On the Bench Where You Said You Were Dying

We lost each other.

We lived in different places.

Things were happening.

I thought you were mad at me because I stopped hearing from you.

But my own rope was fraying, and the ends kept coming apart.

Work. Care for my partner, who’d had a stroke.

Work. Care for my partner. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

I didn’t know that your rope was fraying too.

Years passed.

“This is silly,” I thought, re-reading one of your old letters.

My partner had died. My life had changed again. I had a baby. I missed you.

I missed how you cooked like Julia Child, with vats of butter and cream. I never bought butter or cream, but when you visited I transformed into Arthur Ziffel, the pig from Green Acres.

I missed how you sizzled things until the kitchen was smoky, and your passion for saffron, old recipes, and pizza dough.

You inspired me to buy a sausage maker, which I never ever used. As if I would, without you.

We rekindled things on Facebook.

Then we had coffee at a groovy place in Ponsonby.

You only went to groovy places, and from then on I would trail in your wake to one after another. With you, I was groovy, too.

I learned about your hard times. I told you about mine. It was like we’d never lost each other.

When I drive past the bench where you told me you had cancer and things didn’t look good, my reactions take me by surprise.

Sometimes I laugh. Sometimes there are tears.

I often remember how unselfconscious you were compared to Minnesotan me.

How you would sunbathe naked and the old perve a few doors down would poke his head through the flax bush for a better view.

Not that you cared.

One of my very favorite photos is of you, posing nude in the garden as the startling backdrop in an otherwise unremarkable landscape of lavender, bougainvillea, and fully clothed friends.

You grew up in Chicago, near paint and chemical manufacturers. Your oncologist said your rare cancer might have started there, breathing in the toxins.

Decades later we sat on the bench in the sunshine and talked about what came next. Surgery. Chemo. Radio. Drugs. All the things you hated but would endure because you wanted to live.

An ironic full circle.

Most weekends I would pick you up for a walk, a trawl through the gentrifying fashion and art shops of Karangahape Road, or to share a creamy pasta at Prego or a perfect little cake at Vaniye.

Once we visited the Parnell rose gardens with their voluptuous displays.

It was hard not to think about how, beneath the scented bushes, were the ashes of countless Aucklanders, so many that poisons from their cremations were killing the plants.

Spreading ashes in the rose gardens and other public places has now been banned. Another ironic full circle.

But we didn’t talk about that.

By then you were using a walking frame, and food was something you feasted on only with your eyes.

Your bones could no longer support your slight weight.

They were breaking, and you described the imagery of the spreading cancer in your scans as “beautiful, like the night sky”.

Our last visit was after dark.

We didn’t watch the movie.

Instead you said “I was abused as a child from the age of seven, and when I told my mother she acted like she hadn’t heard”.

Your words were slurred from the drugs but I had no doubt they were true. You were shedding.

I could see I would lose you again.

Not yet though.

And then you died.

Just like that.

Instead of a funeral we were asked to visit to say goodbye.

In accordance with your Buddhist beliefs you were at home, surrounded by aromatic candles, incense, and bowls of grain to sustain you in the afterlife.

Children screeched and crashed their toy trucks in the living room.

But we were alone.

Your favorite earrings glittered in your ears.

Your blue eyes were open. They were looking beyond.

Beyond the small room where you’d nourished others as a counselor.

Beyond the hills and the waters of Aotearoa, New Zealand.

Beyond being lost to anyone, into infinity.

Beautiful, like the night sky.

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