There’s a photo I keep on my fridge. It was taken on Christmas in 1998. My friends Tom and John were forever having people over on holidays and the photo on my fridge proves that. In that shot is John’s Mom, my friend Woody and cradled in Woody’s arms was Tom and John’s dog, Mimi. I couldn’t have known it at the time, but all three of those subjects would be dead within nine months from when I took the photo.
I first met Woody in early 1998. We were standing in a bar called the Eagle in St. Pete. I was waiting for my friend Mike to finish up whatever he was doing and I was just aching to go home. I’d had some good news that afternoon and I was ebullient that night. Clearly, it was something other people could see because Woody broke the ice by asking why I was in such high spirits.
He introduced himself first of course, but he wanted to know what was making me so giddy. I looked him in the eye and told him that I’d just received word that I was HIV negative. He looked down at his feet and said, “Would it be such a tragedy if you were positive?”
I’d known a ton of people who’d been diagnosed with HIV up until that point, but there was something about Woody’s delivery that drove it all home. HIV and AIDS were always something I could ignore and pretend weren’t real but there was something about Woody that made me want to see life through his eyes. By 1998 AIDS was becoming a manageable disease. The advances in the drugs used to treat it had turned the tide and people I knew didn’t drop like flies anymore. Though having it was hardly a picnic, a protracted, wasting death wasn’t anything most people who had it were left to face. Woody’s real name was Michael Woods by the way.
Woody lived in a “bad” part of town and shortly after we met he invited me over for dinner. He was a retired chef and the dinner he spread out for me was beyond belief. Woody was retired because he was sick and over the course of that dinner, he told me about his condition. He was one of the unfortunate ones whose body couldn’t tolerate the new treatment regimens. He was resolved to face his death with as much dignity as he could muster. It was odd to have that discussion when we did. He looked fine, even if he couldn’t work anymore.
Just prior to his arrival in St. Pete, he lived in Minneapolis with the great love of his life, Duncan. Dunkie died from complications related to AIDS about a year earlier, and a big part of Woody went with him. Woody kept Duncan’s ashes in a box he’d wrapped in beautiful Chinese paper. That box lived on Woody’s mantle and I came to see that he always put it in a place where he could see it.
Having Duncan’s remains around gave Woody comfort and strength.
Woody and I struck up a very close friendship after that dinner. I talked to John and Tom, my landlords at the time, and we agreed to get get Woody moved onto our block.
I’ll never forget the day we moved Woody in. He was all whacked out about being needy and that’s understandable. After a couple of hours of his whining, I threw my arms around him and promised that I’d never abandon him. He hugged back and wouldn’t let go. It was as if he knew what was in store.
Within a month of that shared moment in his kitchen, Woody started to develop liver problems. His belly distended with the fluids his body was retaining and every couple of days we’d go to the hospital to get his abdomen drained. Those trips to St. Anthony’s were always fun, if that’s the right word to use here. Woody had a tremendous sense of humor and before he could have the draining procedure he’d have to get a sonogram so the surgeon could find his liver.
The sonogram technician, Woody and I used to laugh as she joked around about taking a look at his baby. His distended abdomen did make him look like he was pregnant. All of us knew that Woody’s story wouldn’t have a happy ending but we kept laughing all the same.
Taking care of Woody became second nature to me. So much so that I couldn’t see that he was dying.
At some point that summer, somebody from Hospice cornered me in the hospital. Until then I was completely unwilling to see that Woody was a dead man. I thought that I could take care of everything, even though I had to take a leave of absence from work. He’d get through this I thought to myself. I’d will him back to health if that was the last thing I did.
When Hospice got involved I had to be removed forcibly from my duties as a primary care giver. I’d more or less stopped sleeping and the nurses from Hospice were as concerned about me as they were about Woody. They put me on a schedule that allowed me to take care of myself and to sit with Woody for a few hours every day.
As the summer wore on, Woody declined further and further.. The man I once loved to talk to began to turn into something else all together. Woody was dying and as much as I wanted to deny it, it was real. While he was still of his own mind, he used to take that box of Duncan’s ashes and just rest his hand on it.
I’ll always remember the afternoon toward the end when I walked into his apartment and I met his nurse. “Woody’s dying” she said. He kept getting up from his bed and pacing. The nurse called it terminal restlessness. Apparently, it’s a common thing as people approach the end of their lives. I took over my shift. Her matter of fact delivery made me start to see the gravity of the situation. Now that I look back, just how bad he was is clear. Woody’d declined precipitously and it was difficult to see the him of him. He’d had me fill the birdbath he could see from his bedroom window the day before. He used to love to watch the birds but on this day he couldn’t concentrate well enough to pay attention to them.
We started to head into the final chapter and I started to get over my denial.
At that point Woody barely recognized me. “Mister!” he used to say. “Mister, I need to go to the bathroom!” was about all he could manage. Woody and I were as close as it’s possible to be and having him not remember my name was the stuff of nightmares. I can handle someone who needs help in the bathroom, but having a friend fail to recognize me was devastating.
When he had to go I’d take off his clothes and sit him on the toilet. He’d babble on and every once in a while some spark of him would come to the fore. I’d reach for that spark with everything I had but alas, there wasn’t really anything to grasp. My dear friend was gone and he wasn’t coming back. After I sat him on the toilet I’d put him in the shower to hose him off. Later that night when I was toweling him off, he looked up at me and said “shave.”
I shaved him and trimmed his hair. I held it together while I was bathing and shaving him but barely. A couple of months earlier, he was a fully functioning adult. The person in front of me that night was a shell of who he’d once been. After we were done I wrapped a towel around his shoulders and then I hugged him. I held onto him as tight as I could because I knew our time was running out. He hugged me back and we had to have stood there in his bathroom for a half an hour. Some part of him knew who I was and that same part knew I was there to help.
Woody died the next morning. He died and before he did so I was granted the opportunity to hold his hands and to thank him for being my friend. As I was saying my final goodbyes, he reached out and held my face in his hands. “Thank you” he mouthed because he could no longer speak. And then he died.
That I’d held the hands of a dying man didn’t occur to me until weeks after the fact. I kept expecting him to appear some afternoon. He’d have Publix bags in his arms and he’d joke about how crappy the produce was that day. His coming back never happened, obviously. But still, I wished with all I had that he would just walk through the front door.
I miss him terribly and I hope that I gave him some comfort in his final moments. When it’s my time to go, I pray that someone will be there to hold onto me too.
Woody was one of the people who made St. Pete real, he was one of the people who anchored me here.
In and among all of the crap he left me to sort through, there was a brass bell. I keep it on my front porch now. Before Woody died, I told him that if it were possible, I needed for him to reach across the ether and to ring that bell. So far, he hasn’t.