My last post was celebrating another Spring, another year of Sheri surviving and seeing things turn green since her first serious medical trial 20 years ago. I highlighted the truly ridiculous list of physical challenges she had overcome in those 20 years, and 16 days after that post, she was gone, having finally succumbed to the infection she had fought for so long. It’s inconceivable that the warrior I know so well has fallen. But that word may not mean what I think it means.
People read that post of her amazing strength and spirit and were inspired, and I wish she had told her own story. The fullness of it, the unsanitized version, is even more amazing, because a story fraught with such triumph is not all pretty and clean and shiny. It’s bloody and broken and mucked with nasty bodily fluids, and washed in tears. I’ve never spoken much of those times except to a few confidantes, and as my sister avows, I never will, because it’s my job to keep the pedestal gleaming.
The venerated Mr. Rogers often told the story of when he was young and afraid, his mother advised him to look for the helpers: In time of crisis there are always helpers. And over the last 20 years, our helpers have abounded: foremost Sheri’s Mum, the formidable Arlajean. With incredible strength and devotion, she did all those things only a mother can do. Her life of service provided an anchor in every storm, and she was always my greatest ally in Sheri’s care, making sure our girls and I were looked after as well as Sheri. My mom, Bernie, of unmatched faith and charity, loved and prayed and gave without ceasing. My sister, Norlene, always managed to be there when we needed her and made sure I wasn’t too often alone. Glenda made herself available to chauffeur our girls so many times; Kitty made sure I was fed when I was holding vigil at Cleveland Clinic; all the family and friends and nurses and aides and doctors and therapists and clerical people, countless people with such good hearts, it’s impossible to name them or thank them.
But the chief helper through all of that crisis was… me. I dried tears, I bandaged tunneled wounds, I scrubbed unthinkable spills from carpets and couches, I signed papers and argued with doctors and threatened to raise truly ugly hell with incompetent nurses. I soothed fears, I researched medicines and hospitals and treatments, I built and hauled the portable ramp for the wheelchair, I picked up dead weight when knees gave out until my back was shot, and I sat attendant on the pavement in the parking lot waiting for assistance when I could no longer lift. I made sure our girls had birthdays and Christmases and Easters and feminine products and deodorant. And I don’t tell any of this because I want anyone to applaud the magic that is Doug. No, I tell it because, at this point in the story, there are people who think I’m despicable.
See, our marriage finally couldn’t withstand the stress and damage of the roller coaster of ceaseless crisis, the steps we took to try and succeed that others didn’t comprehend. Eventually, I realized I had stopped being a spouse and become solely a caregiver. And all the challenges created too many toxic situations in which we couldn’t agree on solutions or courses of action, and the need became overwhelming. All the details are unnecessary, but on my doctors’ advice I began over several years to pull away and create space. We finally officially separated in August last year. We agreed to wait to divorce until Sheri’s benefits were settled, but that was postponed and delayed time and again.
Well, some people feel I’m despicable for abandoning the crippled woman, even when I continued to spend most of my days taking care of her. Some people feel I’m despicable for finally meeting someone else after nearly 2 decades of faithful loneliness. A relative said to Sheri in November, “I knew you should never have taken him back when you left him in 1989.” Excuse me, I took her back. And that’s assuming someone else, then, would have kept vigil and scrubbed carpets and bandaged and encouraged and dried tears and prayed. Yes, this part rankles me a bit, and for the record, our marriage was over years ago except for the decree. But you know, without that decree I have the responsibility of tending to her remains and tying up her loose ends, and the term “husband” has been bandied about a lot. I got tired of trying to explain something that was nobody’s business anyway, and I’m honored to carry out these last tasks.
If there’s one thing I’m sure of, Sheri loved me. I have a gift from one of her therapists, who said in their last visit that Sheri spoke of wishing me well and wanting me to be happy, and our enduring friendship. I have a great gift from Sheri: When I offered to undergo pointless and ineffective conversion therapy 15 years ago her answer was, “No. If being gay is part of what makes you the man you are, then I don’t want to change that.” For whatever reason not even I understand, Sheri was the only woman I ever loved, and I was true to her for 35 years.
Matthew 7:16 speaks of how a good tree is known by the fruit it bears, and my love was shown by the years I spent faithfully taking care of my best friend in ways that most people can’t imagine, long after romance and marriage and even companionship faded. I’m still that person who demonstrated his love all those years. You think you know enough of the story, have the unblemished right to judge and call me despicable? Look at my fruit, and kiss my ass. And yes, Sheri did her share of bandaging and drying tears and praying, and learning to cook gluten free. She wasn’t perfect but the fruit her tree bore was golden. And mine was all about the colors, baby.
Her name was Sheri, and I loved her, and our story is extraordinary, and someday I may tell it more completely. But my inexplicable friend is gone. Moving on, life to live: Doug’s world, meet Khrysso LeFey, a man of incredible character, talent, integrity, and intelligence who has become a pillar in my life. Khrysso, my man, meet Doug’s world.