Prose by Beth Aviv
Love in the Time of AIDS
March 31, 1992
Robert dear, about your dream: A friend of Grant's wants to smoke in your house. You say no twice. He lights up two cigarettes and starts smoking, so you grab the cigarettes from his mouth and put them out in his face.
It's the AIDS. Grant's mother. The disease that keeps encroaching like a smoker though you tell it to stay out, don't come in my house, it still comes in and lights up--double whammy—not just one fag, (cigarette? fag?) but two, and you'd smash AIDS' face if you could, you'd burn it with the cruelty it brought into your home.
April 6, 1992
Robert mixes Grant's drugs. He takes from the refrigerator a big plastic bag of greenish-yellow liquid, then he sterilizes a brown hour-glass shaped bottle by rubbing iodine and alcohol around its cervix, pushes in a rubber cork that pushes in the cork separating two drugs that mix, then with a hypodermic needle, he withdraws the vitamins and shoots them into the big plastic bag filled with fatty liquid food, flooding the liquid an amber-green. Then 10 cc of folic acid from another bottle. Then he inserts a catheter—only it is the wrong catheter. He needs the one that absorbs fats, but to switch catheters means exposing the drugs that go into Grant's blood to the air, contaminating them.
Nodding toward Grant in his room, Robert says, "That is more important," he nods toward the bag of drugs, "than that." And though he's been told the drug is very expensive, one hundred and fifty dollars a shot, he empties the contents of the just mixed solution into his new, stainless steel sink. And he takes out another bag from the refrigerator where four more bags lie lined like pale yellow corpses.
He opens a stainless steel drawer to withdraw another hourglass bottle, takes out the folic acid, two new hypodermic needles, and begins the process again, shooting drugs from bottles into the larger plastic bag that will hang from the IV pole and drip into Grant.
The drugs and drug paraphernalia have taken over his kitchen drawers and counter space (the newly installed green marble from Italy) and half of the Sub-Zero refrigerator. Robert looks like a dentist or doctor, not an interior designer. We laugh that it’s a good thing he'd gotten his kitchen done on time. Amazing how laughter absorbs the absurd.
Grant, meanwhile, hasn't gotten out of bed today. He looks thinner each time I visit—his now translucent skin clings to bone. He can no longer get out of bed without his walker or cane—and just last year he'd gone with me and my daughters, then aged 9 and 12, to see Showboat at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit. All the way to down the expressway he talked about set designs, how backdrops unfurl for each scene, how sets are moved on stage. He told of eccentric professors at Yale, how he graduated with Meryl Streep and Wendy Wasserstein.
Grant's been sick for four and a half years, the last two years he's been unable to go down to his job as stage manager at Detroit’s Music Hall. His Blue Cross Blue Shield coverage—worth one million dollars during a lifetime, ran out two months ago, and he had to declare poverty, keep no more than $2000, in order to get Medicaid, just to get the drugs his grandfather's pharmaceutical company invented. He is an Upjohn heir—and he’s using his portion of the trust to pay medical expenses insurance does not cover.
Jennette comes in three or four times a week to take care of Grant, clean the house, and let Robert go about his own business for a few hours. This is the second time she has cared for an AIDS patient. Robert's income, meanwhile, has plummeted to less than a fifth of what he used to make. There's not enough time for clients. He goes shopping with six dollars in his pocket (so he will spend no more), fills a net bag with fresh produce and bread, and returns home.
Grant's mother who lives in Grosse Pointe seems to have more trouble with Robert's Jewishness than Grant's homosexuality. She serves ham on holidays, which Robert doesn’t eat. The bathrooms are upstairs, where Grant can’t get to without help. When she learned her son was sick, she changed the locks on her doors. Grant arrived one day to find his key no longer turned the lock to his childhood home.
* * *
"I had another blood incident," Robert tells me. That afternoon while disconnecting Grant's catheter, Grant’s blood spurted out and Robert, who had been working in his garden, whose thumb was pricked by thorns and evergreen needles, did what came naturally to him, he dammed the flow of blood with his thumb.
April 13, 1992
Grant's blood count is too low at 12—normal is 800 to 1200. The lab called at 10:30 Friday night, and said that Grant should come into the hospital. Robert is exhausted. All he wants to do is sleep.
We are in the den where Grant is watching old Lucy shows and black and white movies.
"Don't look," Grant says, as Robert attaches his drugs to the catheter in his chest. His plaid flannel robe that is spread open reveals his flaccid penis.
Grant asks Robert to pick up his underpants from the floor; there are sprays of pee on them from when he stood to urinate into the plastic jug that hangs from the IV pole. "They smell," he says, crinkling his nose. "It just collects, that smell, you get a little urine on them each time you pee." He sits in the leather upholstered Stickley mission chair, naked under his bathrobe, a t-shirt rolled up above his chest, his Groshung catheter, the "Cadillac" of catheters, directly linking his blood vessels to the plastic tube that carries the drugs.
While Robert talks on the phone in the kitchen Grant talks about his funeral arrangements: He wants to be buried in a simple pine box, he wants a Jewish funeral and a sermon by their friend, Rabbi Arnie. His mother can't stand that he's "getting Jewish." He wants to be buried in the Upjohn family plot in Kalamazoo. After the funeral, he wants a meal served for his friends. It would be nice, I say, if he could be there. He says that he’s already been to a lot of parties with his friends.
A reporter from the Detroit Free Press has been over interview both him and Robert for Grant’s obituary, so that his mother can't sabotage his death announcement. She's made it clear that she wants no mention of AIDS. Grant isn't sure what to call Robert: his life's partner, his mate, his husband (too weird?), or his longtime companion (killed by the movie). He looks right at me and calls me “Death " instead of Beth, then catches himself and smiles at his Freudian slip.
He asks me to write a letter (because he can no longer write) to his mother requesting reimbursements for drugs. I pen in my own hand, "Dear Mother..." and the rest. He asks me to fill out a form that Western Michigan University's theater program has sent to all its graduates. He dictates, "In l987 I became ill with full blown AIDS. I worked until l989 as the stage manager at Music Hall...." He asks me to write a check for to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to reserve again their fifth row aisle seats for the recital series. He doesn't want to give up those seats. He is optimistic.
The last time Grant was in the hospital with AIDS patients dying in the rooms on either side of him, he asked if I thought he had a better "humane system" than the others. "Yes, I think that's it," I said, "The others have mere immune systems."
April 23, 1992
Robert asks me to take Grant to the hospital for blood work and a routine eye exam. The last time I went with him about six months before, he was able to walk to the car himself. I drove him down for blood work and to deliver a jug of urine for testing. At the curb in front of Henry Ford Hospital as Grant opened the door to get out, the jug splashed in my car and out over the curb. I wondered what in the gutter might get infected. Later I gingerly, then vigorously, with latex gloves and bleach, cleaned my floor mats.
When I arrive Grant is sitting on the side of his bed wearing a flannel shirt from TJ Maxx, corduroy pants cinched tight with a belt that makes the too large pants balloon below his waist, and white socks over his swollen feet.
Robert needs to weigh Grant. The scale is beside the bed. "On the count of three," Robert says, and we pull Grant up by his belt and balance him over the scale, our hands under his arms. Grant is unsteady, I fear he’ll fall. 134 pounds. Up from 107 a few weeks ago, before he'd started the new, intravenous food. Down from a robust 212 when he was a healthy man.
He tries to slide his foot into buffed, hardly worn, Italian loafers. He hyperventilates. His engorged feet do not fit into the size twelve shoes he'd bought only a year ago. We try a shoehorn, but still he cannot get his foot into the shoe. His feet are numb.
"I'm paralyzed, aren't I?" he says. "I can't do this. I can't go."
Grant's legs are heavy and awkward, and it’s hard to maneuver him back onto the bed. When he fell two months before in the shower while Robert was out, he said he wriggled back across the floor like one of the armless, legless creatures from "The Freaks." Robert calls the hospital to cancel Grant’s appointment. We help him out of the corduroys, which is not easy because he can't lift his torso to slide them off—his ribs hurt—and it is hard pull the pants down as the fabric velcros itself the sheets. Grant hyperventilates, coughs, and asks for watermelon.
May 8, 1992
Grant gets spiffed up for his fortieth birthday party—his brother and good friend, help him into his pressed-wool slacks, his shirt, and sweater. They lift him with a special webbed belt into his wheelchair. His mother keeps saying, "Comb his hair, he needs his hair combed.” He drinks from a bottle of cough syrup before Robert pushes him into the living room to greet his friends.
Grant's mother wants to cut his piece of cake out so he can blow out a candle with out spraying his AIDS infected breath over everyone else's piece. Robert and Cay, an artist and close friend, stick forty-one candles in the cake ordered from Joseph’s in Grosse Pointe, and Grant blows out all the candles in one breath. The cake is delicious.
A quartet of 10 and 11 year olds from my daughters’ school play some Mozart, some Beethoven, and a rendition of Happy Birthday. After the applause, Grant pushes himself up on his elbows, as if to stand. He grips the arms of his wheelchair and says graciously and wistfully, “Thank you. It makes me so happy to see the next generation making music, to know the traditions I knew and loved will carry on.” Behind him is his Steinway grand, which due to his neuropathy, he can no longer play.
May 24, 1992
Robert and I rollerblade through city streets in the pouring rain. We laugh and enjoy the skate and the warm wetness on our shoulders and faces. We laugh at how wonderful it is to glide around in the heat and rain. We laugh because we still have fun—and somehow that amazes us.
I show Robert the pictures I'd taken of Grant and of him mixing and preparing drugs. He looks at a half dozen and starts crying. He can't look at more. He folds the photos into their envelopes, then folds the bag from the camera shop as if to keep it shut forever. Later he says that it's like if you're once fat, you always think you're fat, if you're once poor, no matter how rich, you still think you're poor, and like that. He can't get used to the idea that what he really does all day is care for Grant.
And Robert wishes so much that if he ever falls in love again his new lover will not get sick. He cannot take care of anyone again.
July 28, 1992
I'm staying with Grant so Robert can go out. Grant complains that Robert doesn't take care of the yard anymore, that the grass hasn't been mowed in several weeks.
"He's protesting. He's refusing to take care of the lawn," Grant says.
"Robert’s been talking about going to Israel or Brazil. I think you should encourage him to go. We can each take a night--your friends and family—or Jennette— can move in--and you'll be fine. Robert has to get away."
I go out to the yard and push a reel mower through grass as high as my knees.
August 2, 1992
Grant is getting stronger. Almost all drugs except the intravenous food has been stopped so that the disease fighting drugs no longer zap his strength. But as a result, he's going blind. His doctor asked him which he wanted to lose first, his sight or his kidneys. He chose to lose his sight, it would be too painful, to lose his kidney function. The drug to save his eyes and brain from infection was destroying his kidneys.
Several of Grant’s friends gather at the family cottage in PawPaw, just outside of Kalamazoo. Robert pushes Grant in his wheelchair onto the Pontoon. We circle through the small lake while Grant regales us with stories. Robert barbecues steaks and boils fresh corn. Grant, now blind, sits at the head of the table. As we talk and laugh, the sun sets orange on the lake. In the grass hundreds of fireflies flicker ever so briefly.
September 11, 1992
Grant apologizes when I empty a bedpan and thanks me graciously as I wipe him with baby wipes and see his skin like parchment clinging to the caverns of his thighs. Because he can no longer see, I read him the TV listings from the newspaper.
Propped among pillows and quilts pulled to his chest, Grant, always the raconteur, tells of wild times at West Village bathhouses, describes the fun of using a cock-ring, and asks me to write a letter to his cousin, Janie Smiley, to tell her he has AIDS and is dying.
“You mean, Jane Smiley? The author of A Thousand Acres? Ordinary Love and Good Will? The Greenlanders?”
“She’s the daughter of my mother’s brother. We lost touch when her parents got divorced.”
I wrote as soon as I got home. Her response came a few weeks later, a day after Grant’s death.
October 20, 1992
Grant called me to come to the hospital. He dialed with his knuckle. Food was delivered to the tray beside his bed, but he couldn’t grasp a spoon no bring the food to his mouth. No nurse or aide came to help him eat. I drove the half hour or so down to Henry Ford Hospital and fed him. Grant had been hospitalized for almost a week with pneumocystis pneumonia. We watched an Elton John special while dozing on and off through the concert—Grant in the hospital bed, I in a chair beside him. Beyond the yellow brick road.
By Sunday, he was hallucinating—describing orange and purple shapes on his ceiling. Grant seemed to take pleasure these wonderful blobs. On Thursday he called Robert and asked him to bring a fan and to please get all people out of his room. The hallucinations had turned ugly and he was running a high temperature and he was having difficulty breathing and was scared. Robert came down with the fan, and then, despite the hospital's protests, signed Grant out and brought him home. He left on a morphine drip. When Robert got home he called his and Grant's friends and family--and one by one, we arrived at their house where there was classical music and Broadway show tunes playing on the stereo. Cay sat by Grant’s side and held his hand and told him who came in the room and he'd sometimes, ever so gently squeeze her hand. Grant's breathing was labored—one rasping breath every five or six seconds. I rubbed his feet. They were very cold. His breathing grew into gasps, big gulps of air every five or ten seconds, then every fifteen or 30 seconds, then every minute or so. He died at 2:30 with Robert lying next to him, holding his hand.
Grant was buried in a simple pine box with a dozen fresh roses, as he’d requested. Rabbi Arnie gave a eulogy that captured Grant's humor and his storytelling. In particular, he told how Grant could say things that no one else would have the nerve to say, and how his and Robert's relationship was an example of what family values is—trust, support, companionship, honesty, and love.
May 31, 1993
Grant came to me so viscerally in a dream. He's wearing his tan trench coat and he stands behind me and hugs me and I reach back to feel his face and hug him and say, "I love you." And then he was gone.
Beth Aviv was graced by her friendship with Grant Collins in the years and months before he died of AIDS. She grew up in Detroit and taught high school English and history for most of her career. BEARING WITNESS: TEACHING ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST, part memoir, part curriculum guide, was published by Heinemann in 2001. More recently, her book reviews, short fiction, and essays have appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review, New Letters, Raw Vision, and Salon. She currently lives in Brooklyn.