When I was around eight years old, a classmate followed me home one day. And he never really left. I buried him last month.
His name was Bobby (or “Bobby Lee,” as his sister would call him), and I didn’t know it at the time, but he’d recently lost his father, a victim of a murder. His mother, Mary Ann, was a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks in a little bitty podunk town in Oklahoma, and was in no position to suddenly be a single parent – on more than one occasion, Bobby would find himself being shook awake at four in the morning. “Get dressed and get packed,” Mary Ann would whisper, “we gotta be outta here by six, before rent’s due.” One of the few jobs she could get that would pay enough to support three kids was cross-country truck driving; she’d get the call and she’d be criss-crossing the nation for the next few weeks. Seeing how her family was up in Nowhere, Oklahoma, and her late husband’s family had never approved of her in the first place, Mary Ann had next to no support system in place for such a job; more often than not, the kids were left to their own devices while she made some much needed cash. Bobby’s brother and sister, David Wayne and Sherrie Ann, were older, teenagers by this time, and could look after themselves if they had to (and they did) – Bobby, on the other hand, was still in middle school and needed a little more attention. So when Mary Ann would disappear for a couple of weeks, Bobby would come stay with me, sleeping in the floor of my and my brother, Kelly’s bedroom, washing his clothes in our laundry, and eating with us while still going attending West Mesquite Junior High.
When Kelly and I started camping in the Boy Scouts, my Dad just naturally took Bobby along; when we heading to Summer Camp, Bobby was in tow, as well. Even after Mary Ann remarried and moved to Duncanville my sophomore year of high school, Bobby was still over at my house every other weekend (how he got a ride to Mesquite remained a mystery). After we got our driver’s licenses, Bobby’s visits became even more frequent; a couple of times, I’d wake up in the middle of the night to find Bobby and a couple of his Duncanville High Friends in my bedroom – he’d been bored and convinced his friends a midnight drive to my place on a school night sounded like fun. Of course, with Bobby involved, it was fun – Bobby could make mundane activities an adventure.
Where Bobby had never fit in at West Mesquite, he excelled at Duncanville High where the Arts were a bigger part of school life (as opposed to sports at WMHS). Bobby had been born a ham; now, he blossomed into a gifted actor and intuitive dancer. Bobby thrived in the spotlight and made friendships that would last the rest of his life; Bobby also discovered he was a cheap date – about one drink was all it took to get him inebriated, then the party would get really crazy. I wasn’t there for his seventeenth birthday party, but I saw the pictures and later heard the stories; dancing buck naked in the living room (he’d gotten hot, so he took off all his clothes); hiding behind trees, then jumping out in front of passing cars to get them to swerve in an insane game of “Drunken Chicken;” and my favorite, bazooka-barfing on the fur coats in the back bedroom after some foolish person thought that would be the perfect place to let Bobby sleep it off.
His inability to handle even the slightest bit of alcohol became both a running joke and the easiest button to push to create an epic party; we’d later find out it was also evidence that Bobby had inherited more than his father’s good looks.
Mary Ann had pushed the Mesquite school system to accept Bobby as a student even though he had an October birthday; because of this, not only would Bobby be one of the smallest kids in class for years, but he was still five months shy of his eighteenth birthday when he graduated high school. On that fateful day, while his friends were being handed the keys to their new BMWs along with their diplomas, Bobby was handed instead his walking papers. “You’re a high school graduate now,” his stepfather told him. “Get out of my house.” Bobby came and stayed with us for a while over the summer until I started college that fall, then he couch surfed until moving in with my ex-girlfriend the next year. State university wasn’t working out for me, so when I returned to Mesquite, Bobby soon returned, too. We got an apartment together, not the first or last time we’d be roommates.
It was around his eighteenth birthday that Bobby came out to me. He wasn’t my first friend to do so (David had beaten him to the punch the year before), so it wasn’t like I was shocked to find out I had gay dudes in my life. It did mean that a second creative, sensitive man I knew had come out as gay, so my being a creative, sensitive hetero male was being exposed as a rarity; it also meant that there would now always be a part of Bobby’s life that I would never completely be a part of. I’d understand certain aspects – the being singled-out for ridicule by the so-called Moral Majority I’d certainly experienced – but no matter how accepting of his sexuality and lifestyle I could and would be, I’d never fully understand what it was to be a young gay man in Dallas in the mid-to-late ’80’s. And I told him as much that night at my house – I also told him I didn’t care: he was my best friend and brother, he’d always be my best friend and brother, and I would always love him, no matter what.
As much as Bobby hated school work, he loved the school atmosphere, so he was already performing at Eastfield Community College plays and musicals when I finally got my act together and returned to school as the voice major I’d always wanted to be. Whenever I was nervous, whenever I was ill at ease, I’d ask myself “What would Bobby do?” Then I’d do that. It was doing my interpretation of Bobby reciting song lyrics as poetry that I caught the eye of a lovely young woman in my voice class – Kristi had a soft spot for intelligence and glasses, and she thought my kicking over the music stand and falling to my knees in mock exhaustion hilarious. We’d later start dating, and Kristi and Bobby became fast friends – that my soon-to-be wife and oldest friend had so much in common wasn’t lost on me.
Around the time I joined the Army and eloped before being sent off to war, Bobby moved to New York. Bobby loved the Big Apple, taking to the Five Burroughs like a duck takes to water. He was there with college friends; and Wendy, Cheryl, David, and Bobby would be there own little version of “The Big Chill.” David went into publishing, Cheryl would work on Broadway, and Wendy and Bobby would pursue their acting ambitions while working day jobs. It was in New York that Bobby found he had a knack for management even without business schooling; he also learned how to let those a little too proud of their credentials get hoisted by their own petards while he toiled away in silence on the sidelines. Even though he’d finally landed a role in an off-Broadway play that got him rave reviews and the attention of several important people, Bobby’s success as a recruiter convinced him to make what I considered to be the biggest mistake of his life – he took a job in San Francisco, leaving New York and his New York support system behind. He hadn’t done his due diligence and had no idea the amazingly-well paying job was for an extremely socially-conservative company, an oddity in such a liberal city. Even without wearing his sexuality on his sleeve, the religiously oppressive atmosphere of the work environment took a heavy toll on his soul – soon, it became too much, and unable to return to New York, Bobby heading back to Mesquite, his self-confidence in shreds.
Bobby lived in our spare bedroom/office for about a year; when Oklahoma City and learning web development didn’t work out, he moved back in with us, this time spending a year in the room behind my garage. Kristi’s grandfather had originally built the space as a workshop, with a solid floor and drop ceiling; it also had it’s own phone line. We had the cable company come out and hook the room up, and with an ac unit in the window for the summer and a space heater next to the bed for the winter, Bobby had a mini-apartment.
It was after Bobby met Randy and started spending more and more of his time with his new boyfriend that we had our last big fight. Bobby was suppose to be paying rent and wasn’t; while he was away getting his love life back in order, I was keeping the lights and ac on to keep his pets happy and healthy. When I called him on it, Bobby got incensed that I was telling him how to live his life. After he stormed out, Bobby came back five minutes later.
“What just happened?”
I sighed. “You do what you’ve always done when you’re ready to move on but you feel guilty because you don’t feel like you lived up to your end of the bargain: you managed to make it all about them instead so you could justify leaving.”
Bobby blinked, then frowned. “Yeah, that’s exactly what happened.” Tears filled his eyes. “I don’t want to do this with you.”
Any and all anger I’d felt vanished at the sight of his pain. A light bulb turned on in my head.
“You know what? Let’s don’t. You’ve got a new love in your life, you’re ready to move on from here and start something new – just say that. Say ‘Keith, brother, I love you, but it’s time for me to move on. I know I owe you, and I’ll pay you back when I can; but I’ll be happier someplace else. I’m getting to the point where I’m resenting the help, and I love you too much for that. So thanks for everything you and your lovely wife have done, I so appreciate it, but I’ve got to go.’ And I’ll say “Bobby, my brother, I completely understand. All I’ve ever wanted is for you to be happy, so go do what you’ve got to do.Pay when you can, and don’t sweat it when you can’t – that’s what family is for.’ And we’ll leave it at that, with no judging and no resentment – just love and acceptance.”
Bobby stared at me with tear-streaked cheeks. “Can we do that?”
I smiled through my own tears back at him. “Why not? We’re family, right?”
Bobby hugged me like I was due for the gallows in the morning. “Yes. Yes, we are. You are so my family, and I love you so, so much. Thank you.”
The was the last time Bobby ever lived with me – he would bounce between his own apartments and sharing spaces with Randy for the next fourteen years.
A few years later, Bobby would come work at Heritage Auction Galleries with me, again amazing people with his innate management skills as an consignment co-ordinator. It was at Heritage that Bobby got sick for the first time: late-stage Hepatitus he’d more than likely picked up from a dirty tattoo needle. He’d end up going through two rounds of what was basically chemo-therapy to finally get healthy, eventually losing the job at Heritage from too much time off, but he’d would get a clean bill of health.
Then his kidneys started failing.
Bobby had discovered years earlier he’d been born with polycystic kidney disease (PKD), a hereditary disorder he’d gotten from his dad. It meant that his being a cheap date was a symptom, not a genetic perk; it meant while his kidneys still worked he’d be plagued with kidney stones every four to six weeks; and it meant that his kidneys would flat-out give up on him at a relatively early age. Bobby joked that he was meant to be born a woman, seeing how once a month he’d get cramps and bleed; what wasn’t a joke were the trips to the emergency room, his blood pressure high enough to cause micro-strokes in his brain. Randy would get him to the ER, the attending nurse would take Bobby’s blood pressure, see the numbers and immediately turn white – seconds later, a doctor would show up with a hypodermic needle full of Morphine. “How about we take the edge off?”
A few seconds later, Bobby would get a happy, goofy smile as his BP would start coming down. A couple of days in the hospital to pass the stone and watch his BP, and the doctors would send him on his way.
After a while, Bobby’s BP would just stay too high – that started the first of his daily medication ritual, a rite that grew more and more elaborate as the years went by and his kidneys got weaker.
I was never more disappointed than when I found out Bobby and I didn’t share the same blood type – I couldn’t donate a kidney to Bobby. Neither could Kristi. Neither could my mother. Bobby would have to go on the transplant list. He was practically a perfect candidate: the only thing wrong with him other than the fact his kidneys were garbage was the high blood pressure, which was a symptom of the PKD to begin with. The transplant list for Oklahoma was far shorter than the one for Texas, so Bobby made what I considered to be the second biggest mistake of his life: he up and moved to Talihina, Oklahoma to be near his brother and sister-in-law, Barbara Ann, sit through dialysis three times a week, and wait for a kidney.
The good part of being in an Oklahoma town the size of a postage stamp was the slower pace of living. The first couple of months were a vacation, as Bobby got to know his big brother in ways he’d never dreamt possible as he soaked up the fresh air and sunshine. The bad included being bored out of his mind after the luster of country living wore off (right about the time he’d seen every movie at the local rental store), and being over an hour away from a hospital on those nights something drastic happened.
Such as congestive heart failure.
With his blood pressure meds keeping his body slightly out of whack, Bobby had trouble sleeping, so some doctor prescribed him Ambien – right on the label, it says not intended for people with kidney disease. In his drug-induced stupor, Bobby was sleepwalking into the kitchen and drinking water and juices to the point of overloading his system. Bobby was only allowed around a liter of liquid a day – he was drinking twice that all at once in his sleep. Basically, he was drowning; and the fluid build up around his heart kept it from expanding as it should, causing it to shut down – congestive heart failure. I don’t know who I was madder at, the doctor for not reading Bobby’s chart, or Bobby for not checking the damn label – either way, I was quickly becoming convinced living in Oklahoma would be the death of him.
After an Oklahoma hospital not only put in the wrong type of stints into Bobby’s heart, but put them in backwards to boot, Bobby became convinced of it, too. He headed back to Texas and moved in with Randy.
Bobby hated being on a diet; Bobby hated having to restrict his fluid intact; Bobby hated being forced to do mild aerobic exercise instead of the weight lifting he wanted to do – so he didn’t. He’d made token efforts to live right, but more and more often he’d eat what he wanted, drink what he wanted, and go do what he wanted. And as if on a schedule, about once every four months, he’d end up back in the ER with congestive heart failure. It wasn’t long that Bobby would demand that Randy not let anyone know he was back in the ICU – the official reason was he didn’t want anyone to worry needlessly, he be back up and about in a week or so; the unofficial reason was Bobby didn’t want to hear the lectures he knew he had coming from worried friends and family. We wouldn’t hear from him for a few weeks, then we’d get a phone call out of the blue. “Hey. Just got out of the hospital. What’s up with ya’ll?”
When my old friend and Boy Scout mentor, Donny, passed away two and a half years ago, I wrote about what he meant to me on my Facebook page; his sisters were so taken by what I’d expressed, they asked me to speak at his funeral as well. I worked on the eulogy all week, then delivered the speech from memory that Friday morning – when I was done, I sat back down on my pew and was just devastated, choking back the tears that threatened to engulf me. As soon as I could, I went to visit Bobby.
“Brother, I just gave Donny’s eulogy and it destroyed me. I’m not ready to give your eulogy – I can’t do it. You have got to take care of yourself, you have got to do whatever it is you’ve got to do.” I blinked back the tears. “I can’t lose you. Not yet. I can’t handle it. Promise me you’ll take care of yourself. Promise me I won’t lose you.”
Bobby smiled and hugged me. “Don’t worry – I’m going to be around a good, long time. You can count on it. I promise.”
Three months later, Bobby was back in the ICU. Congestive heart failure. Bobby’s promise was shit.
I didn’t go visit him, even after the one week turned into two, he’d developed an infection that had to be dealt with before he could go home to start his now four-day a week dialysis ritual. I couldn’t. I was heart-broken, livid to the point of wanting to do him physical harm. I frankly didn’t trust myself to be in the same room with him. After he started asking people where I was, after he started questioning why I wasn’t coming to see him, I finally sent him a text.
“I’m in a really bad place, so bad I don’t trust myself to do the right thing, and you need positive energy and support around you more than ever. When I can trust myself to do what’s right for you, I’ll be around; in the meantime, believe me when I say I doing this for your good, not mine.”
Bobby stopped asking about me. He’d been home about a month when I finally went to see him.
“I wrote your eulogy.”
Bobby’s mouth fell open. “Oh, God, don’t tell me that!”
“Listen to me!” I snapped. “I wrote all but the last two paragraphs of your eulogy. Those last two paragraphs are all up to you, what you do now. Because I can write one of two things:”
“I can write about how, when confronted with the unthinkable, you never flinched when dealing with the insurmountable odds, a shining example of grace and courage in the face of adversity for all of us;” my eyes narrowed in anger, “or I can write about how, when confronted with the unthinkable, you chose to deny your circumstances, pretending you were Peter Pan and you’d be young and pretty forever, and your inability to face up to the severity of your situation directly resulted in you dying several years early.”
Bobby let out a half-cry, half-moan. I ignored him.
“It’s up to you, brother. This is your new normal – you can either deal with it head on and make something of this time; or you can continue denying it and kill yourself. The choice is all yours. But whatever you choose, THAT is what’s going into my eulogy, and THAT will be your legacy.”
We didn’t talk about it again. Three months later, he was back in the ICU.
At the start of the year, Bobby left Randy to move in with his old Duncanville friend and confidante, Loretta. I was cool with the move: Randy had done all he could to keep Bobby healthy, saving his life on more than one occasion with his quick actions; but the relationship was turning toxic despite their love for each other – Bobby hated being told what do do, and Randy hated constantly being put in situations where he felt he needed to tell Bobby what to do. Loretta had lost her husband to cancer a few years ago, so she both needed the emotion support Bobby would provide while understanding the unique position being roommates with someone with a chronic medical condition entailed. Bobby needed a new environment; Loretta was the obvious choice. So I wasn’t surprised when I hadn’t heard from him in a few months – Bobby would be busy settling into his new digs on the other side of Irving.
Late on May 5th, I got a phone call from Barbara Ann.
“Bobby was out and started not feeling good, called an ambulance – he went into cardiac arrest on the way to hospital. The EMTs resuscitated him, but he didn’t wake back up – he’s still in a coma in the ICU. I’m heading down, his mom is heading down, the hospital told us to call people.” Her voice quavered. “Keith, it doesn’t look good.”
I thanked Barbara Ann, then immediately called my mother – Mom called Barbara Ann, got Bobby’s location, room number, and password, then made plans to go see him in the morning. I went to bed with a pounding heart, a condition that was still in place when I woke up the next day. It didn’t feel right. His heart had stopped before, but he’d never been a coma that hadn’t been medically induced – this felt different, and the more I reflected on how much different this felt, how wrong it felt, the more I knew I wasn’t going to work. If he died and I wasn’t there, I’d never forgive myself. I wrote a note to my coworkers, then wrote notes to people I thought needed to know what was going on: Bobby’s old friends Carol, Cheryl, and Michele. I then threw on some clothes and headed to the hospital, fighting Dallas rush hour traffic the entire way.
Bobby had woken up by the time I’d gotten there. He was groggy from the amazing drugs they were pumping into him, and he couldn’t communicate with the breathing tube crammed down his throat; but his eyes were bright, and he acknowledge us when we got there. He recognized me, he recognized Mom, who got there soon after; he recognized Carol, who bolted from work as soon as she could. Carol made plans to come back the next day, Cheryl made plans to go see Bobby as soon as she could, and we all thought Bobby had dodged a bullet. ICU removed the breathing tube the next day, intending to move him to a room on another floor the day after that.
Bobby coded. He was dead two minutes before the crash time resuscitated him. The decision was made to leave the breathing tube in place until after the experts figured out why Bobby’s heart was stopping.
It was the next day that Carol finally got a chance to speak to the internal medicine specialist, who’d only just seen Bobby after four days in the ICU. It wasn’t the high level of potassium, it wasn’t congestive heart failure, or anything else we’d grown accustomed to being told – in the internal specialist’s opinion, it was Bobby’s heart, pure and simple. He had the heart of an eighty-year-old man. Worse, the medication they would normally give Bobby to strengthen his heart would damage his liver… which again, normally wouldn’t have been a problem except the last round of resuscitations had finally damaged his liver. Bobby was between a rock and a hard place, and no one had a clue what to do.
Bobby had been “incident-free” for a couple of days, so the decision was made to remove the breathing tube again. The doctors were waiting until after his dialysis, they wanted as much space around his heart as possible before he was allowed to breath on his own again – seeing how he only had an hour left on his treatment, I stuck around. Bobby was awake and alert; his wonderful nurse, Abby, had given him a marker and some paper so he could write to Carol and me. Even drugged up with a tube down his throat, Bobby was still making jokes. As I’d always been able to do, I understood everything he was trying to convey.
“I woke up with blood on my ass and we got high. Good times, good times!”
Carol left. It was just Bobby and me. Dialysis had another fifteen minutes.
“Difficult question? Sure, shoot.”
“Am I going to die?”
I looked at the tech. “Nope. Not today.” I looked at Abby. “Not if I can help it. Bobby’s going to be fine.” I shrugged and smiled at Bobby. “They say you aren’t, and they should know. Not your time, brother.”
Bobby closed his eyes. I left the room so they could unhook the dialysis machine and finally pull that tube out of his throat. I went to the waiting room to turn my cell back on, text my persons of concern Bobby’s status. Loretta and Bobby’s mom, Mary Ann arrived, and I filled them on on our day… though I left out the part about Bobby asking if he was going to die; I did mention Bobby expressing he’d marry Carol if he only wasn’t gay.
I went to check on Bobby – tube was out and he was talking with no trouble. His memory was swiss cheese, though, which distressed him – he didn’t remember moving to Irving with Loretta or than he’d been there for over four months; he thought he’d been in the hospital since January.
“No, you’ve been in the hospital a week – you’ve been in Irving since January. Don’t sweat it – they’ve been pumping you full of the good stuff for days, bro; give yourself some time to filter the drugs out of your system, your memory will come back just fine.”
I squeezed his hand, told him I loved him, and made plans to come back after work Monday. Monday, a small monsoon drenched the metroplex and destroyed rush hour, so I took myself home and recommitted to going out to Bedford Tuesday. I was in a morning meeting in the conference room when my cell phone vibrated on the table.
“What was that?” asked my acting Marketing Manager and friend, Aja.
I didn’t look down – I didn’t have to. “That was my phone letting me know I just got a text informing me Bobby took a turn for the worse.”
Aja blinked. “Okay. Moving on.” She resumed the meeting. I took a look at my phone – I had a text from Carol. “Loretta says Bobby coded again.”
The meeting ended. I looked at Aja. “I was right. It’s bad. I’m leaving.”
“Do what you have to do. I’m praying for you.”
I ran to the car and texted Kristi. “Bobby coded again. I’m heading to Bedford.”
“Work was slow, so I’m off – come get me?”
“Absolutely – on my way.”
I ran by the house, picked up my wife, then reminded myself to obey at least some of the traffic laws as I sped across Dallas to get to the hospital. Kristi fielded the texts that came in while I drove like a maniac. I pulled into a parking spot and headed toward the doors.
It was Mary Ann, sitting in a wheelchair, crying as she smoked in the parking lot across the street from the entrance. “They say there’s nothing left we can do.”
I turned and made my way to the ICU; there was Loretta, tears in her eyes. “He coded again this morning; they brought him back, but every time his heart drip stops, he codes again. The doctor says Mary Ann will probably have to make a hard decision soon, but if he keeps coding, the decision may be taken out of her hands.”
I hugged her. I texted my parents, who were still on the way. I texted my friends. I squeezed Kristi’s hand. We filled in Carol and her stepdaughter, Lauren, when they arrived. I checked on Cheryl.
The doctor came back out and stood next to Mary Ann. “There’s nothing left we can do. At this point, the only thing keeping him alive is the medication, and eventually that won’t work. You need to make the call.”
Randy was standing behind Mary Ann, his hands on her shoulders. She let out a sound that was just louder than a moan, just a little more quiet than a cry – she let out the same sound Bobby had when I told him I’d written his eulogy. “I can’t. I can’t say it.”
No one moved. She sobbed once, hard, then coughed. I left Kristi’s side, knelt down in front of Mary Ann, and took her hands in mine. I looked up into her eyes. “You have to be strong. You have to be strong for Bobby. He needs you to say the words. He needs to rest. We have to let him go. You have to say it.”
Mary Ann cried again. “How can I say it? Loretta, help me say it.”
Loretta’s amazingly steady voice came from behind me. “Do it. Turn off the machines. I’ll take responsibility.”
The doctor frowned. “It has to be her.”
I squeezed Mary Ann’s hands. “You have to say it. Let him rest, sweetie. You have to let him rest. Say the words.”
Mary Ann cried, then softly made out something the doctor could use. I stood, texted my parents, then made my way back to Bobby’s room in the ICU. Randy was seated on Bobby’s right, holding his hands as I’d held Mary Ann’s. I made my way to the left side of the bed, placing my hand on his shoulder. There was no light in Bobby’s half-closed eyes – he’d already left us, we were just allowing his body to catch up with his spirit. The heart monitor slowly counted down to zero. I stepped back just as the room’s curtain swung open – Cheryl looked at Bobby, then looked at me. “Is he gone?”
“Just this second.”
She fell into my arms. I squeezed her gently, then let her go to stand next to Bobby. I looked around the room: Randy, from when he’d come home from Oklahome the first time; Loretta and Ty from Duncanville; Cheryl with her partner, Natalie from New York; Kristi, Carol with her stepdaughter, Lauren from Eastfield; and finally me, from Galloway and West Mesquite. Bobby’s closest, oldest, most beloved friends from all the different periods of his life – the family he started creating for himself after his father was taken from him forty years earlier – all by his side as he’d gently gone to his final sleep.
I did and didn’t keep my promise to Bobby a few days later. I delivered most of the eulogy I’d written two years ago, but those last two paragraphs I said were up to him to finish, I used expressing what Bobby had meant to me instead. I didn’t need to talk about how Bobby had dealt with the last few years of his life – Bobby had died as he had lived: on his own terms, doing what he enjoyed with the people that he loved. He was the impetus that had brought so many of us together, and he was the glue that held so many of our relationships together; and when I wrote Bobby’s obituary and later delivered Bobby’s eulogy, THAT would be the legacy I would impart to the people who loved him so very much.
If I have the confidence to stand in front of a room full of strangers and perform for them, it’s because Bobby gave me the confidence that I could and the courage to try. This next phase of Operation: Rock Star is dedicated to him, my oldest friend and brother. I owe it to myself to be the success he always saw I’d be.
I miss you, Bobby. And I will love you forever.