From One Friendship, Lessons on Life, Death, AIDS, and Childlessness

S. Kirk Walsh reflects on her friendship with a gay man battling AIDS — how he taught her to grieve her own infertility, and live life more fully.

S. Kirk Walsh | Longreads | January 2018 | 27 minutes (6,711 words)

 

I first met Dan Cronin on an early spring evening in 1993. Michael, my new boyfriend, introduced us. We were standing on the southwest corner of 12th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. A stream of cabs, city buses, and cars surged toward the illuminated marble arch of Washington Square. The changing twilight danced through the rustling, pale-green leaves of the trees that shaded the grounds of the nearby church. “I’ve heard a lot of great things about you,” Dan said to me. His smile was angelic and mischievous, his eyes, a striking slate blue. He lit a Newport cigarette, a wisp of smoke releasing from the corner of his mouth.

That night, we decided on dinner at a family-run Italian restaurant in the West Village. The three of us talked about books (J. M. Synge, E. L. Doctorow), Catholicism (the religion of our childhoods), Arthur Ashe’s recent death from AIDS, Dan and Michael’s strong allegiances to Upper West Side. It was a memorable night. As I said goodbye to them at the 14th Street subway stop, I felt a kind of certainty and contentment as if I already knew that Dan and Michael were going to be a part of my life for a long time.

Prior to that night, Michael had also told me a lot about Dan: He was a professional tenor, who had performed on Broadway and national tours around the country. He was a voracious reader of American history, passionate about all things Abraham Lincoln, Muhammad Ali, and Michael Jordan. He was religious in his daily purchasing of lottery tickets. (He always played the same numbers; the street address of his childhood home.) He was employed as a waiter at the famed Russian Tea Room. (He was the shop steward of the union, and the powerful position allowed him to work only when he felt up to it.) Having recently visited his ancestral town in County Kerry, Ireland, he told a story of encountering a man who could recite passages of Ulysses in Gaelic.

Over the past year, Dan and Michael had become close friends. They had many lively discussions about sports and politics, but their true bond centered on their experiences with recovery, addiction, pain, and abuse. “He’s a remarkable man with many talents,” Michael said when he first told me about Dan. “It’s sad because he’s HIV positive.” Shortly after his diagnosis seven years earlier, Dan started taking high doses of AZT (zidovudine, the first antiretroviral drug approved by the FDA in 1987) as a part of his treatment protocol.

***

Soon after dinner that night, Michael took me to a party, high up in The Eldorado, a building on Central Park West, overlooking the vast topography of Central Park, and then we rode in a cab down to Dan’s apartment, a studio in a single room occupancy (SRO) building at the end of West 71st Street. A suspended blanket divided the sleeping area from his living room, and it was covered with countless buttons (e.g., 100% Irish, Vote for JFK). A life-size cutout of Michael Jordan stood in one corner. Together, we sat on Dan’s couch — Michael on one side of me, Dan on the other — and watched the Chicago Bulls beat the Phoenix Suns in Game Four of the NBA Finals. Michael Jordan scored 55 points.

During that first visit to Dan’s apartment, I remember the jaundiced light of the hallway, the lingering smell of cigarette smoke, the dirty dishes precariously stacked in the small porcelain sink. I remember Dan’s laughter and enthusiasm, his genuine pleasure at having Michael and me watch the game with him. Near the side table, I noticed a framed black-and-white photograph of Dan among thousands of protestors. He was easy to spot amid the throngs. He was bare-chested, and his fist was raised in the air. Later, I would ask Dan where the photo was taken: It was the Bowers v. Hardwick march in Washington, D.C., back in October of 1987, when a half million men and women protested the higher court’s decision, which upheld a Georgia law forbidding sodomy, making the oral and anal sex in private between two consenting male adults a criminal offense.

***

Before long I was meeting Dan and Michael for dinner at least once a week at a Cuban-Chinese restaurant on West 72nd Street. Six months later, Michael and I were rollerblading in Central Park when my feet slipped out from underneath me and I broke my shoulder. Upon arriving by ambulance at the emergency room at Metropolitan Hospital, on the southern edge of Harlem, Dan was the first person Michael called. He took a cab over and helped us navigate the chaotic waiting room, with its gunshot victims and police officers. After I was given an injection of Demerol, I vomited immediately and Dan held a plastic bedpan for me.

Once my shoulder healed, we resumed our weekly meals at the Cuban-Chinese place. Often other friends joined, and the dinner conversation frequently turned rowdy and boisterous, with talk about politics, history, the cunning nature of addiction, God, and the relationship of God to self. Dan was a thinker, an astute examiner of life from all angles: the physical, the spiritual, the emotional, the intellectual.

***

Dan Cronin (Photo courtesy of the author)

Dan was born and raised in a working-class neighborhood of Pittsburgh. His father was a wounded World War II veteran who took to drinking and collected disability for psychiatric impairment (which he referred to as his “cuckoo checks”) and later found work with the postal service. Dan’s mother worked as a nurse in a psychiatric ward, where she met his father when he was a patient there. Dan’s natural vocal talent was identified at a young age, and as a boy, he sang at Saint Paul’s Cathedral in downtown Pittsburgh. As an adolescent, he gravitated toward a reckless group of teenagers who called themselves the “Park Boys.” As their name suggested, they spent a considerable amount of time in a public city park and drank together. One of their favorite pranks was stealing neighbors’ lawn furniture and arranging it all in the park, waiting for the chaise lounges and chairs to be collected by their owners. By the time Dan moved to New York City with his high school boyfriend, when they were in their early 20s, many of his friends had already died of suicide, car crashes, or drug overdoses.

Shortly after his diagnosis seven years earlier, Dan started taking high doses of AZT (zidovudine, the first antiretroviral drug approved by the FDA in 1987) as a part of his treatment protocol.

Shortly after dropping out of Carnegie Mellon (where he’d been studying opera singing) and arriving on the Upper West Side, Dan developed a serious cocaine habit. Later, he would often tell the story of how a critic wrote about one of his Broadway performances that his voice carried a pleasant sound, but that he was “strangely dead behind the eyes.” When his drug and alcohol use worsened, Dan’s boyfriend kicked him out of their apartment. Dan slept many nights on benches in Central Park. He tried to get clean with the help of a sober bouncer who worked at an Irish bar he frequented, but could only string together short spells of sobriety. During what would be his final slip, Dan, strung out on cocaine, had unprotected sex in a bathhouse, and contracted HIV.

***

In 1991, three years after graduating from college, I met Michael. During my college years, my evenings largely consisted of partying in fraternity-house basements and a handful of seedy bars in a small Upstate New York town with the nights often ending in a blackout, usually with a young man I didn’t intend to be with. By the time I met Michael, I had stopped drinking and using drugs, and was beginning to find a different kind of footing in the world. Prior to spending time with him, I was bewildered by dating (given that every encounter, up to that point, was propped up by the artificial boldness I found in whiskey, assorted drugs, and beer). I had little understanding of the family I came from, how the greater forces of addiction, self-hatred, and long-ago abuse often guided my poor decisions. During my early days of sobriety, I went out with a few people here and there, only a few times really, and they all seemed to talk endlessly about their mothers. This made me uncomfortable and lonely, and I often opted instead for solo evenings of double features at the art-house theaters around town. The soles of my sneakers stuck to the gummy floors of the movie houses. I consumed buckets of popcorn. Friends told me not to worry, that I would figure things out, that I would know when the right person crossed my path.

What initially attracted me to Michael was his disposition: He seemed strong and soft at the same time. In high school, he was the captain and scrum half of his rugby team. At the same time, he liked to dress up in mod thrift-store outfits of peg-leg pants, pointed shoes, and tailored jackets, complete with black eyeliner. He loved to shop.

When I met Michael, during his mid-20s, he was already an accomplished actor. He had played con artists, lovers, and soldiers in movies, and on television and Broadway. One of his favorite roles (as a convict released from prison to infiltrate the Klan) was on the short-lived television show I’ll Fly Away. It was not uncommon for strangers to recognize him on the street and thank him for his work. On the Broadway stage, in Hugh Whitemore’s Breaking the Code, he performed the role of hustler Ron Miller to Derek Jacobi’s Alan Turing. He played Scott Thorson opposite Victor Garber’s Liberace in ABC’s biopic of the singer. In Biloxi Blues, the film directed by Mike Nichols, Michael was cast in the role of James Hennesey, who is kicked out of the army after receiving oral sex from another soldier in the barracks’ latrine. (Nichols had said to Michael when they were shooting the scene: “I don’t think your character is gay, he’s just getting a blowjob.”)

When Michael and I began to date, I couldn’t quite believe it. For two years I had hoped our friendship would turn romantic, but he wasn’t interested. And then, things clicked into place in a way that I thought would never happen: Michael asked me out on an official date, and my affection for him grew. We played tennis on the courts of Central Park. We saw Wallace Shawn perform his monologue titled The Fever at La Mama and later saw Spalding Gray perform Monster in the Box. We rode bikes from Springs, Long Island, out to the sweeping shoreline of Napeague. He cooked for us — steamed lobster, steak, pasta. Throughout all of this, a quiet voice sang in my head: This is it! He is the one!

If you’d examined our external circumstances, our personal histories barely intersected: Michael grew up on communes in the Southwest and then on a remote island off of Vancouver and later in Toronto; he attended 15 different public schools before dropping out to work on a marijuana farm in Maui, then moved to New York City and became a professional actor. I grew up alongside the turquoise-blue pools, tennis courts, and snack shacks of country clubs in southeastern Michigan, and attended the same private school for six years. Afterwards, I attended a small liberal arts college and rushed Kappa Kappa Gamma. Periodically, his family lived off food stamps; I charged six-packs of Tab and canisters of Pringles to an account at the local market. And yet, we shared many defining experiences: We both came from fragmented families, and grave addiction and alcoholism had been handed down through the generations. These similarities brought us together, like magnets, when Michael and I met through a mutual friend.

***

During most of my 12-year friendship with Dan, he was sick. He contracted secondary illnesses: shingles, candidiasis, anemia. Bell’s palsy temporarily paralyzed his face. Neuropathy often left his feet and hands numb. He experienced chronic diarrhea, vomiting and nausea, and escalating fevers. His T-cell counts plummeted, but somehow, with ongoing medical attention, they eventually rose again. He checked in and out of St. Luke’s–Roosevelt Hospital, mostly for severe cases of dehydration. At times, he refused to be admitted. He hated the hospital, and didn’t want to die there. Over the years, Dan had lost more than 35 close friends to AIDS.

Despite his frailty, Dan’s presence was larger-than-life. His spirit was fierce and passionate. You could always tell when he was in the room. On several occasions, he sang for us. Irish songs were Dan’s favorites. He sang traditional ballads, like “Danny Boy,” and folk songs, such as “Dear Old Donegal.” Two days after September 11th, we stood on the corner of Columbus Avenue and 71st Street at dusk, as F-14s soared overhead in the shutdown airspace and sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The streets were lined with pedestrians holding lit candles with circular paper skirts. I vividly remember Dan’s powerful, sweet voice rising above the others as he led us in the familiar verses of the patriotic song. In a way, he was our commander.

By the time I met Michael, I had stopped drinking and using drugs, and was beginning to find a different kind of footing in the world. Prior to spending time with him, I was bewildered by dating.

There were other occasions, holidays, and festive celebrations — parties, gatherings of friends, birthdays, St. Patrick’s Day. During the late ’90s, Dan gave one of his last concerts, a solo performance in the community room of Manhattan Plaza on 43rd Street and Ninth Avenue, where he now lived in a subsidized studio apartment provided by the Actors Fund.

***

Dan was competitive in everything he did. He liked to beat people — whether it was at Hearts, volleyball, paintball, or laser tag. One winter, we traveled up to a mutual friend’s house in Westchester, and decided to play an amicable game of platform tennis (the racquet sport is played on elevated courts surrounded by tall walls of chicken wire, and is something of a cross between tennis and squash). One of the things Dan liked about me was my own competitive nature. For two years during my teens, my partner and I were ranked number one in the country in platform tennis. I also competed on the varsity tennis and lacrosse teams during high school and college. By the time I met Dan in my mid-20s, I had a tendency to bury my innate desire to win and think of my former competitive self as something in the past.

On that night in Westchester, Dan was my partner, and he was determined that we would beat Michael and our friend Benjamin.* Snow fell from the cold dark sky, and our feet beat loudly against the aluminum boards. Dan kept yelling at me to go for it. Hit a goddamn winner, Kirk! My lungs burned. My fingertips ached from the cold. More than once I choked and hit my serve out. Benjamin and Michael are also fierce competitors, and they had no intention of handing us an easy win. As Dan lunged for a shot, he crashed against the hard boards. I helped him up as he gripped his side. Kill ’em, he said with a gleam in his eye. We gotta beat ’em. Despite being hurt, Dan demanded that we keep playing as he clutched his abdomen. My level of play deteriorated, as I was worried he was going to hurt himself further. We lost. Dan was disappointed in me; the former national platform champion couldn’t pull off a win for the two of us. But as was always the case with Dan, the disappointment faded into laughter and future stories for the telling. A few days later, we found out he had broken several ribs that night.

***

During the summer of 1996, Michael, Dan, and I spent a weekend in East Hampton. By this time, Michael and I were engaged to be married and were planning the details for the ceremony and reception that would take place in Amagansett in September. One evening, as the pinpricks of stars began to perforate the summer’s sky, the three of us walked along the moonlit beach, the rhythmic waves of the Atlantic crashing against the shadowy shoreline. We talked about what songs Dan might sing at our wedding that fall. (Michael had asked him to be one of his best men.) As we made our way through the sloping sand dunes and stands of swaying seagrass, Dan began to sing “Ave Maria.” His stunning voice commingled with the subtle whistle of the evening breeze blowing through the tall grass and lifted effortlessly into the darkness. For a moment, the three of us were suspended in another place and time. One where Dan wasn’t fighting for his life. Where we were surrounded by the pure beauty and magic of his voice. It was only Dan — and Michael and me, his audience of two.

On the late afternoon of our wedding, I walked down the aisle of a spartan church with my mother and father on either side of me. I remember feeling out of my body as all eyes in the church turned and focused on three of us heading slowly down the aisle. I trembled, and tears escaped from the corners of my eyes. My mom whispered to me to stand up straight and not to cry; my father was his usual stoic self. I saw Michael at the end of the aisle, along with Dan, Adam (Michael’s closest friend from high school), my sister, Ami, and my good friend, Irene.

Five minutes into ceremony, Dan started to sing “Panis Angelicus.” Despite his sickly condition, his voice soared into the rafters of the church. The strength of his song moved from the soles of my white satin wedding shoes up my legs and into my heart. Something radiant and amorphous opened up in the center of my chest, and an invisible root system seemed to unfurl there and extend to my feet and into the ground. For the first time that afternoon, I felt strong and beautiful and powerful. I was connected to Dan, and Michael, and every single other person standing in that church. I remember staring into Michael’s blue eyes, wet with tears, and then out to the crowded interior, the church pews lined with our family and friends from around the country. I listened to Dan sing. His voice brought me back to where I was standing. He brought me back to who I was. Here I am standing across from the man I love. Here is our best friend singing for us. Here is his song.

We both came from fragmented families, and grave addiction and alcoholism had been handed down through the generations. These similarities brought us together, like magnets . . .

During the reception, Dan gave a toast. Afterward, he sang melancholy Irish ballad “Danny Boy,” his brilliant voice filling the dining room that overlooked Three Mile Harbor as the residual streaks of the sunset diminished along the horizon. Both of our fathers cried. Here were two men who’d led very different lives (Michael’s dad, a former hippie, works odd jobs here and there, and is involved in the Native American Church and married to a Navajo woman; my dad is a life insurance man who enjoys bowling and hunting, and attends Mass every Sunday and, at the time of our wedding, was dating an Upper East Side woman who lived on Fifth Avenue), but yet they are similar due to their deep Irish Catholic roots. During that extraordinary moment, Dan’s generous song held the room — and our disparate families — and the love that was being celebrated that evening.

***

One of the main reasons Michael and I decided to get married was we wanted children and we thought this would create a stable home for them. We waited a few years before the events of September 11th threw our priorities into greater relief. The missing-person posters that papered the exterior walls of banks and subway station, the 24-hour loop of the smoldering and collapsing buildings, the spontaneous outbursts of strangers crying on the sidewalks. Why not have kids now? What else are we here for? We stopped using birth control. This decision generated a new kind of freedom. There was no longer anything between us. If all went well, Michael and I would become parents within the space of year. But each month morphed into a game of wait-and-see, and then disappointment.


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After six months of failed attempts, my therapist suggested we seek out the assistance of medical experts. I had just turned 36. I went through the routine blood tests and X-rays — everything appeared to be normal, but I made an appointment with a reproductive endocrinologist, with the hope that we just needed a little boost from modern medicine to move us toward bringing a daughter or a son into this world. The first consultation unspooled into a horrifying comedy of sorts: Dr. T wore a navy tie with Bugs Bunny running across it. From behind his polished desk, he boasted about the success rates of his clinic by brandishing a framed photo of his toddler twins. My wife trusts me, he said, with the sleazy demeanor of a used-car salesman. Why wouldn’t you?

One failed IVF attempt later, Michael and I switched doctors and clinics, and began to pay the medical costs out of pocket. Other lifestyle changes came quickly: I modified my diet (no wheat, dairy, caffeine, sugar), took daily herbal tinctures and vitamins prescribed by a French homeopath, found an acupuncturist, joined a mind-body group of women undergoing fertility treatments, learned to meditate in order to cope with the stress, even accepted the gift of a session with a clairvoyant who conducted phone sessions from her home on a remote island off the coast of Washington State. (She said there were three children floating in my auric field.) None of this helped.

Meanwhile, Michael and I did our best to stay optimistic. After all, we had no diagnosis. With each attempt, there seemed to be a distinct possibility that I could become pregnant, and within a 10-month period we would expand from a family of two to a family of three. It didn’t feel entirely unreasonable to imagine this, but pregnancy still hovered beyond our reach for mysterious and inexplicable reasons. It felt as if we were caught in a medical vortex, with no doors leading toward the desired goal or back toward the regular rhythms of life and its simple joys, such as a sweaty run in the park or a good laugh with friends. Instead, it was a daily grind of diet modifications, injections, and doctor appointments. After almost a year of this, I was exhausted and drained.

Every other week, it seemed, a friend or coworker announced their pregnancy with a blush of happiness and anticipation on their faces. ‘We weren’t even trying,’ they often said.

Right after the second failed round of IVF, I visited Dan at St. Luke’s Hospital. He had landed there again because of severe dehydration brought on by night sweats, diarrhea, vomiting, and fever. Together, we sat in a south-facing hospital room that looked out onto the overlapping, brown-brick buildings of the Upper West Side. Dan wore a hospital gown. A translucent IV emerged from the soft bend of his right arm, transporting the much-needed electrolytes and liquids into his ravaged system. Dark lavender circles of fatigue hung underneath his dim eyes. “So, I hear you had another disappointment,” Dan said. I don’t exactly remember how I responded, but I remember I wanted to cry: “Disappointment! This is much more than disappointment! I’m being crushed over here, buddy!” Nothing about my current situation made sense: Michael and I were young, healthy. Meanwhile, every other week, it seemed, a friend or coworker announced their pregnancy with a blush of happiness and anticipation on their faces. We weren’t even trying, they often said.

At that moment, I knew better than to complain to Dan. He was dying. I couldn’t get pregnant. I sat with him in silence, trying my best not to cry. The tubing dangled from the dimpled IV bag, the clear liquid traveling through its hollow center. Dan leaned his head against the hospital bed and closed his eyes. “I can’t wait to get out of here,” he said with a thin sigh. As he often did, Dan bounced back and was discharged from the hospital the following day.

In the midst of our third IVF attempt, Michael received a call from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas in Austin. He had been accepted into its three-year MFA writing program, which provided a full fellowship with a liberal stipend. I remembered when Michael called and told me the good news. He was crying. I was walking up the pathway that cut through Strawberry Fields on the west side of Central Park. I had just left a morning appointment of blood work and an ultrasound at the fertility clinic on York Avenue; my eggs were growing and would be retrieved in a week’s time. I remembered feeling thrilled for Michael. After all, here was a high-school dropout who went on to receive his BA from Empire State College at age 35. After years of acting, Michael had spent the last three years teaching ESL in an elementary school in the South Bronx. During that moment, it strangely didn’t dawn on me that this good news would require a move to Austin, Texas, and that we would be leaving the city.

The third IVF failed, and we began making plans. We met with Dr. S. He told us in few words that he didn’t have any explanations for why I wasn’t getting pregnant, why the treatments wouldn’t take. In fact, the embryos were degenerating rather than dividing. Dr. S explained that I was something of a lab rat; he could keep trying different variations of the treatments, but it was hard to know if anything would work. Egg donation was a possibility, but at the time, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the idea of another woman’s egg being fused with Michael’s sperm, even though I had friends who had gone through the procedure, gotten successfully pregnant, and given birth to beautiful children. Another friend was in the process of filling out paperwork for adopting a young Chinese girl (and then less than a year later, this friend would get pregnant naturally, despite repeated IVF attempts). Michael and I decided to discontinue treatments. We set our sights on Texas instead.

I stopped attending baby showers. I started to exercise again. I began to experience life without the overwhelming strain, stress, and constraints of fertility treatments. I began to feel both better and sad at the same time. Friends tried to commiserate, but many of them were going about the business of building a family: getting pregnant, making preparations for a second child with hopes that the baby would be the opposite sex of their first. They weighed the virtues of home birth over the hospital, drugs or no drugs, vaginal deliveries over C-sections. They complained about the endless nights of sleep deprivation. I found it difficult to find people who understood what I was going through. Most often conversations ended with why didn’t Michael and I look into adoption. Surely, there were many kids out who needed good parents.

One afternoon, Dan, Michael, and I took the train up to Benjamin’s house in Westchester. The wheels of the Metro North car hummed beneath us, and the yellow overhead light cast a sour glow. An empty beer careened across the linoleum floor. Michael sat to one side of me, and Dan across the aisle. I don’t remember how we got into the conversation, but Dan was telling me about his own experience of grieving not having children himself. He leaned across the aisle as he spoke to me with the intensity that I often associated with him.

I stopped attending baby showers. I started to exercise again. I began to experience life without the overwhelming strain, stress, and constraints of fertility treatments. I began to feel both better and sad at the same time.

“You’ve got to grieve not becoming a biological mother,” Dan said with force in his voice, “or it’s going to mess up your relationships with kids.” The conductor called out the upcoming station, Pleasantville. “It’s something that I’ve had to go through as a gay man,” Dan continued. “Look at my close relationship with Benjamin’s daughter; that wouldn’t be possible if I hadn’t grieved my own desire to become a parent.” I knew Dan had endured tremendous grief in losing many of his friends to AIDS, but I had never considered his own desire to become a father. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t feel alone. I no longer felt tossed in the margins of society, an infertile woman in her late 30s, a seeming anomaly among my procreating girlfriends. Here was one of my closest friends encouraging me to go through the sadness and the heartache — and perhaps I would find love and acceptance on the other side. The overhead light of the train flickered on and off and then on again. The conductor announced Katonah was the next station.

***

By the summer of 2004, Dan grew sicker. The side effects of AZT were killing him: He had very little appetite; his liver was failing; his hollow cheeks held a yellowish tinge. It was clear to everyone who loved him that he was going to die during the coming year. Dan knew this, too. Understandably, he was angry — and he let everyone know it. Rage seethed from his sickly body. Unexpected outbursts and arguments with friends and strangers became a regular pattern. He was losing the fight he had fought with such resilience and strength for so many years, and he was mad.

The last time I saw Dan before we moved to Austin was in a community room of a neighborhood center on the Upper West Side. It was a place we often met before going out for dinner on Thursday nights. Dan sat in the back of the room, his arms clutched around his sides, as if he was holding in his organs within the folds of his old down parka. He had lost more weight, and his high cheekbones were even more pronounced and sallow. The ceiling was a patchwork of particleboard and fluorescent-lit panels. The clock ticked above his head. I don’t remember the exact sequence of events, but I imagine I was trying to make small talk about the fact that we would find a time to get together before Michael and I left for Texas. Dan didn’t let me continue. “I can’t believe you’re leaving me here to fuckin’ die,” he said.

Dan said other things, I’m sure. I don’t remember what. Tears rolled down my face. I wanted to tell him to stop. It wasn’t my fault. But I couldn’t say anything, and Dan continued his tirade: We were abandoning him when he needed us the most. My face heated up as I realized there was no way to reason with him. I walked out onto the busy sidewalk of Columbus Avenue, barely able to see through the blur of my tears.

***

Of course, Dan was right: In August, Michael and I moved to Texas. Five months later, Dan was dead. He was 51. Michael and I were in Detroit, Michigan, for the Christmas holiday, visiting my family, when we got the call from a close friend that Dan was dying. Michael flew directly to NYC and I returned to Austin for a day to ensure that our house and pets were taken care of before arriving at the hospital a day later.

Dan was loved by many people. A steady rotation of visitors revolved in and out of his hospital room. Michael massaged Dan’s socked feet, applied Blistex to his chapped lips, and held a plastic urine bottle for him while Dan managed to discharge a yellowish stream, barely able to stand in his Dilaudid-induced haze. One friend, clutching the metal railing of the hospital bed, repeated an incantatory I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you as Dan lay there, unconscious. Another sang “Danny Boy” for Dan, whose eyelids barely fluttered, as the strength and tenderness of the song filled the dimly lit room.

On the morning of December 31st, 2004, Dan died. He donated his body to science and AIDS research, and the rest was cremated. Some of his ashes were scattered in the Pittsburgh public park where he had hung out with his young friends, the Park Boys.

***

Now, 13 years later, this is the interaction I try to recall when remembering my last encounter with Dan: Seven months before his death, I’d sat at the breakfast table in the galley kitchen of our apartment on the Upper West Side, talking to Dan on the phone. (We had just learned the news about the Michener Center, but wouldn’t be moving to Texas for several months.) Outside the window, I could see the checkerboard of illuminated windows across the dark courtyard. Michael and I had recently made our final decision to discontinue fertility treatments. At the time, I was still feeling somewhat confident in our decision: We had spent most of our savings, and after three IVF treatments, our health insurance no longer covered even a percentage of the cost. In reality, we couldn’t continue, even if we had wanted to, without taking out a loan.

As we spoke about the decision, Dan had offered up many supportive words, but this was what I remembered the most: “Kirk, you are already so many things — a wife, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a friend, a writer. It’s going to be okay if you don’t become a mother. Your life is already full.” I sat in a chair at our blond-wood kitchen table and stared out the window. A woman in one of the opposite windows was drying her hair. In another one, a young man was working in front of the glow of his desktop computer. I believed Dan. My life was enough. Michael and I could live enriching lives without becoming parents.

***

After Dan’s memorial service, Michael and I returned to Austin. We were no longer among our extended group of friends, grieving the loss of Dan. Instead, we were alone and shaken. It was as though a leg had been snapped out from our sturdy table of intimacy. It’s strange how when a loved one is sick for so long, it is still a shock when they die and the loss becomes permanent. Given our mounting sadness, I started to strike deals with the universe: Since we lost Dan, how about giving us a baby? On a nightly basis, I asked my version of a higher power to let us become parents — despite years of trying, despite the failed treatments and repeated disappointments. After all, my case had gone undiagnosed; maybe I would become one of those women who miraculously became pregnant, like my friend back in New York. Maybe the universe would return a little bit of Dan by giving us a baby.

I don’t remember the exact sequence of events, but I imagine I was trying to make small talk about the fact that we would find a time to get together before Michael and I left for Texas. Dan didn’t let me continue. ‘I can’t believe you’re leaving me here to fuckin’ die,’ he said.

This did not happen. My grief for Dan and my grief over not becoming mother rolled up into one, and my sadness mounted. Tears became a regular part of my day. A low-grade but constant depression settled in for almost two years. Michael struggled with graduate school with its inherent competition and the self-judgment that comes with writing while I worked at home. A year later, we returned to New York City for a memorial of another close friend: Michael’s former longtime therapist, Jean, who passed away after a battle with breast cancer. Our marriage entered into one of its more precarious phases. When we attended other people’s weddings, I often broke down into tears, remembering the boundless optimism and love of our own wedding; somehow that was gone, and Dan was gone. The loss of what could have been settled deep into my chest as Michael tried to console me and strangers looked on.

Understandably, my sadness was uncomfortable for many of the people around me. Friends still often asked whether we’d considered adoption and an egg donor. I even feared people might suggest that maybe it was time that Michael and I go our separate ways, that he would be better off without me. But then two close friends — men, one with six children, and the other childless — advised me, like Dan had, that the best course was to follow my grief. “Your job right now is to grieve. That’s it,” Abdi told me more than once. “You’ve got to move through it.” What followed was more grief, a grief deeper than I’d ever imagined I had in me. Not surprisingly, this grief was at the center of our marriage as we were both grieving the loss of not having children, and Dan, and a year later, Michael losing Jean.

Michael and I continued to struggle until one day it felt like the seams of our marriage were completely undone. He threw a glass onto the kitchen floor. He was saying that we weren’t good for each other; that we brought out the worst in each other. This isn’t working. We should break up. I cried. In a corner of the living room, I rocked on my heels in the fetal position, saying, Please don’t leave me. Don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me. Please. Don’t. Leave.

Michael and I continued to struggle until one day it felt like the seams of our marriage were completely undone. He threw a glass onto the kitchen floor. He was saying that we weren’t good for each other; that we brought out the worst in each other.

Instead of splitting up, we found a couples’ counselor, and within a few months, the grief began to shift and change and move. I can’t pinpoint the exact day when I started to feel better, when the heaviness started to lift. But it happened. I felt lighter. A buoyancy re-emerged. A sense of possibility. I stopped seeing life through the lens of my infertility and Dan’s death. Instead, I recalled the conversations I had with Dan that gave me strength and compassion, and an understanding that it was possible to be a complete person without becoming a parent — that all was okay. I started to take joy in my niece, as she danced in the dusk-lit parking lot of a Dairy Queen. Or in the satisfaction of helping a third-grader write a poem about his father, who died when he was two years old. In the excitement of witnessing another niece ski down the bunny slope for the very first time. I started to feel “a part of” rather than “apart from.” I was no longer the brokenhearted outsider unable to join the fellowship of young mothers. Instead, the grief was an integrated part of my life, something that was still there, but was no longer dominating the tenor of my days.

***

Not too long ago, a theology professor at the high school where Michael teaches film and acting asked him to give a talk to his senior students about a mentor in his life. The word mentor originates from Homer’s The Odyssey: Mentor served as an advisor to Odysseus, and while the king was away, Mentor agreed to raise Odysseus’ son, Telemachus. By the mid-18th century, the name was adopted into the English language to describe an individual who shares knowledge and wisdom. Michael chose Dan.

On the morning of Michael’s talk, I sat down in one of the folding chairs on one side of the black-box theater. More than 100 restless high school seniors filtered into the tiered rows of seats. Outside, the autumnal Texas sun burned bright. At the start of his presentation, Michael projected a clip of Dan from his solo performance at Manhattan Plaza. There was Dan, life-size, laughing, his trademark dimples and high cheekbones. And then, he started to sing “Marry Me a Little,” from Stephen Sondheim’s Company, about two lonely single people living in New York City. There it was. His soaring voice filled up the darkened theater, floating among the hushed seniors and creaking chairs.

Dan was alive again, projected onto the screen of this small theater of this school perched high on a hill dotted with live oaks in the northwest corner of Austin, Texas.

Here was his generous heart thrumming underneath each word. Here was his charming smile. Here was his infinite love. Here is his song. Warm tears streamed down the sides of my face as Michael stood in front of the digital image and our dear, old friend continued to sing the show tune imbued with yearning, love, and hope. Michael cried, too, as Dan continued to sing, his arms open, his voice full and vibrant, as he reached the high notes.

 

Someone / Marry me a little / Love me just enough.

And, we were together again, at least for a moment.

* * *

(*Name has been changed.)

S. Kirk Walsh’s work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Guernica, Virginia Quarterly Review, San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. She is at work on a novel.

Editor: Sari Botton