEbf

The picture below is self-explanatory.

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