LGBT LIFESTYLE Relationships  >  Resilience after a Longtime Partner’s Death – Moving Forward with ‘Daily Realities’

Resilience after a Longtime Partner’s Death – Moving Forward with ‘Daily Realities’

Resilience after a Longtime Partner’s Death – Moving Forward with ‘Daily Realities’
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pictured: Steve and Tom

By Steve Weinstein

In 2001, I helped Tom, my life partner of nearly 12 years, end his suffering from AIDS-related illnesses. This story isn’t about Tom’s death, however, which I recounted in the Village Voice nine years later; rather, it’s about how I learned that the everyday bustle that comes with being alive brings its own solace.

In her monumental novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Harriett Beecher Stowe wrote of “how imperiously, how coolly, in disregard of all one’s feeling, does the hard, cold, uninteresting course of daily realities move on!” For me, the cold, harsh glow of those seemingly burdensome “daily realities” ended up providing the road back from unremitting grief to rejoining the world.

It started the morning after. In the middle of a seemingly endless stream of police, coroners and finally the EMTs who unceremoniously packed Tom’s corpse into a body bag for the autopsy, dogs had to be walked, meals prepared, phone calls made, emails answered.

The sharp contrast between two work-related phone calls provided the first sharp jolt back to reality. I had always dismissed my boss, the deputy editor of a major magazine group, as cold and unfeeling. So imagine my surprise when she said, “Steve, take as much time off as you need. The magazines aren’t important. This is what’s important.”

The next call, to the editor of a local weekly to whom I owed a freelance story, was all business. “That’s terrible,” he said. “But you are getting the story in on time, right?” His callousness was actually a blessing in disguise. I knew he was right; time and a printing press wait for no man. Three days later, he got the story, on deadline. (That editor now works at a magazine for people infected with HIV. Go figure.)

After several days alone in my apartment, I was happy to return to editing stories, finding photo captions, writing headlines and the stream of minor headaches that come with putting out a series of magazines. I also returned to the gym which gave me my second jolt. A casual acquaintance approached me and told me he had heard about happened. “I lost my own partner last year,” he added. “They’ll keep telling you he’s with you. He’s not with you. He’s dead, gone, the end.” So much for the angel on my shoulder!

Next came a brief conversation with one of the policemen who had answered my initial 911 call. I ran into him on the sidewalk, which was covered with yellow police tape. “What happened,” I asked him. Someone had jumped out of a window in the building across the street, he told me. When I said Tom had threatened to do that, he said, “Be glad he didn’t. It’s a real mess.” Defenestration, it seemed, was the thing that day: The Times carried an obituary for acclaimed jazz singer Susannah McCorkle, who had leaped to her death 22 blocks away. I’ve had a wary respect for high-rise windows ever since.

Death, I discovered, doesn’t need splatter to be a messy business.

Along with work and grieving friends and relatives from both our families, I was juggling phone calls from a New York City detective, assorted other legal issues, and all of the credit cards, business accounts, insurance and other mess of paperwork that accompany death in an advanced society.

Then there was the planning of the memorial service. As Paul Rudnick brilliantly satirized in his play “Jeffrey,” gay men in New York had elevated them into an art form. I was determined to give Tom a send-off second to none. With the help of Tom’s family and an unexpected offer from an unexpected source, that’s just what he got.

Tom’s sister had married into a society family not unknown in the upper reaches of Newport and the Upper East Side. But her last name apparently failed to impress the gatekeepers at St. Bart’s, the historic church endowed by the Vanderbilts. Fortunately, a friend was the music director at Grace & St. Paul’s, a far more modest neighborhood church that ended up being far more appropriate than a massive gothic edifice buried amidst the gleaming skyscrapers of Midtown Manhattan.

The service got some real star power through an opera list serve. Tom was a big opera fan, and somehow, word had reached Aprile Milo, an international opera star and a diva of the first order. When she sang the “Ava Maria,” there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. The service was boffo box office, with an overflow crowd spilling out from the nave into the reception hall. It was theatrical, moving and maybe even a little over the top —  just what Tom would have wanted. We ended with a reception at O’Neill’s, a tony local bar that was Tom’s favorite hangout.

Thanks to his sister’s generosity, Tom is remembered by a bench, a rose trestle, a lilac bush and an endowment at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where he had his last job and perfect for someone who so loved gardening. Not only that, but 29 West 64th Street, where we had lived, is now named The Tristan in memory of his email handle “TristanNYC.” How many people not named Trump get a building just off Central Park named after them?

The day Tom died, I received a package that contained a mosquito net. We had often complained about being eaten alive by mosquitoes on Fire Island, where we often vacationed. Along with package, the accompanying note read, “Here’s to a summer of escape.”

The night before he died, Tom gave me a note that I read the next morning. “I am so sorry it came down to a youthful death,” he wrote, “but I need to sleep and you need to get on with your life without more worry about me. If that is a gift to give, then I give you my spirit to have with you at all times.”

The memorial service marked the unofficial end to the mourning period, but not the end of my personal journey. Tom’s final gift to me were these gentle reminders that, although his life had ended, mine would continue.

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