I saw my uncle today. He's dying of AIDS. We went up the garden path to the sight of half a dozen oxygen tanks stacked up in the porch. After a brief reunion with other family members, I was finally allowed to see him.
Of course, I had thought about this moment before... what would he look like? Would he be able to walk around? To laugh? I knew he had some form of pneumonia, blocking his alveoli and that he was on oxygen all the time now, but nothing could have prepared me for that moment.
Of course, I knew about HIV and AIDS, I knew the kind of things that could happen to him and everything, but up until this week, my only (somewhat dubious) experience of the syndrome was the film Philadelphia. Up until this moment, AIDS had been something which happened to other people, like the AIDS memorial quilt or the junkies.
The room was dimly lit as we walked in, but in the half-light I recognised his features. He was wearing a nose-mask of the kind one normally only sees in hospital dramas. In the background was the gentle hissing of the oxygen canister supplying his frail lungs with the pure life he needed to survive on.
He invited us to sit on the bed. I felt awkward for my younger sisters, now wary of this man they once adored, but had just found out on that day to be homosexual. I did my best to jokingly encourage them, but it was hard even for me to get close to him in his state.
At last my grandmother told him he had a telephone call. He changed his mask over to one which supplied oxygen through his nostrils. It was at this point that I could fully take in his appearance.
To be frank, I thought he would look a lot worse. Philadelphia had conditioned me for facial deformations and blotches, but to me he just looked about ten years older than the last time I saw him. I couldn't help but be reminded of Return of the Jedi - his wide eyes and the hissing of the oxygen keeping him alive were so reminiscent of Anakin Skywalker.
After that, it was much easier to accept that he was dying. I suppose that before I was in a state of numbness mixed with a tinge of grief, whereas now I was slipping into acceptance. I don't know if the five stages of grief apply pre-emptively, but I suppose I'm around the end of them now.
Before we drove up, I had thought over what I would say to him - a moving speech comparing him to his wonderful father, assuring him of his place in Heaven, and countless apologies for a relationship not cultivated. All of this would no doubt have encouraged him and settled my heart, but the initial shock knocked all my high-flung words and poetry out of me like a well-aimed blow from an unexpected adversary.
Instead we just had a normal conversation and left sooner than expected. In the end, I felt grateful that I didn't say my rehearsed lines. The hypocrisies of my day and much of my life, along with my continued difficulty in accepting that he has a seat in Paradise, would probably have choked the words from my mouth anyway. Nonetheless, I couldn't help feeling guilty for not saying them, and I felt even worse for continuing to think about Louise through all of this. My self-indulgence pains me and I was convicted of this by the in-car CD player, which followed Jim Croce's I'll have to say I love you in a song:
Well, I know it's kind of late
I hope I didn't wake you
But what I got to say can't wait I know you'd understand
Ev'ry time I tried to tell you
The words just came out wrong
So I'll have to say I love you in a song
with the Hollies
' He ain't Heavy, he's my Brother