Alex presented me with the rose and lavender vase.
“It’s an urn,” he said. “You can put my ashes in it.” When I looked at him with wide startled eyes, he was laughing.
Until February, 1994, I hung out with him in his studio every few days. When he grew weaker and stopped making pottery, I sat with him in his kitchen, over tea in the breakfast nook.
Tim made his pilgrimage to frozen Mirror Lake, which seemed to rejuvenate his spirit. For a couple of months, he had no more relapses.
Alex endured a brief stay in the hospital to treat Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia, P.C.P. When he returned home, emaciated and exhausted, a caregiver showed up, an old friend, of square jaw, squat box-like body, run-over carpet slippers and uncertain gender who introduced herself as Miss Caprice. I knew that wasn’t her real name, but her narrowed eyes dared me to question it. I shrugged. She was solid and dependable, and clearly loved Alex as much as I did. I didn’t care what she called herself. She moved into Alex’s studio and slept on the overstuffed pink loveseat, her feet propped on the armrest.
Far too soon, Alex stayed in bed all the time. I visited him every couple of days.
I brought a pomegranate, cut it open on the counter next to the Silver Spangled Hamburgs, dug out the ruby seeds and took them to Alex in a celadon dish. He put one in his mouth and crunched it, held the dish in his hand and gazed long at the ruby red. When he looked up his radiance was all around.
“How could anyone doubt there’s a God?” he said.
I took him some tulips, forced early by the nursery, still tightly closed in the bud, pale green with red stripes. “My dad explained to me about tulips,” I said. “Tulips are the only flowers that actually become more gorgeous when the bulbs have a virus. The virus turns the flower into flames and feathers.”
Over the next week they opened into glowing yellow with flames of red, the edges of the petals ruffled feathers.
“The tulips…” Alex said. “The tulips… they’re more outrageous every day.”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes. They are.”
And so are you, my outrageous friend, so are you.
March, 1995. Alex was dying. His frail bag of bones dwindled before my eyes, barely there under the blankets. His skin was translucent, light caramel, his eyes deep brown, seeing things I couldn’t see.
“Dementia,” Miss Caprice said. “Brain lesions.”
Alex reached for what he saw, stretched his arms straight out in front of him, and formed his thumbs and forefingers into a square like a photographer, tried to frame his vision. He said it was light. He said there was a door in it. He said he didn’t know how to go through it. I told him he did know how, that he could do it. Then he said, “I can do it.”
He opened his hands and let them drop to his chest. “I can do it,” he said. “I can do it.”
Alex still had dark Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesions on his face. The one on the tip of his cheekbone had expanded to the size of a silver dollar.
He asked me to “get that muscle, the one where my fingers meet.” His two index fingertips touched each other, pressed just inside the bridge of his nose in his left eye socket. I touched my right forefinger to that spot where the tear duct opens—maybe it was an acupressure point? Was it a muscle tic that bothered him?—and he took his fingers away. The palm of my hand rested on his cheek. He closed his eyes. I pressed the spot with my fingertip, as he had asked me to. Finally he spoke. “Thank you. Maybe more later.”
I stroked my fingers over his closed eyes, smoothed love onto his eyes, let it flow through my fingertips like glaze from a brush, and he fell asleep.
The dawn hadn’t yet lightened the darkness when I woke the next morning. The feeling of Alex was all around me, propelled me out of bed and onto the back deck, where I sat in the porch swing and let it rock me in the dark. A large blue spruce tree dominated one corner of the yard. I could just make out its looming dark shape against the fence, and the flowers that edged the rest of the yard. Daffodils and red tulips bloomed in clumps. Purple hyacinth scented the air. The brightness of forsythia twigs from the bush in the corner. Quince. And the pink and white blossoms of daphne, in the corner next to my swing, surrounding me with intense fragrance.
Alex was so present that I looked around, expected to see him. It was tactile, that presence, skin brushing against skin. It hovered and danced, slipped away and returned, a light feather touch against my face or my hand, just a touch, but as deeply comforting as a warm hug.
Something caught my eye, just in front of the blue spruce, a kind of whirling transparent opal gleam. It was Alex, dancing among the flowers. Longing and sorrow jolted through me. He had crossed the border into the unknown. Then my sorrow gave way to joy, seeing him dance, seeing him made of light and air. He twirled and spun light into the eastern sky. The day had begun.
The illuminated mist followed me in when I went through the back door to make coffee. It hovered near the window and gathered itself into a shimmering flame.
The coffee was almost ready when the phone rang, jarring me out of my opalescent bubble. It was Miss Caprice. Her voice was a low weary monotone.
“Alex passed,” she said. “Four this morning. I’m not calling the undertaker until you come by to see him.”
The flame whirled out the back door.
“That’s okay, I think I already knew it. I saw him last night, and I already felt him leave.”
“No, you got to come,” she said. “Alex said you got to come. He said, ‘Don’t call the undertaker until Judy comes. So, when you coming?”
* * *
Miss Caprice opened the door. There were heavy gray bags under her eyes. I wanted to put my arms around her and give her a hug, or maybe get a hug, but her face said No. She turned and led me into the house and I patted her square back as we dipped under the buffalo head mounted in the entryway, its beard brushing across our heads. She trudged with heavy footsteps to Alex’s bedroom door. Let her hand rest a moment on the doorknob, then turned to me before she opened it.
“He thought the world and all of you, you know.”
So I did give her a hug, and the tears were a relief.
Miss Caprice left the door open and went to call the undertaker.
Alex was peaceful. I sat with him. Gazed at his slight smile, his smooth face, so strange without an aura. I couldn’t stop staring. I remembered how he had looked when we first met. He looked the same now, except thirty pounds lighter, his cheekbones more sharply defined. Something was different about his face, probably that there was no animation in it, no life in his expression.
The undertaker came in the front door and greeted Miss Caprice. I stood up and took a last, long look. I kissed Alex’s limp hands lying on his chest, then started for the door. And stopped.
Something was different.
Alex’s skin was clear and smooth. The K.S. lesions were gone, the cheek tumor had disappeared. Only a faint round shiny shadow covered the cheekbone just under his left eye, where the palm of my hand had rested when I put my finger on his tear duct.
Alex’s smile was…triumphant. It was his final gift to me.