For Peter, who gave me the best piece of writing advice I ever had. Upon reading one of my first research papers, he said to me, “Amidha, THIS is a period. Use it.” I’ve tried ever since…. I love you, honey. This is for you both.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message
He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good. –W.H. Auden
I remember, when I was a kid, my parents went through this phase where all of a sudden old friends and relatives were dying. Being as self-centered as most children, I don’t remember what age they were–or I was–but I bet they were about the age I am now, because here I am in my early sixties, and all of a sudden people who were “mine” are dying, or so it seems in the parlance in which departure from the apparent is commonly understood. In the past few months, I have lost several old and dear friends, including friends I’d never met: Robin Williams, for one, who was “ours” in a way that is at least as profound as if we’d known him. But this is not about him. Enough people have written about him. This is about someone no one else may think to write about, and it occurs to me that what one contributes to life has very little to do with how many people knew of them, but of the part they played in the unfoldment of this collective being that we are. Yet most of us don’t tend to think about that.
When I first started college, I had a math teacher named Peter. I was an older student: I only started college when I was about 31 or so, and thus I was often as old as my teachers, and often they became friends and, occasionally, lovers. That, of course, is yet another story. As for my friendship with Peter, he dragged me, kicking and screaming, through the miseries of Freshman Algebra, and we laughed and giggled and pointed and puzzled about the world and mused about how math could express the ineffable in ways that language often couldn’t. It meant a lot to me to learn to think in this way, and we had a great time celebrating the absurdities of the world. Eventually, I got to know his partner, Rocco, and this story is about him mostly, except that it’s hard to think about Rocky without Peter, or of Peter without Rocky (he was Rocky more than he was Rocco in those days, at least to my knowledge). But now Peter is without Rocco, some thirty years later: Rocco just died of a particularly rapid and dreadful cancer process, and I watch from our current distance as Peter dies with him, and contemplates learning to live again, somehow. My heart weeps for them both, even as it celebrates Rocco’s advancement to the next stage of his journey, or the next “trail head,” as I’m told he expressed it once he knew his departure from this plane was inevitable. Rocco loved to hike in the beautiful Blue Ridge surrounding us in Western North Carolina.
The last time Peter and I engaged in a deeper discussion, we talked about marriage and what it is and isn’t, and his resentment that because he and Rocco are gay, the same “perks” that are available to heterosexual couples are not available to them: nothing is assumed when one doesn’t go along with the “party line:” these two men could not marry, in the eyes of the world, even though they had lived together for a good 38 years, certainly a lot longer than I have been married to my beloved… But they could not assume the same things that I assume: Peter had a good job at the university, but he could not share his employee benefits with his “spouse,” nor could any of the other practical things that “married” people in this world share–Social Security, for instance–be assumed to be available to them. The world effectively denies the reality of their marriage and, in the great state of North Carolina, even more so.
While I was still in school, Rocky and Peter bought a little house in the mountains outside Asheville, and essentially, over the last 20-plus years, rebuilt it. We lost touch for a number of years while our family was wandering around other parts of the world, but when we came back together, they were, obligingly, right where I’d left them, and their little house had become a mystical little cottage perched on the side of the mountain, amidst the beautiful things they’d planted and cultivated. They had acquired a good bit of land around it, and they had spent most of these years caring for it and creating their idyllic little home. Peter continued to work at the university, and Rocco, for the most part, stayed home and worked on the house. The two of them never seemed remotely like stereotypical gay people, although Peter often insisted, laughing, that they were, citing such things as his vast collection of show tunes. I, the idealist, don’t like stereotypes, but they seemed to quite enjoy them, possibly because they understood more about their efficacy than I did. In my “best of all possible worlds,” we are all just people, and labels are not necessary, but despite my fondness for Peter and Rocco, I am very aware that they lived in a world that I couldn’t really understand, one they needed in a culture that insisted on making something strange and aberrant of their own kind of normalcy. Perhaps all the sub-groups we insist on creating must survive by creating such stereotypes, images, languages, cultural and artistic tastes, music and behaviors that allow them to feel part of a group, a family, a culture. It is an essential need, and it often arises out of the need for protection and security and affirmation of being. One has to find ways to hold on to health, wholeness and sanity in an insane and unhealthy world.
Thus, when I attempt to write about Rocky and therefore Peter, I am aware that I only knew them in the context of my world, while they lived their larger lives in the gay community: they lived through the AIDS epidemic, “gay pride,” the battles that all so-called sub-groups have to fight in this world where the norm is defined largely by the White Man. I am endlessly curious and interested in my fellow human beings, and we had many discussions about their lives compared to ours . . . and I was always aware that there was territory they could not allow me to approach, nor could they approach mine. Neither had ever been with a woman, but Rocco, who had been in the military long before “don’t ask, don’t tell,” seemed to me to have a certain tenderness and feeling for what it is to be a woman in this world. I have noticed this difference in feeling in other gay friends, and it is hard to describe, but it is there. Yet having given even this much space to the “gay issue” seems false, because that is not what either of them is about, in my opinion, even though the world forced them to live as if it was. So let me try to describe Rocky:
It is my understanding that souls in this world get here through various means and come from various places. I do not know this in a factual sense, although it is a theory I’ve often read about and learned at the feet of my Sufi teacher and others. As for me, I know it in a nostalgic sense: there are worlds I carry memories of: other lives, other planes of existence. I miss them and in moments of absorption, I catch the memory of their essence. I’ve met people on this planet who make me think of these other worlds, who seem to carry the heritage of other existences more strongly than some, and when I think of Rocco, I think of a being who was, really, almost too pure for this world. He enjoyed his earthly existence, but he wasn’t really “from” here, although I never heard him speak about it. He was a simple soul, and I suspect he suffered greatly in this world, because he did not have the defenses most of us have to develop to get through it, nor the will to develop them. In this sense, Peter was, I suspect, his guardian angel, allowing him to be the exemplar of balance. For someone who celebrated the physical plane, he seemed somehow untouched by it. Perhaps he celebrated too much, too, but that was his right. Over these last few years, my husband and I again took up our long-distance relationship with Peter and Rocco, because my daughter went to college at UNC-Asheville, and that gave us the opportunity to visit with them in their dear little house on a fairly regular basis. Rocco always cooked exquisite dinners for us, and we would sit on their porch looking over the mountains until late into the gloaming. We always took a loaf of bread home with us, and Rocco’s bread was miraculous: he grew the wheat, he harvested and ground it, and his dough rose on the woodstove and produced bread that was a blessing to eat. In those times, sometimes we laughed and sometimes we spoke of deeper things. The two of them were opposites in an interesting way: Peter battled with the outer life and created the defenses to do so. As a result of this, I noticed a certain bitterness and anger as he grew older: but who among us isn’t familiar with that? As for Rocco, he had few defenses other than Peter, and he knew that. Yet perhaps his most powerful defense was his defenselessness. The two of them were married in the deepest sense of the word, but their marriage wasn’t like that of us “straight” people: they had no social and/or economic need for the mores we create to keep us safe, and their lives seemed to be freewheeling in ways we “breeders” can’t afford. I suspect it was in this that arose the inability to fully enter each other’s world views.
What I know about Rocco: he kept acres and acres of land pristine. He grew flowers and trees and vegetables. He worked endlessly, with Peter, to create their world, and he liked to work naked: Peter laughingly told the story of the day their female neighbor decided to drop by: that was the last time she came by without calling first, they laughed. Rocco was sweet and good. He pulled no punches, but he didn’t have a mean bone in his body. He smoked and ate meat and played poker with his friends. He hiked in the mountains, and was loved by all. And I could not begin to describe his essence, but I thought of that lovely film A River Runs Through It, and the father of the son who died very violently, at a young age:
As time passed, my father struggled for more to hold on to, asking me [the brother of the son who died] again and again: had I told him everything. And finally I said to him, “maybe all I know about [Paul] is that he was a fine fisherman.”
“You know more than that,” my father said: “he was beautiful.” And that was the last time we spoke of my brother’s death. –Norman Maclean
And that is what I know about Rocco: he was beautiful. And he never grew old, nor was he meant to. And Peter helped him grow younger and younger, until he was young enough. How beautiful it will be to see what Peter’s next assignment is, and to catch up with Rocco someday: because we have always known him.
One month after Rocco left this particular world, marriage equality was legalized in North Carolina.