In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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At the time of his death in January of this year, Richard McCann was working on a memoir titled The Resurrectionist, about the liver transplant that had saved his life in the mid-nineties and his thoughts on illness and mortality. He was seventy-one.
McCann was a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., where he taught creative writing from 1988 to 2017. He also taught at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He was the author of a collection of linked stories, Mother of Sorrows, and a book of poetry, Ghost Letters. He coedited (with Michael Klein) the poetry anthology Things Shaped in Passing: More “Poets for Life” Writing from the AIDS Pandemic.
“What I Lived For” is excerpted from The Resurrectionist. In it McCann reflects on friends and loved ones he lost over the years, many of them to AIDS, and on what gives life meaning.
I often sat beside Dennis at the local Alcoholics Anonymous clubhouse — soiled carpet, flimsy metal folding chairs — where we were both regulars, attending the same weekly AA meeting that began each Sunday at 6 PM. I was nervous when I took a seat beside him, given his penchant for sudden, unpredictable outbursts that often started with a kind of frenzied hectoring, like an evangelical preacher, and ended with exhaustion and something like tears. One night, anxiously waving his arms about, Dennis cried out, “It doesn’t matter if you all hate me, because I have to love you to stay sober!” Another night he stood straight up from his seat to declaim, “You’ve got to learn to love your life, no matter how much you hate it.”
Everyone there was at least half scared of him, even the junkies and crackheads who sometimes joined us in that small, bare room one flight up from the noisy street. People were scared of his sudden explosions of anger and by his erratic but passionate avidity. People were also scared, I suspect, because he was so visibly dying — depletion of muscle, gaunt and hollow face. At least, that fear was true for me. When he sat beside me, I felt as if the imminence of his death was bringing my own death closer. This was the same year I’d been diagnosed with end-stage liver disease; the same year I’d started waiting, hope against hope, for a liver transplant that might save my life, even if just for a year or two.
I seldom saw Dennis outside that AA meeting room. Once, at the Washington National Cathedral, I spotted him at an AIDS healing service, wearing a blue blazer, pink shirt, and a pair of khakis with tassel loafers, so that he looked like someone he once had been: an undergraduate at Georgetown University. But his face looked old and blistered, possibly due to his strict regime of visiting day spas for extractions and needling and masks formulated from Retin-A and aloe vera grown in the Sonoran Desert. That day I saw him at the cathedral, his face was frightening — raw and inflamed, as if it had been skinned and then quickly slathered with something that glistened, like petroleum jelly. He was hastening down the south aisle, toward where the diocesan bishop was about to offer his blessing. I would have called out to him if we hadn’t been in a Gothic cathedral.
Did I love my life, even if I hated it?
No, not really. Not then.
Of course, there was the possibility of a transplant, of which I was terrified. For a while I felt the whole thing had been a grievous error, no matter what the doctors and the biopsies had to say. I couldn’t believe I needed a transplant. That’s not me, I thought. I decided to consult with a renowned South African hepatologist people said was impossible to see. He was that famous. But I persisted. He was practicing then at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Washington, D.C. I went to ask him if there were alternatives to transplantation. I had no idea what I meant by that.
“You’re very sick,” he told me, reviewing my labs. “If you aren’t lucky enough to get a transplant, you will die.”
In case I thought it would be easier to die than to undergo transplantation, he added that my dying of liver failure would be painful and merciless and brutal. It wasn’t like drifting off to sleep.
When I exited the hospital, I saw a small band of veterans loitering near the entrance, drinking cans of Colt 45. “Faggot,” a couple of them muttered as I passed through on my way back to the parking lot.
It wasn’t just the thought of a transplant that beset me. It was AIDS, too. In ten years I’d lost so many friends and loved ones I couldn’t even start to conceive of an illness narrative in which anyone ever got better, including my best friend, Stanley, who’d been diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, or my then-partner, Jaime, who’d been among the first in D.C. to be diagnosed with what was then called GRID, for “gay-related immune deficiency.” At night I often sat beside Jaime on the living-room sofa as he fingered the swollen lymph glands in his neck.
“Don’t do that,” I told him.
Everything was AIDS. At the time of Jaime’s diagnosis, there had been 7,699 AIDS cases in the U.S. By the time of my liver transplant, ten years later, the number had grown to 23 million worldwide.
Dinner-party chatter, circa AIDS era: Did you hear about Duane? What about Charlie? Did you hear about the hemophiliac from Indiana who was only ten years old when he got the news? Someone saw Arcadio at the dry cleaner’s with a Kaposi-sarcoma lesion on his cheek. Did anyone hear about Darnell? He was stopped in a crosswalk, so confused that he froze in the middle of the street.
Who here has tried AL-721? It’s an egg lipid from Israel that tastes so shitty you have to smear it on toast. What about DDI? Compound Q? Dextran sulfate?
And what about Larry, who was diagnosed with pneumocystis and died within a week?
Then, in 1987, AZT became the first antiviral approved by the FDA for the treatment of HIV, even though it killed you while keeping you alive. Jaime didn’t live long enough to try protease inhibitors, the next and more successful generation of AIDS drugs. By the time he was admitted to the hospital for the last time, he was gaunt and skeletal, weighing less than eighty-five pounds. He often shat himself. Thrush fell continually from his mouth and throat like moist white lumps of cottage cheese. He was enraged by almost everyone, including me, doctors, nurses, nursing assistants, orderlies, home health aides, and the man who brought him his food on trays. He was vexed by his English spaniel, which he kept in a cage.
We had broken up a couple of years before — he’d said he couldn’t trust me — although, at his request, I still held his health-care proxy and DNR orders.
If Jaime was not in the hospital, I’d visit him at his cluttered townhouse, where he sat up in his king-size sleigh bed, paging through The Washington Post, looking at full-page ads for things he felt he needed to own, like designer sheet sets and plush towels and Brooks Brothers neckties. He’d then phone the stores to place his orders, paying with his AmEx Gold Card. In the last two months before his death he ordered two new down duvets, two ruffled bed skirts, twelve sterling-silver place settings, a set of Hartmann luggage, a dozen Lacoste polo shirts in all colors, an electric hibachi, a Trinity ring in three types of gold, and a Santos de Cartier watch, all of it still unopened. I know this because after Jaime died, it fell to me to return as much of the merchandise as possible. Were these the things he had lived for? In the month before his death the only thing he’d praised excitedly was the afternoon his AIDS buddy had taken him to Popeyes for spicy fried chicken.
Maybe eight weeks before I received the call summoning me for my transplant, I was admitted to the hospital due to life-threatening esophageal varices. I’d been standing in my kitchen when I’d suddenly started to hemorrhage from my mouth, the blood as thick and dark as coffee grounds. My friend Sue drove me to the ER. The only thing I remember from the next five days is when a doctor implanted a stent in my portal vein to better my odds of not bleeding to death. That, and a brightly colored mylar balloon that was tied to the bottom of my hospital bed, waving and bobbing whenever anyone came near.
After I was discharged, I learned that Dennis from AA had entered a hospital, too, for biopsies of his underarms and AIDS-related lymphoma. When I went to visit, I found him sitting up in bed, wearing his silk dressing gown and fielding quick calls on his cell phone. “Jesus,” he said after he hung up. He gave a look of mock exasperation. Then he laughed. “Well,” he said, “I guess you now know what I do for a living.”
I told him I didn’t get it, and he motioned for me to come closer. He worked out of his studio apartment, he told me, providing “men’s services.” He said he performed the kind of massage with a happy ending.
In retrospect I wonder if he might have seen the slightest tinge of horror cross my face. I was imagining what his clients must have thought when he opened his apartment door to greet them. He looked awful — his hospital pallor and cadaverous face, with patches of acne running across his hairline.
Without my having to ask, he said, “Most of the men are older and married.” By the time they’d screwed up enough courage to tap on his door, they weren’t going anywhere else. They were in all the way. Not one of them, he said, had ever hesitated or backed away.
The next time I saw Dennis, he wanted to drive me around the neighborhood in his hunter-green Mustang convertible with the top down. It was a beautiful spring day. The streets were crowded. Dennis drove slowly down Seventeenth Street, as if in a private parade, honking his horn whenever he spotted someone he knew. At one point he stopped in front of a busy outdoor cafe, where he kept calling to the men seated there, “Hey, girl! Yes, girl, I mean you!” A half dozen of the men, some shirtless, came over to greet him.
“I adore my Mustang,” Dennis said, caressing the steering wheel as we drove back to his place. “I’m living for you, baby,” he told the car.
What do any of us live for?
From having memorized it while preparing for my Holy Confirmation, I know what the Baltimore Catechism has to say:
Question: Why did God make you?
Answer: God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in Heaven.
When people asked what I was living for — as they sometimes did, back when I was still waiting for a donor organ — I told them I was living for work and love. I wanted more of both, I said. I should have realized even then that these words were too earnest and solemn to be true.
What did my mother live for? She was eighty-four at the time of her death. By then she no longer recognized anyone, including me, my brother, or herself. Perhaps because she’d always been what people used to call a “big reader,” she continued her daily practice of sitting in her recliner with a paperback in her hands, though she was often holding the book upside down.
And Dennis? He died while I was in the hospital undergoing transplantation. When I later asked his AA sponsor about the fate of Dennis’s Mustang, he told me that Dennis had been forced to sell it about two weeks before his death in order to keep paying for his AIDS medications.
And what about my best friend, Stanley, who died of metastatic melanoma? At the start of his illness, he’d pulled me aside one afternoon to make me swear I would help him die if the melanoma proved too unspeakable to bear. The cancer first took hold in the mucosal tissue of his soft palate. Then it metastasized to his lymph nodes, which had to be excised from both sides of his neck. Then it traveled to his left lung. He underwent a pneumonectomy in which his whole left lung was removed. Then it went to the brain, causing him to suffer from seizures. The last time I saw him was at Sloan Kettering, where he’d gone for treatment, and I was wheeling him in a chair to the radiation suite. We had to part a minute before the tech stepped in to blast him with radiation.
Stanley was miserable, slumped in his wheelchair. I took this moment to whisper to him, “Stan, is this that time you spoke of? If you want my help . . .”
Suddenly he was furious. “What do you think?” he demanded. “Don’t you think I want to continue living? How do you think I don’t want to keep living all the way to the end?”
What did my brother David live for in his last year before his overdose from heroin, cocaine, and speed? Could one say that, toward the end, he was living for heroin, cocaine, and speed?
“Look at me!” Dennis demanded one night at our weekly Sunday AA meeting. He was pointing an index finger toward his own wasted body. “Look at me,” he repeated. “I was supposed to become a flight attendant.”
In her last years my mother perfected her survival skills by sitting in her wheelchair, glowering at anyone who dared to come near.
When I was young, I lived for what I thought of as “lyrical moments,” when the details of life were suddenly heightened and approached the transcendent: The May afternoons I spent lying in the sun beside the Alhambra. The warm nights my friends and I gathered at the cramped Café-Bar Lolita, in a whitewashed Gypsy cave in Sacromonte, where the locals drank from liter Coke bottles filled with vino tinto. The nights I lay with Manuel Mendoza Hernandez del Gato, mi hermoso, one name for each day I loved him.
Of course, if you live long enough, you start thinking more and more not about the lyrical but rather about time.
My friend Stanley died thirty years ago. But I still call him my best friend.
How can it be that I’ve now had my transplant for twenty-four years?
Time is hard to grasp, proposed Saint Augustine of Hippo.
I think sometimes I am living for the breeze moving through the elm tree outside my third-floor window.
I don’t know what I was born for, if anything.
Sometimes I am living for the afternoon light at Herring Cove.
I dream that I am living for the moon to set and the sun to rise.
I am living to stay alive.
For those of us lucky enough to have been mentored by him, it was a devastating blow last January to hear that Richard McCann, generous soul and longtime liver-transplant survivor, had passed away at the age of seventy-one.
I studied under Richard in the 1990s at the MFA program at American University. Beyond teaching the craft of writing, he helped me understand what it meant to be a good literary citizen. I’ve since come to recognize how he intentionally created a rich, inclusive sense of community such that we rooted for each other’s success. He helped us recognize that when one person creates an exceptional story, it is a gift to all of us.
In a poem called “Ghost Letter in a Bottle,” Richard wrote: “I knew there was a project requiring me for its eventual completion, although probably not in my lifetime!” For years I had anticipated reading Richard’s work-in-progress, The Resurrectionist, having seen glimpses of it in a few published essays. (Part of the shock of hearing about his death was that I would never see this book.) What an amazing balm it was to find another excerpt in the June 2021 issue of The Sun [“What I Lived For”]. It was like hearing his voice from beyond the grave.