Throughout his youth, Cab O’Callaghan willingly threw himself towards destruction. It was through such actions that he learned about profoundly respecting the different, often shunned, life choices of others.
I spent about four years trying to die. And not like, “whoa, that car almost hit us” or “I don’t know how I was able to drive home that drunk.” I mean blood and guts. I mean lost body parts. I was subconsciously suicidal. Think of it as another way of running. There was so much pain stuffed deep inside: A shadowy sadness. A heavy unworthiness. A hollow lostness. I was fleeing like a cornered deer, blindly throwing myself against jagged rock walls and leaping through razor-thorn brambles in a panicked attempt to escape my prowling demons.
I began in spectacular fashion by plowing into the earth at about 80 miles per hour on a stolen motorcycle. I was 17 and the year was 1986.
The worst part about almost dying is not dying.
It was a graphic, torturous rebirth through scalpels and sutures and staples and needles and plastic tubes shoved in every hole except my rectum and bandages and casts and miles of medical tape. I lost my spleen. I lost half of my large intestine. I lost the tip of the middle finger on my right hand. I lost pints of blood. I lacerated my liver, bruised my pancreas. Wrecked the portion of my small intestine just below the stomach. The flesh on my forearms was shredded to the bone. I broke my right wrist.
But, that’s another story.
I received a gift after the surgeons cut me open sternum to pubes to repair my exploded insides; it was a temporary colostomy. Basically, they take your large intestine and reroute it through a hole they cut in the side of your abdomen. Then, for obvious reasons, they put a plastic bag over it. It’s a fairly common practice to move the plumbing from between your butt cheeks to the side of your body when you’ve had massive trauma to your colon. They say it allows your body to heal faster.
The worst part about shit collecting in a bag that hangs on the side of your body is that there is shit collecting in a bag on the side of your body. You know those soft-serve ice cream machines? That. I was still a virgin and I couldn’t imagine any possible scenario that I would find myself in that would end in sex as long as I had my colon poking out the side of my body. The docs said after about six weeks they’d return my asshole to its anatomically correct location.
I counted the days like a child counts the days to Christmas.
When the day finally came, surgeons followed the same path they’d sliced into me before; every inch of it. I’d be cut open a third time right along the same scar in a couple of years.
But, that’s another story.
I woke up in the recovery room feeling like something slightly better than roadkill. I was reborn again and it was horrible because I was more alive than dead this time. Pain pulsed from my gut like someone had shot a cannonball at it. My brain struggled to piece together reality through the thick fog of sedation that was ebbing. I felt the familiar bodily intrusions: the catheter in my penis, the needles in my arms delivering cold fluids into my veins. One particularly torturous one was missing. Last time I woke up like this I was mostly dead and I had a tube shoved down my throat to help me breathe. It was a small measure of relief as I lie there feeling like week-old reheated leftovers. I moaned in agony and a nurse gently rubbed my head and told me the surgery went well. I slipped back into drug-addled sleep.
I woke up with a nurse fussing over me. She was pretty. A rule I have learned from my lengthy experience in hospitals is that the more mangled you are, the more beautiful the nurses.
As she checked my blood pressure I noticed I was in a different room. My bed was closest to the door and I could see that the room was only big enough to share one more bed. A sunlit curtain was drawn between the beds that I couldn’t see beyond. Besides the nurse moving around, the room was quiet. She left and another nurse came in not long after, moving the curtain back so she could get to the other bed. It was just enough that I could see out the room’s large window to the clear, bright morning. A man sat in a chair in front of it, just at the foot of the other bed. He was maybe in his thirties.
I can’t tell you what he looked like or what he was wearing. I don’t remember. I do remember his expression. It was one of deep grief. He never said a word. He and I exchanged glances of recognition and then his gaze returned to the bed and whomever lay in it.
That afternoon some of my friends came to visit. Most of my friends were lost boys too, their fathers dead or absent. We all teetered on the edge of adulthood but fought against it. Life was a big party. Everything was a joke waiting to be sprung. The more inappropriate and disrespectful it could be told, the better. Our ethics on the whole were as grey as San Franciscan fog.
But, that’s another story.
My refurbished colon and recommissioned anus were the center of their jokes. Their laughs got louder, their animations increasingly rowdy. And that’s when the man that had been sitting by the window that morning walked into the room and to the other bed.
I remembered I was sharing the room. I told my friends to go home.
The next morning the nurses removed my urine catheter and encouraged me to get out of bed. I didn’t need much prodding, I wanted out of the hospital badly and knew the drill from my previous visit. As soon as the doctors saw I was strong enough, they’d send me home. Clothed in only a backless gown and socks with rubber grippers on the sole, I walked laps around the ward, pushing my wheeled IV pole with me.
The man by the window was there when I returned. All he did was stare into the bed that I couldn’t see because of the curtain.
I wondered who was lying in the bed. They made no noise.
Later that day, I was in bed watching TV when I heard the first noise from my roommate. It was a cough that was more like a thick gurgle. The man by the window was still there and he stood up quickly and walked out of my line of sight, closer to the other bed. There was another cough and a moan. The man by the window ran out of the room. A nurse returned with him quickly and she threw back the curtain completely.
What lay in the bed was the skeleton of a man draped with skin. From what I could tell, no medical equipment was attached to him besides an IV. The nurse wiped his mouth. The man by the window now stood next to the bed with the saddest look in his eyes. He said nothing. The nurse left and the man by the window stroked the head of the man in the bed. She returned in a few minutes and gave me a quick glance as she closed the curtain.
That’s when I realized the man by the window was on a deathwatch. That’s when I realized that the man in the bed was his lover. That’s when I knew the man in the bed was dying of AIDS.
My experience concerning homosexually is complicated. At the age of 17, I still had a lot to learn. And unlearn. Unfortunately, I became aware of this in a painfully convoluted way as I began to untangle my emotional development from my mother’s.
Memory is tricky. The details scattered like buckshot in the folds of the mind. Their recovery an alchemy of senses, emotion, perception and time.
Mom thought everyone was possibly gay. The neighbors, her aunt, her dad, anyone. It was a level of suspicion that knew no sleep, no boundary. Gay was perverted. She wasn’t hateful, she still saw them as humans and worthy of love, but something was surely wrong with them. It was confusing, especially because she had a half-sister that she loved whom was openly lesbian. For such a progressive woman, this part of her remained rooted in cultural stigma and fear. She got better over the years but never over it.
The 80’s were a tough time for my mother’s paranoid gaydar. The 80’s were gay. Blondie’s Parallel Lines was the first album I ever bought, and she thought the male band members looked gay. Queen’s The Game was the second album I bought. “What kind of name is Queen,” she asked, eyeing me suspiciously. At 11 years old, I didn’t know that Freddy Mercury was gay. All I knew was Another One Bites the Dust was the best song ever. When she saw Culture Club on MTV, Boy George was beyond her comprehension.
The affect of her fears had wounded me long before that.
I was a clever kid, and asked questions unendingly but these questions weren’t appropriate for my age. Like, “Can a boy get pregnant?” I remember the urgency in her questioning, the fear. I was elusive in my answers, sensing her growing concern. It was a secret and one that I was complicit in. But I had a growing feeling that the secret was also a lie, that the older boy from down the street was manipulating me in some way I couldn’t articulate. I was trying to figure it out while keeping the secret intact. I was seven.
It didn’t take long for her to crack my secret, but her fears blinded her from the truth I was told to stay away from the other boy and she talked to his mother. No more was said or done.
About a year after I recovered from my motorcycle accident, mom was driving us somewhere when I said that I needed to confess something to her. I was feeling guilty and ashamed about a particularly dastardly deed I had committed and I had to tell someone. Mom and I were close, and even though I knew it would break her heart just like my injuries had, I trusted her. I prepped her by saying I needed to tell her something heavy.
Before I could say another word, she blurted out nervously,
“Are you gay?”
“What? No, mom. I—“
“Did you kill someone?”
“No! Jesus, mom. Would you shut up so I can tell you?”
Then I told her and watched her heart break again. She cried. By that point my confession didn’t matter as much. I was angry. My mom was more afraid that I was gay than a cold-blooded murderer. What the fuck? That’s when I started to piece together the unsaid thoughts and masked emotion she was hiding when she found out about the older boy from down the street and what he was doing with me all those years ago. That’s when I started to understand why she didn’t call the police or get me counseling.
It wouldn’t be until I was thirty that a therapist explained that I had been sexually abused. I suspected I had been, but shame had warped me. It wasn’t until then that I realized she had projected her distorted understanding of homosexuality onto me as a child. She never accused me, but I was an acutely sensitive child and I soaked up the undercurrent of her irrational fears as shame. My fear of intimacy and subdued sexuality during my adolescent years made more sense. Some of the reasons why my romantic relationships weren’t deep and fulfilling became clearer, my self-hate more evident.
I was out for some more laps around the hospital ward a few hours after, thinking about the man dying in the room we shared. I wasn’t afraid, I knew enough about AIDS to know I wasn’t at risk by simply being near someone infected. I wasn’t repulsed by the fact that they were a gay couple either. At the time, my perception of homosexuality was somewhere between fear and acceptance. My insecurities and emotional scars kept me judgmentally bouncing between the two. It didn’t matter. All I could think of was the man by the window and his crushing grief.
I thought of my friends, of how unfair it was that something so intimately tragic would have to endure them if they came to visit me again. Just sharing the room with the couple felt like an intrusion.
I saw my nurse in the hallway and asked if I could talk to her privately. She pulled me aside and I asked if I could be transferred to a different room as another nurse walked up and heard my request. It was the nurse for the dying man. Her brow furrowed and she curtly asked why I wanted a different room. “Because he’s dying,” I replied. “He has AIDS, doesn’t he,” I added. The dying man’s nurse eyes flew wide in anger, the tension in the air instant.
“You don’t know what you are talking about, there’s nothing to be afraid of,” she snapped.
I threw up my hands to diffuse things. “Whoa, wait, wait… I’m not afraid. He’s dying.” My nurse put her hand on the other nurse’s shoulder.
“I have visitors, my friends… they are… rowdy.” “Jerks” would have been a better descriptor. “I don’t want to disturb my roommate He deserves privacy.”
The dying man’s nurse didn’t look like she was buying it. She stomped off.
My nurse seemed more convinced of my sincerity. She said would see if I could be moved.
The next morning a nurse said they’d found another bed. I’d be moved today. The man by the window was back, but the curtain between the beds was drawn and I only caught glimpses of him. I ate my breakfast and watched TV. A couple hours later attendants came to wheel me off to my new room. As they pushed me out in the wheelchair, the man by the window was sitting in the chair again, staring sadly at his partner, waiting.
My new room had a bad vibe. It much larger and dark. Besides mine, there were seven other beds. One sat empty. In each of the other beds lay a man with the same kind of hardened look. Their ages varied, as did their race. Ironically I felt more uncomfortable than in the other room.
That night the empty bed was filled with a rough looking white guy in his twenties. He was handcuffed to the bed. Late that night, I awoke startled as the handcuffed patient punched the medical equipment above his bed over and over with his free hand.
I thought to myself, this room is where I belong. But, that’s another story.