IF I'd learned anything from the first session with Dee, it was that there was absolutely no telling where our time together might lead us. Although the jumble of words, sounds, and images received by her open mind later made perfect sense, that was not necessarily the case at the time. All we could do was move as the spirit led us, gleaning what meaning we could along the way. From my perspective the experience was surreal, both intimidating and thrilling. Scott's death and the force of my desire had indeed opened my heart and my mind, and I had been deeply gratified by the accuracy of Dee's first reading. The idea of communion with Scott's consciousness, contact with the other side, had both answered my deepest prayers and blown my mind.
Nevertheless my rational mind, the part of me trained as an attorney, did not know what to think. From one perspective, no amount of evidence will ever be sufficient. But my heart was telling me otherwise. All my instincts reassured me that Dee was the real thing. Beyond the accuracy of her insight, I noted her almost complete lack of interest in money and remembered that she had actually dissuaded me from setting up a second session at the conclusion of the first, telling me she'd already given me quite a bit to work on. On a deep level, I sensed that she was motivated only by love. I realized that the Paul Crockett existing before Scott's death would probably not be having these conversations with her, but I also knew that everything had irrevocably changed on March 1 and that man was forever gone. In pursuing this new path, this path of the spirit, I found myself on a journey with neither map nor compass, being steadily pushed to new limits.
Now, as Dee spoke, those limits were suddenly pushed further. It looked like we had company. "Who's Rob?," she asked. I knew the answer to her question, but hesitated for a moment as a wave of mixed emotion crashed over me. Somewhat shocked, sorting through the implications, I replied simply "I knew a Rob that died of AIDS a few years ago." "Yeah, he's there with him. And I think they're visiting one another right now. Did he know Rob?"
One of the good times, together at the beautiful beach of Dog Island, off Florida's west coast.
I found the invocation of Rob's name upsetting. Even today, it is difficult to capture in words the unique journey Robbie Sommers and I shared together over the years, to sort through the anger and the love. From the time we met in Tallahassee, Florida in1986 until his death in 1991, we enjoyed a special and tumultuous connection. An extraordinarily talented man, Rob had risen to a top position in an unlikely place, the state Department of Corrections, despite his obvious gayness. He had been able to make a positive difference there, seeing to it that televisions were placed in the state's first prison AIDS ward, helping point some troubled kids in a better direction, and otherwise bringing an enlightened perspective to a bureaucracy much in need of it.
Though we shared many beautiful times together, a tension inevitably arose because in the end I could not give him what he wanted. Over the course of time he had fallen in love with me, and I was unable to return his feelings. Rob was a highly creative individual, pushy, effective, and used to getting his way. Generous with his heart and highly insistent, he could not understand why I could not accept the gift he offered. During the worst moments of the relationship, I experienced a level of manipulative behavior and anger unlike any I had ever encountered before, shaking me to the core.
Nevertheless, mutually recognizing the special bond between us, we finally reached a shaky truce. I had moved to Tallahassee, the state's capital, to clerk for a justice on the Florida Supreme Court. When that position had run its course and it came time for me to leave the city at the beginning of 1987, I decided to take the opportunity to see as much of the world as possible before I began practicing law and was forced to get "a real job."
It was Rob who drove me up to the Atlanta airport. Together we had enjoyed an exhibition of the magnificent paintings of Jacob Lawrence at the High Museum there, leaving me inspired with the boldness of his color and the freedom of his line. That night I had sketched away madly in color pencil until late in the night, interpreting from our hotel room window the view of the extravagantly Moorish-style Fox Theater just below us, its unlikely towers, arches and minarets reaching upwards, and the city's downtown beyond.
Room with a View, Night's First Star 1987. A gift to Robbie, returned to me by his family following his death.
A few hours later, finally sitting on the plane, rain beating down upon the windows, I knew that I was forever leaving behind a chapter of my life. Thinking back on some of the sweet times we had shared together, I found myself nevertheless deeply relieved and grateful to be on my way.
I had finally returned from that journey and moved back to Miami, my home town, moving in with my parents while I looked for a job. Within a short time I was working as a lawyer, busily learning a new profession and living in a world measured by the passage of billable hours. The next month, in early February of 1988, I received a phone call at home that forever changed my life. "Robbie asked me to call and tell you," said the shaky voice of a mutual friend with whom we'd once shared good times, "that he's in the hospital with full-blown AIDS. Paul, he's really really sick." Left breathless by the shock, I felt as though the bottom of the world had suddenly dropped out beneath me. I had no idea what to say. Never before had the AIDS bomb hit anywhere so close to home. "I don't know whether I should mention this or not," he said in closing, "but you might want to think about getting tested." And then there was silence.
Hanging up the phone, I thought, my God, he's talking about Robbie. Suddenly the disease had a face. As if punched in the gut, I cried out in pain and grieved from deep within. Falling back on the bed I lay screaming, helpless, sobs wracking my body. Major, our white German Shepherd dog, put his huge front paws up on the bed and began whimpering with me and licking my tears. He could sense my total distress, and sought to comfort me. I was otherwise alone, so very alone, and I appreciated his love. Until his death a few years ago, I never forgot how he had been there for me when I really needed him.
Suddenly dropped into a free fall of pain and shock by the news of my friend's dire situation, it was days before it occurred to me that the news carried ominous implications for my own health. In the late 80's, in the figurative backwaters of Tallahassee, AIDS had seemed something far away, an awful, incomprehensible experience that happened only in distant places to other people. Though Rob and I had enjoyed a sexual relationship on and off over the years, it had never occurred to us to regularly use condoms. Now the lesson was all too clear. We had all been at risk. After building up to soaring crescendos of anxiety in the weeks that followed, shadows of terminal illness haunting my dreams, I finally worked up the nerve to take the HIV test. It came back negative.
In an instant, that phone call had changed everything. In the face of death, my differences with Rob suddenly seemed minor. What could I do for my friend, now in the hospital and in such pain? Not much, our mutual friends back in Tallahassee told me, except to come up and see him and show support, to be there for him. Also, they suggested, why don't you bring a living will with you? Since I had frequently helped clients complete the documents, legally making their wishes known as to the withdrawal of life support in the event of a terminal diagnosis, I seized on the suggestion. There was really nothing I could do, I knew, but at least this was something. I was doing what I could. At least it might bring him some peace of mind.
The following weekend, just before Valentine's Day, I had flown up to Tallahassee and been greeted by a group of friends lost in their grief and barely able to keep one another afloat. They had held me, told me how glad they were that I had come, and warned me what to expect in the hospital room. He was doing a little better as a result of the iv's, they said, that awful rash is gone and the infection in his throat is finally fading. But he's still burning up with fevers; he drifts in and out; sometimes he gets angry. I tried to listen but my mind wouldn't cooperate. It had all been too much, and it was only just beginning.
No warnings could have diminished the shock or the horror of that first visit. In those days visitors were required to put on gloves and surgical masks before entering the door. Even close friends were suddenly transformed into space aliens, seemingly lost and far-away from home under the harsh fluorescent lights. And there in the middle of the small white room was Rob, wearing a hospital gown and sitting up in bed. He looked pretty much the same, I thought, but he'd gotten so skinny, especially his legs. My God, I thought, all the muscle is just gone. As I walked forward to greet him he tried his best to smile, but then pointed to himself and said "Look at me. There's hardly anything left. Just skin and bone."
Suddenly leaning over a cold bedpan to dry heave, nauseated by the brutal antibiotics coursing through his veins, he looked up at me afterwards with tears in his eyes and said "There's no words for how horrible this fucking disease is." As he looked into my eyes, I saw in his a level of pain, disappointment and exhaustion that immediately broke my heart. A few minutes later he signed the living will I'd brought with me, the hand clutching his pen shaking so badly that his signature was barely legible. Even that simple effort seemed to leave him breathless and exhausted. As he spoke in the next few minutes with another friend visiting, a woman he'd worked with, I noticed that she brought out in him a different quality, one I'd never had a chance to see before. Filled with sadness, I wondered why all the sides of this complex and gifted man were coming to an end, and such a painful one. How could this be? And where was the dignity in it? Later, back among my friends, they held me as I broke down and cried.
Despite the severity of that first illness Rob was a survivor, and had hung in there for more than four years after his diagnosis. Though we shared some special moments together during that time, he seemed to drift with his illness ever further into isolation and uncharted emotional waters. Now more than ever, it seemed, I could do no right. When he visited Miami once after Scott and I were together, Scott almost immediately developed a visceral dislike for this haunting figure from my past. He had little patience for this idiosyncratic, skinny little man shuffling about, clutching to him his small backpack like a purse. Rob had been battered by repeated rounds of brutal illness but was still on his feet, stubbornly clinging to life. Perhaps troubled by the specter Rob's presence presented for his own future, Scott had said dismissively "He moves around and bitches like a crabby old lady. I hate that."
One year, after I had committed the cardinal sin of forgetting Rob's birthday, he called me up to tell me that he "just couldn't deal with the stress of me anymore" and was cutting me out of his life. Though I made a half-hearted effort to argue the point he quickly cut me off, and I never saw or spoke to him again. When I heard months later that he had died, an awful death, I felt it important to travel to his funeral in order to pay my respects. Though my feelings about the man could not have been more mixed, nor the lessons of our experience together more unclear, I knew that he had become part of me. For better or worse, his story had become caught up in mine. In grieving his loss, I honored my own.
To: Chapter 20