Tuesday, April 28, 2015

I was talking with a friend...

I was talking last night with a friend who recently had a “health event” 3-4 weeks ago that stood him right at the edge of eternity. He told me shortly after the event that he felt very fragile and uncertain. Last night he blew my mind in a very good way when he went on at length about the beautiful support he received from his partner. There was such joy in his voice. To me it was like he had fallen in love all over again and stronger than before – he seemed scarcely able to believe how she had loved him through his uncertainty and fear. I was responding along several tracks: one was that Leslie is gone and from her, I no longer have that beautiful support, at least in a physical, earthly sense - so that was sad. The other track was happiness that my friend knows such deep and affirming love. And it made me happy that he knows me well enough to share these joyful things with me in this time of grief. 

Here is to Love, to Beauty, to Hope, to our Beautiful Fragility. 
On a train in Burma. The man in the blue shirt had malaria;
the woman is taking care of him, her arm around him. 2007


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I was reading back through some older journal entries. I took these words from something I wrote on our last trip through Bangkok and Chiang Mai a year and a half ago:  

You call it liver-but I call it karma (link) 
As I said in an earlier post, we seem to be mostly repeating ourselves on this trip, going where we’ve been before, eating tried and true things… Oceans of memories memories memories memories….oceans… of memories… together.
These are the days.
Bangkok: at this point in the trip everything is a big effort. Basically we’re just being in BK, eating fabulous food, having “happy hour” every evening on the porch of the hotel… 50 years on…

Here is a really pretty song - You... wait here in my arms as I shake. Yeah, I know about waiting as I shake, as I tremble. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dPJLu_wcTKc

If you must wait,
Wait for them here in my arms as I shake
If you must weep,
Do it right here in my bed as I sleep
If you must mourn, my love
Mourn with the moon and the stars up above
If you must mourn,
Don't do it alone

If you must leave,
Leave as though fire burns under your feet
If you must speak,
Speak every word as though it were unique
If you must die, sweetheart
Die knowing your life was my life's best part
And if you must die,
Remember your life

You are
You are
Oh, you are
You are
Oh

If you must fight,
Fight with yourself and your thoughts in the night
If you must work,
Work to leave some part of you on this earth
If you must live, darling one,

Just live
Just live
Just live


Saturday, April 11, 2015

Mourning

Notes made before going to sleep, March-April 2015

Leslie about age 45
Saturday, April 11, 2015. Awhile back I wrote that one way to look at my invitations to read this journal or blog would be as gestures of intimacy. This entry is the most intimate of gestures, of invitations. Parts of this are raw, because I was raw when I wrote those parts. Everything is in the order it was written, so there isn’t necessarily a progression through time or topic.

I’m finishing this entry at an ambient psytrance event in an old church in Oakland. Incredible.

All the photos are here
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I said to Jeff, “I don’t mean to put Leslie on a pedestal… who am I trying to kid; she’s been on a pedestal (where she belongs) for 50 years.”

David: you have done/are doing exactly what you said you would do. Thank you.

I’m so sad, but somehow, at the moment, I’m not unhappy. Just think how many glory days we had.
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Shortly after she died, several nurses and I were taking care of Leslie in her ICU bed and I said to them, “She had an insanely beautiful body.”
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(SF, January) We had made love the night before and in the morning I said, “You know, that felt like the first time.” You said, “Yes, but better.” Oh, how I was looking forward to making love with you again.
About age 20
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I felt good about my physical strength in helping Leslie in/out of the bathroom, up and down the steps, etc.

I took good care of my wife. Several times in her last weeks, I said, “Have you noticed that no matter how many hours I work, it’s always with a glad heart and face. Beautiful Leslie, it’s easy. I adore you.” We were irritated with one another about two times in the last month, but not about what I was doing/the caregiving. “It’s easy. I adore you.”

I realized that Leslie surrendered to my caregiving and taking care of everything. Jeff pointed out that I also surrendered – to this new and ever-changing reality.
In Santa Fe about 1972

Leslie escaped! She and I were both headed for a long, hard time. I worked in healthcare most of my life. I know what the score is. So did Leslie. She was on the bus to the penitentiary and she escaped!!!

She was never going to leave my care. She was never going to the rehab place where her mother went. I was working out the logistics and details of caregiving. I know what’s involved. Going in, eyes wide open, heart wide open.

She knew she was changing in a bad direction – physically and mentally. She’s never liked to talk about such things and I certainly didn’t push it.
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I read what follows to Leslie (the first words in an entry I won’t be posting, titled “This much sadness is too much sorrow”):

One very serious thing. I am well aware that you’re in a struggle against supervision and similar issues. I can relate – as a big-time, long-time recipient of supervision myself ;-). But I want you to know with utmost clarity that if I ever need real supervision because I’m unable to take care of myself or whatever (like when I was in the hospital), that I trust you completely to do the right thing – to know what I want and need and act on it. And I vow to do the same for you.

In Burma about 1980
I read that to Leslie. She just listened and nodded. She never did like to talk about dying. I knew clearly what she wanted re life and the end of life. This was a perfect dying for Leslie Sue Kemp.
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Dying is often not easy. These were hard times for her. She underwent profound changes starting at almost exactly 6pm that last (Thursday) night. She went to surgery about 1:30am Friday morning and she passed away back in her room surrounded by pure love about 4:30am. (I’m actually not clear on times, and maybe even days.) I was with her, embracing her, whispering words of love, of remembrance, people she loved, people who loved her, the Song of Ruth…
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We had a sexual renaissance – kind of a global flowering in our interactions and attitudes. Part of it was being in SF, but the greater part was something else – we don’t know what. But we were thrilled. And all this in the context of back pain and disability. Awkward sex, great sex. The best we ever had. I was really looking forward to sex with Leslie again. Once, after surgery, when she was having a pretty good day, she brought up having sex. I’m like, “Oh, let’s just lie here together…”
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I’m certain now that the greatest part of our bad times in November and December was related to the fact that she did have unfinished business with me and so she finished it. I had wounded her many years ago and she had some things to say and do in relation to that. It was very painful for both of us.
Waiting for a bus outside Khao-I-Dang refugee camp 1982

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In recent years, we would always lie in bed talking before sleep – sometimes late. In her last months she talked far more than ever about her childhood and teen years. I loved hearing these things about her Mom and Dad and sisters and friends and so on. About her connections to them.
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During the worst times, David said, “Dad, that isn’t Mom.” He said several times that I had to adapt. And I did. As I adapted, so did Leslie.

For better and worse. In sickness and in health.

Wherever you go, I will go.
Leslie and David

David said that the situation wasn’t sustainable. I could see that, but maybe it would be sustainable if we didn’t worry too much about sustaining me. I was ready to sacrifice my life to her care. If you think about it, what else could I do? What else would I want to do? Wherever you go, I will go. I’ve had some tests and experiences in life and I felt ready for this one.

Leslie trusted me when the chips were down. She knew I would take good care of her.

In her last weeks Leslie had almost no appetite. I would fix tiny plates with 2-4 small bites.
Outside of Hue, 2010

In retrospect I realize the constipation secondary to opioids, hyponatremia, decreased activity, decreased fluid intake, etc. was basically untreatable. When she started taking opioids I asked her every day if she was constipated. She was irritated every time. As time passed I stopped asking…
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Leslie had beautiful hands. I loved kissing and touching her hands. Of course later they weren’t so beautiful, but I never stopped stroking and kissing her hands. Her hands, her hair, her body, everything changed with the passage of time. I never stopped seeing how beautiful she is. I never stopped saying it and she knew it was true.

I think she just ignored stuff she didn’t like. “Forget, forget.”
With David in Hue, 2010

In Leslie’s last month I would read to her when we were in bed – first from my blog (the traveling parts), and when that became too difficult for her to track, I would read from Little Golden Books and similar books I had stored in David’s closet. I just realized that everything I read was related to going home, finding a safe place, and the like. Little Golden Books I read to my sweet Leslie included:
Melanie Mouse’s Moving Day
The Fuzzy Duckling
The Shy Little Kitten
The Pokey Little Puppy
Home for a Bunny
Once when I was in his closet looking for another book to read to Leslie I saw a book titled, These Happy Golden Years. I burst into tears.
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I say to myself, “I’m really alone.” Then David calls and I’m not alone. My beloved wife.

Of course things keep happening like Julio getting into Jesuit – a kind of wave goodbye from all the beautiful work Leslie did.
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People have reached out to me every day this (first) week. Among them:
David Kemp
John Kemp
Jeff
THE perfect photo of Leslie. With David in Hue, 2010
Aletha
Shirin
Chris
David O
Nora
Kay
Ron
Jim C
Roxanne
Mary Ann
Janet Z
Lance and Chhorvy
Men in my Bible study group
Charles B
Jun (and Jessica)

Here I am with David and the support is deeper and I hope there is some mutuality in supporting one another.

Anyway, except for David and Charles, I’ll be alone a lot. I have things listed out to help me stay focused, e.g., gym, registering for Kaiser in SF, the Apothecarium veterans group, and other things.
Maybe this trip to SF will be a time to mourn, a time for integration.
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When I’m here alone I talk to your photos – I smile at your beauty – I cry for you and for me and for David. Yeah, how bittersweet this is. How sad.
At Butt Fast Foods in the back of the Chung King Mansions, Hong Kong

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Wednesday – the day of the memorial service… It still seems unreal, but real. Sad, but with these strong feelings of gratitude and awe.

The gratitude is for your life, that I was part of it, that I knew who and what you are, that you love me, that I love you, that our love grew and grew. I never tired of you and being with you. That you gave so much of yourself to me, that you taught me how to be a good parent and a good man, that you saved my life (mentally and physically). You redeemed me.

The awe… you really did do everything I and others talk about you doing. You really did save all those lives, build all those families, bring hope to the hopeless, change the irreversible trajectory of so many people’s lives, teach me, teach David, Nora, others.

I adore you.
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We had the memorial service for my beautiful Leslie. It went well. Part of what was on the program/the order of honoring is here. The music and slides were perfect. I chose three songs and David chose two. They were Ripple, Brokedown Palace, Attics of My Life (all by the Grateful Dead) and Downpour (Brandi Carlile) and A Love That Will Never Grow Old (Emmylou Harris). The setting (Wildwood Chapel) was perfect. Many people were there.
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Integrity vs. despair: the final psychosocial/spiritual stage of life. LOL, Leslie came down firmly in integrity. Now it’s my turn.
Leslie at a Memorial service for a person named Feather, San Francisco, 2014

She gave me Christmas! In my early years Christmas was a bad time – hopes smashed again and again in the shards of my father’s rage. Later, when it was just my Mom and brothers and Aunt Dinah it was better – good. But somehow those early years colored everything. Paint it black. Afraid to hope. Then Leslie. She gave me Christmas – magic, happiness – dreams come true. Once, early on she gave me the big box of crayons, the one I’d never had when I was a child.

I want to talk with you. I want you to know how I’m doing and what’s happening besides all the sorrow. I want you to know all the things I’m doing like you would like.

Alison at CM: “…how you looked at each other.”

Earlier today I passed the little side street where a few days before the surgery we stopped in the evening to make out. I told Leslie’s friend about this and she said, “Oh, that’s cute.” I said, “Not cute. Really sexy.”
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From David, for memorial service program:

Dear Mom,

I cannot begin to describe the sadness and emptiness that your passing has left in my heart. Yet at the same time, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for every moment of every day that we had together.

Even before I took my first breath, you and Dad chose me. You chose me to be your son. And from the very beginning, we were a family.

For David and Charles' wedding
I have never had even a shred of doubt that you loved me as much as one person can love another. You told me every day, but more than that, you showed me every day. Whether you were driving me to school or quizzing me on my vocabulary words; applauding after my orchestra performance or cheering during a fencing tournament; supporting me throughout my coming out or consoling me through a challenging time; riding the bus with me in Cambodia or sitting in the back seat of a limo in San Francisco; ordering dim sum or planning my wedding—ours was “a love that will never grow old.”

You have always believed in me, believed that I could be anything, do anything. And knowing you believed in me was all the strength I needed. You were my biggest fan, my most faithful ally, my best friend.

I promised you that I would always love you, that I would always take care of you. I hope you feel that I have lived up to that promise. And I promise to do the same for Dad. Our happy little family, forever. (And it's going to get a little bigger later this year).

Thank you. I love you.
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From me, for memorial service program:

Goodbye beautiful Leslie. Now I know what people really mean when they say, “She will live in my heart forever.” It’s reality. Here you are. I’ve loved you all my life. You are the best thing that ever happened in my life.

When I had no wings to fly, you flew to me…

San Francisco
You taught me everything I know about being a good parent and I have never stopped being grateful for this gift. I remember how you used to worry and sometimes cried about what if David grew up and grew apart from us. Leslie, what joy in recent years when you understood how much he loves you. He gave you an entire city! Welcome to San Francisco Leslie! Our happy little family.

From my journal: I was lying beside Leslie one night, thinking that I know just a handful of people who have been as merciful with so many people for as long a time with as much competence and complete selflessness as Leslie. She gave it away like it was water. She was the embodiment of mercy and justice.

All that and our life together, making love with Leslie!!!

I’ve been with you in refugee camps, spending countless hours on some mean streets and alleys and in too many seriously run-down slum apartments; I’ve seen you comfort women who’ve been raped, people in pain, people who are dying, people past the edge of grief, pain, madness; I’ve watched you work miracles—going up against The Machine and winning, time and time again (Xena!); I’ve been with you on buses rattling all across Asia, on trains into the Vietnam mountains, on boats in the Gulf of Siam, in donkey carts in Burma, on Royal Nepal Airlines with the cockpit door swinging back and forth; we’ve slept together in a little grass shack on the Gulf of Siam, in Burmese guesthouse rooms with walls that went up ~6 feet and then chicken wire, in a tiny low-ceiling room in Nepal sleeping on a straw mattress with a giant wool blanket and a wooden latch on the door, in a room on the Thai-Cambodian border with artillery hitting a mile away – maybe closer, in rooms smaller than prison cells, in a brothel, in a little shack in Oklahoma with tornadoes roaring all around, in a really old hotel in a mostly deserted town in Nevada where we lived for a few months, in our happy home in Dallas… We’ve had some times!

In a refugee apartment
We are fulfilled. Nothing is undone between us. We have loved and been loved, lived our beliefs, had a happy home, had a beautiful son, had a grand partnership with one another, had many adventures, and so much more—really, it’s been amazing!  

I love you sweet Leslie. 
_____________
From San Francisco

Kay sent me this message on FB:

I woke up today thinking about Leslie's beautiful memorial service. It seems trite to say that she would have loved it, but it was a perfect remembrance of her life and work -- not one wasted moment or superfluous word. David's story about "Panama" was lovely. I hope you're in SF now, making the rounds of her favorite places, feeling her spirit with you. My memories of Leslie: her smile (see David's version of it), her shock of white hair, her (entirely appropriate) sense of righteous indignation, and the phone. She used the telephone as her cudgel, hammering away at institutional resistance and never, never hanging up until she had reasonable assurance that a patient would be seen. Your teenage heart chose the right woman and the rest of us are fortunate to have known her. What a great gal! Be kind to yourself in the coming months as you work through this difficult time. Consider every hug a little gift from her --- or, at least, a little package of her good karma coming back to you.

Leslie in her natural habitat
I answered…

Thank you Kay. Now I know why I clicked FB today. I'll copy this and send to David. Coincidentally, I transcribed this from yesterday's NYT in an article about a woman who helps other women escape bad arranged marriages (quote from a woman who was helped to escape and more): “I cannot even describe what it’s like to have an angel sweep down and kiss you on the forehead and then hold your hand and tell you, ‘I’m not letting go until you’re okay.’” That was Leslie, a bright, sparkling star in so so many nights
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Email to David: What I was saying re Dr. Lichliter saving Mom from a code sends a chill through me and makes my heart speed up every time I think of it. That was as close a call as it gets. Like living through an ambush.
Christmas 2014, all these years in love

She not only escaped, she dodged a close-range bullet (of a hell of a lot of trauma and suffering).

I didn't really cry all day yesterday and again today until I wrote the above. Then I cried hard and for what seems a long time.
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I took some photos of Leslie about 8 hours before she passed from this earth… her state of mind is shown as good. It gives me joy to see all these pictures.
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Of all the people in the whole wide world to walk down the hall, nobody could have been better than Warren Lichliter.
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I’m glad I told you 1000s of times how much fun you are. In my life, the thrill is gone, that’s for sure.

I’m a lot less now than when I was with you.

A year and a half ago we were walking along a street in Saigon late one afternoon and Leslie said something like, “Look, a beer only costs 10,000 dong here. Let’s go in.” We did and from that day onward, we had “happy hour” together every evening.
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Now this.

In San Francisco. AIDS Quilt in background
My beautiful Leslie died about 4am last Friday, March, 6, 2015. I am filled with sorrow and with gratitude for her life, our life, our little family’s life together for so many happy golden years.

We fell in love when we were 16 literally at first sight outside the cafeteria at Thomas Jefferson High School. My home life was not good and Leslie’s parents, especially her mother, were always kind to me. I would come over to her house late at night and toss coins at her window to wake her and she would slip out of her room and let me in. We would cuddle up in the den (the farthest room from her parent’s room) and talk and make out for endless hours. Nights of innocence.

Leslie went to college and I went to the Marine Corps (one of many clues about who’s the smart one). When I came home from Vietnam in the fall of 1967, a little worse for wear, she was in a relationship with someone else, but that soon came to an end and we’ve been together ever since. We were married October 18, 1969.

Our son, David, was born and adopted June 16, 1985. What joy he brought and still brings to us. Leslie adores him.

When Leslie died there was no unfinished business between us, nothing unsaid, no apologies, no reconciliations. We were all complete and fulfilled. From an email to David:

Around Christmas 2014, Leslie and David. Love.
I'm glad you see my question/your answer that way. That is exactly how I see it and how Mom saw it as well. Truly, you and Mom were completely up-to-date. Nothing undone, nothing unsaid. It is all complete and fulfilled. She knew how much you loved her and she loved you with all the unconditional extravagance of her mother's heart. She more than accepted you; she embraced everything you are. David, you gave her these past few months in San Francisco - it's all you. All the kindnesses and beauty she received in this time is all thanks to you. 
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I was looking at photos of you this morning (3 weeks in) and crying quietly. My beloved wife.
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Easter marked one month since Leslie passed away. David and Charles and a friend of theirs and I went to church at Grace Cathedral. It was a good place to mark the passing of time. On Good Friday I went to the AIDS Memorial Grove (sacred space) to reflect. It’s past a month now. I think it’s been a week since I’ve cried hard – since the deep sobbing that leaves me empty and exhausted and better off. I cry every day of course, but quietly, and usually only about twice. I’m no longer thinking of Leslie every moment of every day.

In our San Francisco apartment
I think in another month or so I’ll cease to be defined by mourning. But it feels like I’ll never stop mourning on some level and I’ll never stop loving you.