“I Ain’t Settlin’
……For just getting by, had enough of so-so……for the rest of my life
I ain’t settlin’ for anything less than everything.
Enough ain’t enough this time.”
I wrote this piece just over two years ago now, right after losing my friend of 40 years, Kim. I put it away out of necessity. The timing felt incorrect. Now, more life has past for all of us. We have each learned to navigate the world without Kim. I reach for the phone at least once a week to tell him something funny, share a ridiculous news story I heard, suggest a new book I love, anything. He was the one person I had left on this earth who had really lived my life; my actual life filled with our shared disease, our high drama, our joy and humor, and our absurdly funny take on the people and places around us. I am alone in these things now, more alone than I thought I would be……or could be. Time burnishes the scars, yes, and dulls the pain to an extent but never really mitigates the loss. That loss has become part and parcel of the fabric of my life, weaving itself like golden threads through the ever-changing patterns that the years bring to the palette, adding a shimmer of light and brilliance and sheen. The brilliance that was Kim.
My friend, Kim, just had the shittiest news, ever. Pancreatic cancer, Stage 4.
We have known each other almost 40 years now; we were roommates in San Francisco in our salad days, young, dumb, and …… well, dumb.
We burned it as fast as we could; lives, men, liquor, the sins of the immortals, believing we, too, were as immortal as they. We learned, both of us, back when the main course was served, that we were not, indeed, quite bullet-proof.
Living in San Francisco back then, the late 70’s, early 80’s life was one long party. We grew up, expanded our worlds, went to fabulous art shows, amazing performances, made friends we would keep for life, dated men we would lose tomorrow and in the process, rolled the dice and lost on the game board, a game we didn’t even know we were playing at the time. We thought it was all glamor and Baccarat…..who knew it was Russian roulette?
And so we had to come out all over again. Tell our friends and family that once more we had what, for them, would be yet another tragic chapter in our misspent, soon to be fore-shortened, lives. HIV was a daunting gauntlet to take up. But take it up we did….we had no choice. We were now one of “them”, the infected, the doomed, the tragically affected young.
But along the way to ruin, damnation and death, something happened.
And living turned into a routine that we, once again, grew into. Pills, blood work, side effects, promises of a life we had learned to forswear. We buried friends along the way, mourned the losses and endured the abject horror of losing almost everything and everyone we had grown to know.
And still we two continued on, somewhere along the way barreling headlong into dinosaur territory as only veterans of foreign wars can; enduring, triumphant, but tremulous. We waited for the other shoe to drop, like the Road Runner constantly looking cliff-top for Wiley Coyote and the ever-present anvil.
But then decades slipped away and we, the two of us, were still present, accounted for and still counting; the years, the people, the landmarks and land mines that we had passed by without consequence or even much thought anymore.
We had a planned regular gathering of our small clan, the four of us, Kim and I and our two fellow female travelers on this planet; a long weekend in Mendocino with wine, stories, food and the friendships and familiarity that only a lifetime of shared history can forge. I had suggested it but then backed out, my life in my advancing years having picked up a speed and frenesity I had not foreseen. Travel, my pastime and byline, work (who knew?) and family, that aging, decrepit formation that we drag about all our lives, were all taking on a new and intensifying neediness that I had to heed.
As I reneged I thought; there would always be next spring, next summer, next fall.
But when they announced that they were carrying on without me…well…..never one to ever miss a party, I scrutinized my schedule, consulted my husband, and committed to what I knew I needed and was not going to deprive myself of; morning walks on a foggy crag of beach with a steaming mug of coffee, afternoons gazing over the ocean as the sun slipped and dipped, and evenings engulfed in the fixings of food and friendship.
And then we rolled craps.
None of us are remotely naïve. We know very well we are all on the downhill slope of our brief and brilliant lives. Really, we were all born in the very middle of the last century for fuck’s sake. Who lives the lives we have lived and gets out with a free pass to ancient age? And do we really desire that? Really?
We are the generation that lived the motto; “Live fast, die young, and leave a pretty corpse”.
Ooops. Two out of three?
Joan Rivers died, just before of Kim’s diagnosis. I was listening to her Gatling-gun comedic deliveries, particularly her take on her own decrepitude and mortality and marveling at her ability to face her demise head on, chins up, laughing at life while she still possessed it and at death as it stalked her every life-stage and Lipo. I knew, inside, there was a lesson there.
I just didn’t know it would come so quickly and so close to home.
So we went to the coast, our beloved California jagged edge-water, Mendocino. We went to a crafted, art-filled home built, as were we, in the middle of a century past. We settled in, not for the weekend we had planned, but for the weekend we all now needed. Time to burnish our connections, gently fan our friendships, and to follow Kim’s lead into the unknown with whatever degree of bravery we could each muster. We would need soul-fuel, great food, some wine, and a modicum of our newly nascent humor, albeit gallow-ish in tone at times.
And so the weekend passed, in warmth, sunshine, and concern. We socialized with friends old and new as if we had all the time in the world. We acted, for all the world, as normal as we could manage to be while all of us, at a deeper level, were conscious of the needling news beneath the surface; that Kim was facing the fight of his long and battle-filled life, and that none of us, Kim not excluded, were prepared for this horrifying conflagration at our doorstep.
We parted for what we all knew was our last group farewell; heads high, spirits low but prevailing with a determined mantle that we were each aware we would need to carry us into the swiftly approaching current.
Over the next couple of weeks we talked often; with each other, around Kim, about Kim, all struggling with what we could to do make Kim more comfortable and mostly to help ourselves fully embrace the approaching storm. I defaulted into my standard crisis mode: do everything. I called hospices, talked to Death With Dignity people both in California where Kim lived and in my own Oregon where we as a state had a more user-friendly end of life protocol in place. I suggested moving Kim north to be able to access our healthcare and hospice offerings but he was already declining past the point of that possibility. In reality, if I’m honest, most of that was for my benefit. I need always to be doing something proactive, taking charge, making something, anything, happen even in the face of odds that no one would ever take to the table in Vegas.
And so I went off on a planned getaway to Key West with my husband where we had been spending a lot of time in recent years. Kim was never very far from my consciousness. Our lives together lurked around every corner, shading the bright tropical colors with an encroaching haze reminiscent of the movie Dark Victory (Kim loved these films as I do) In this film, Bette Davis, knowing her death is imminent, continues planting bulbs for the spring while her husband is off on a lecture tour. When the expected blindness comes suddenly, she staggers off to her room and dramatically passes away as only the Diva Davis can, with flourish, élan, and drama for the ages.
Lying on the beach listening to the ipod soon thereafter, every song pushing silent tears out of my sun-closed eyes, I had a sudden dramaturge of my own. Kim and Babs had spent years traveling and taking a series of hilarious photos as they wandered that we had dubbed “Mooning The Monuments”. I don’t really need to explain what this involved but drop trou and shoot should suffice. I sat upright with what can only be described as a vision. We were less than a mile away from the concrete monument known as The Southernmost Point in the United States! Tourist flock there for the perquisite pictures that always, after a quick show and tell, end up in a drawer bound for the forgotten folds of memories once gathered and soon foregone.
I packed up Dave and the beachwear and we bolted down the sand for the beckoning bier. The ever-present line was there in place but I had no time to spare….I felt it…..I knew it. Never one to stand on protocol, I wandered up and down the line explaining about my friend Kim, his propensity for Mooning The Monuments, his current predicament, and the absolute need I had to cut the line, shoot the picture, and get it sent off to him. I apologized for any unintended offense, asked a likely photographer to shoot the pictures and even invited anyone who felt moved to join in.
And they did! Cheering, crying, urging the crowd on. Perfect!
I took the best of the images and emailed them immediately to Kim back in San Francisco. He was with our dear friend George on the way to his doctor when they came in. George texted me right back saying that they had elicited the first actual laugh out loud moment Kim had had in weeks. Mission accomplished.
Less than two hours George called me.
While in the doctors office being told the results of his latest scans and just how ill her really was, Kim took his last breath and quietly died, right there.
Anti-climactic? Diva Death? Prophetic? It was so many things. Having George there with him, holding his hand, letting him go for all of us was such a rare blessing, we are all so grateful to him for that.
After we had run out of tears, talk, and meaningful things to say about our gone-to-soon buddy, George had only one thing to add; “Well Robby, as always, you got the last laugh.”