A Heart Beyond Cure – Mark Ambrose Harris

It is Christmas Eve and I’m looking at a selection of commemorative funeral bookmarks — buy a piece of laminated cardstock, remember your loved one for always. That must be quite a feat, to distill the intricacies of a life into a bookmark. There’s also a series of urns to choose from, myriad shapes and sizes, glossy sheens and matte finishes. The showroom is too small for more than one casket, but there are different wood mouldings on display, like paint swatches in a hardware store or interchangeable furniture components in an IKEA catalog. These products range in cost; there is, after all, a price on everything, even in death. But which bookmark design to choose? Decisions, decisions. Lucky for me, I’m familiar with this funeral parlour. I was here seven months ago to prepare for my grandfather’s burial and now I’m back to do the same for my uncle.

My uncle Kevin died the morning of December 24, 2014. Heart attack. Completely unexpected. A marathon runner for most of his life, he never showed any signs of coronary disease. At the age of sixty-three, his ticker just decided to check out. My mother says that one of the doctors who tried to resuscitate Kevin explained, “Sometimes, with the heart, we just don’t know.” I thought about the deceptive literary personas of JT LeRoy and the title of their book The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, which is a quote from the Bible. “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9. As someone who is relatively atheist, Judeo-Christian maxims do little for me in everyday life, perhaps even less so in moments of profound grief and loss. Platitudes about suffering coming to an end, about a peaceful afterlife, and about what comes next do not comfort me when someone’s life expires. Still, I like that quote. Beyond cure. Who can understand it?

I grew up in a large extended Irish Catholic family. My mother is the oldest child of seven, the big sister to six younger brothers — five after Kevin’s passing. My grandparents’ roots are in Point St. Charles and Griffintown, Montreal neighbourhoods where many families of working-class Irish immigrants settled. Though my mother and Kevin were born in Point St. Charles, the family moved soon after, and all seven children were raised in Montreal North. It was at this house in Montreal North where I spent many of my childhood Sundays, along with my grandparents and my uncles, enjoying backyard barbecues in the summer and turkey dinners in the colder months.

As a child, I loved and looked up to my uncles. They teased me a lot, roughhoused a bit, but always made time for me at these gatherings. There was no separation between children and adults — we all hung out together, even when they’d play cribbage, a game that meant excruciating boredom for my two sisters and me. As a social worker who assisted youth whose parents could not or would not take care of them, Kevin knew how to adjust his sense of humour to our level. He would joke with me about a fictional summer camp called Camp Blood, a legendary land of exile for children who misbehaved. My sister Erin recently reminded me of Kevin’s famous magic trick where he made it appear as though he could split his thumb in two at the knuckle. Or he would say, “Dear diary…” and then open his palms like a book and pretend he was writing our praises in an invisible tome. On my birthday, I was always sure to get a card from him in the mail.

There was music in that house as well, especially Black Watch military pipe-and-drum marches. Sometimes, my uncles would blast The Village People’s “In the Navy,” the reason behind this musical selection being that my grandfather was a ship stoker on a corvette during World War II. Was the queer subtext of “In the Navy” lost on them? Is there any subtext to excavate from The Village People or is it all on display like a pair of assless chaps? Regardless, all of us bopping together to this disco classic is the only childhood memory I have of my extended family where queerness was in the air but it wasn’t an object of derision or scorn.

When I became a teenager, my own queerness was something I learned to deny or bury or ignore or silence. Hiding my sexuality from my peers in high school was one thing; there were still positive visions of queerness circulating, whether other students who identified as bisexual, cute straight boys wearing eyeliner and feathered boas to school dances, rumors of pansexual sex parties, or my best friend talking lovingly about her gay uncle. Even though the possibilities were distant, I could still envision them — a panacea within reach.

Silence took on a more pernicious shape when it came to my extended family. The masculine bravado of my uncles that seemed funny or charming to me as a child now posed a threat to my secret. I remember their barbs and laughter at the expense of the effeminate photographer who was shooting my godfather’s wedding. I remember HIV punchlines at my cousin’s first communion. I remember rants about the horror of gay marriage at Sunday evening suppers; granted, I’m not invested in the idea of matrimony, but I digress. This is not just ancient history; one of my uncles made an anal sex joke as he bent over to set up a picture frame at Kevin’s funeral — something like, “It’s okay if you’re standing behind me, as long as I don’t feel your hands on my shoulders” (please note, the joke was not directed at me). But as a teenager, this familial homophobia caused me to withdraw. Now, when I navigate the trauma and shame of these memories, I think about Sarah Schulman’s book Ties that Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences. In this work, Schulman posits that homophobia germinates in the family unit and then spreads outwards into other social institutions. She writes at length about how families must be held responsible for understanding that queer family members are not to blame for discord, where homophobia is the real pathology in need of a cure. So I learned to hold everything in, to put up wall after wall, in order to protect myself against this gestating infection.

After my grandmother died in 2001, the cohesion of my extended family dissolved. My grandfather would come to my parents’ place every Sunday, and I would see an uncle from time to time, but those larger gatherings, those summer barbecues with Cott Cola and bags of No-Name potato chips, didn’t materialize anymore. By that time, three of my uncles were still living in Montreal, including Kevin. As a form of self-preservation, I never went out of my way to see them. I came out to my sisters in the summer of 2005 after a Feist concert and to my parents in the winter of 2008, just before my twenty-eighth birthday. I decided not to broach the subject with my grandfather or uncles. I certainly recognize my own hypocrisy, being an outspoken queer who publishes essays about porn fandom and otter lust while staging the ludicrous theatre of the closet every Sunday for supper.

The reason I’m dwelling on this schism that separated two distinct sections of my life is that I blame familial homophobia for keeping people apart. Perhaps I should have come out to my grandfather. I considered doing so while caring for him as he was in his process of dying. Hearing is one of the last senses to go. But even with that impending finality, my cowardice took over and I remained silent. Maybe I could have come out to my uncle. As I’ve aged, I’ve learned that people are capable of incremental shifts in consciousness, that bias and bigotry can lose potency over time. But that no longer matters. I never attempted to forge any semblance of a relationship with Kevin, and now he’s gone.

In May 2014, my grandfather passed away after a brief and brutal bout with cancer. As he neared death, he experienced sundowning, an inability to sleep mixed with surges of anger, anxiety, and confusion that usually began in the early evening. My mother and I think his acute moments of sundowning were probably the result of infections that he could not fight off, infections that breached his blood-brain barrier, after a single dose of chemotherapy devastated his 89-year-old body. While my grandfather and his mind withered, my mother and Kevin were his primary caregivers. They were at the hospital every day, first in the oncology ward, and then in palliative care. Some days, my mother would take a later bedside shift, so I would visit after work to sit with her and my grandfather during supper. On days like these, it was common for Kevin to be leaving as I was arriving. We would say hello, shake hands, and maybe briefly discuss my grandfather’s state. Of course, as my grandfather’s body began to shut down and he could no longer take in any food, both Kevin and I were in the palliative care ward with one another for extended periods. But our time together focused on my grandfather. There were knowing looks about the inevitable approaching end. Maybe there was an unspoken acknowledgement that we were going through something profound together, but a deeper level of sharing never took place. Seven months after my grandfather passed away, Kevin went as well.

It’s the morning of December 24 and I get a text from my mother that reads: “ON WAY TO KEVIN POOR BREATHING CHEST PAIN.” My mother often has her flip phone locked in the all-caps setting by accident, so this choppy message doesn’t come across as particularly alarming. Kevin had been dealing with flu-like symptoms in the recent past, so I assume he’s struggling with some form of severe pneumonia or bronchitis. Soon after the first text, I get a follow-up that Kevin and my mother are in an ambulance. “DOES NOT LOOK GOOD DOING CPR.” Then my phone rings and it’s a nurse asking if I can get to the hospital as soon as possible. Her calm, measured tone sets off a wave of panic — my face swims with heat, my throat tightens, and I can’t tell if I want to cry or vomit. Even though I’ve never had a phone call like this before, I know what it portends. My partner drives my sister Erin and me to the Montreal General; my other sister Aileen is on her way from Ottawa. Just as Erin and I pass through the sliding glass doors of the hospital, she answers her phone and receives the news that Kevin is dead.

We are ushered into a small waiting room equipped with tissue boxes where my mother is sitting. She shrugs at us, a look of bewilderment. Soon after, she calls my Auntie Sue, one of Kevin’s best and closest friends for more than four decades. When my mother explains what happened, all I can hear is Sue’s crescendo wail escaping from my mom’s phone. I watch the muscles shift in her face as she attempts to remain composed.

We wait until other Montreal-based family members arrive. Once we are all assembled, someone from the hospital brings us to the room where Kevin’s body is resting. My sister cries out, “Oh, my God!” when we first see him. There are no signs of distress. A sheet covers him from his toes to his neck. His head is tilted a little to the left and his mouth is open a bit, as though he has just nodded off for a moment, as though dreams are playing behind the curtains of his eyes.

Everyone is either expressing disbelief or talking about being in peace; my father stays off to the side, his face red from weeping. One of my uncles swears, “No fucking way,” but remains fairly stoic. I’m not sure if he leaves the room to cry in private or to get some air. Another uncle’s hands tremble; he fidgets through his tears. Because Erin and I are some of the last people to enter the room, we’re standing at the foot of the bed. We each put a hand on Kevin’s feet — my sister and I just stand there holding them. I can’t remember at any point in my life touching Kevin’s feet or why I would have had a reason to, but here we are. I feel the arch of his foot, the outline of his toes through the bedsheet. Time passes but I’m unable to process or calculate it. At some point, Erin and I move around to the right side of the bed to get closer to Kevin. We look at his face and we hold on to his upper arm knowing this will be the last intimate physical touch we ever have with him.

Although I witnessed my grandfather’s process of dying, I was not there the moment of his last breath. I saw him breathing in the hospital on a Saturday and then on the following Thursday I saw him motionless in a coffin. This is the first time I am standing with the body of someone who has died, a body in its natural state of death, free from funeral parlour drag. There is no favourite suit, no rosy glow make-up, no forced smile stitched into eternity, no preservatives to keep him showroom ready. There is just my uncle, the entirety of his life resting beneath a white bedsheet.

After leaving the hospital, some of us drive directly to the funeral home to begin making arrangements. From there, Erin and I accompany my parents to Kevin’s place to find the documents and forms of identification that the funeral home needs. I’m thirty-four years old and this is my first visit to his apartment. It is an older walk-up, and as we get to his floor, I take a moment to register the mess in the hallway: husks of plastic strewn about, fragments of transparent tubing, and pieces of paper. I realize this is paramedic detritus, the ephemera that gets tossed aside when life-saving instruments are torn from their sterilized cocoons. I spot two white tags attached to security wrappers that have been snapped open — my hands shake as I bend down to pick them up. Each tag has some sort of serial number that no longer matters. There is fine print etched into the back of 002440 that reads:

SEALED

DO NOT REMOVE

Embossed lettering on 1291 beckons:

ENTER

I pocket the tags. They aren’t meant to be memorabilia that will help me remember my uncle, but rather, they are objects from this liminal place of what comes after a rupture with the everyday. Just looking around, it’s obvious something happened here, something quick, a frenzy of activity, a sparring with mortality, and this refuse in the hallway is what is left over. This is the after.

We go into the apartment and there is more of the same: a larger slab of solid plastic that looks like maybe it was part of a stretcher or a headboard, discarded elastic bands, paper slips with instructional diagrams. I collect all of these objects from the floor and place them in Kevin’s recycling bin. There is something unsettling about mixing the quotidian recyclables of newspapers and tin cans with the remnants of life-saving paraphernalia, especially now that the life in question is over. I crouch to pick up a piece of blue plastic when I realize it is a razor. But it’s not like a regular disposable razor. Rather, the head of the implement is a sizeable half-oval of blades. Between the thin pieces of metal are hairs, black and white. I understand that this is the razor the paramedics used to shave my uncle’s chest in order to prep his skin for the electrocardiogram and the defibrillator. I hold the razor up to the light and look at Kevin’s body hair for a moment, now nothing more than strands of keratinized protein shorn from their roots. I place the razor in the garbage.

I’m looking around his apartment and getting a sense of what Kevin was like in life and how, in some ways, our politics may have overlapped. Though he towered above most people, being well over six feet tall, his demeanour was calm and welcoming. I see a magnet on his fridge calling for the imperial hand of England to get out of Northern Ireland. There is a poster on his closet door printed in 1985 that reads: “Listen to the Hibakusha — NO MORE HIROSHIMAS — NO MORE NAGASAKIS — BAN ALL NUCLEAR WEAPONS.” On the windowsill in his yoga room, there are sea shells and rocks, talismans from the natural world that brought him peace. There are jade plants and potted shamrocks in the living room straining towards a sun that isn’t there; today it is grey and the rain borders on torrential. His reading glasses, crossword puzzle, and pen rest on his armchair.

This is when I see that Kevin’s phone is off the hook. I stare at the empty cradle, the telephone wire coiling on the table. While my uncle was in the middle of having a heart attack, he called my mother and he called an ambulance. I’m not sure which call was his last. The receiver sits there as though Kevin put it down for a moment, as though a conversation is on pause while he goes to get a glass of water, to buzz someone in. I pick up the receiver and hang up the phone, crying at the implication of my action. It’s strange — I’ve just seen Kevin’s deceased body, but it’s the act of hanging up the phone that feels heavy with ending.

We recover the documentation the funeral parlour needs for postmortem red tape. We turn off the lights in the apartment and lock the door behind us. As we are about to leave the building, my mother opens Kevin’s mailbox. The contents of the mail include a Christmas card she sent him. The letter remains sealed, unread.

The day my uncle died was surreal, not just because I was losing a second family member within a year, but because I experienced moments of hyper intimacy with Kevin, a kind of intimacy that was not possible in life. In over three decades of knowing my uncle, the most profound connections I had with him took place in the first moments after his death. I am left with the absence of having an honest, meaningful relationship with him, and that can never be remedied. I wish I’d given him a chance, that I didn’t always have my defenses up, that we could have found common ground in our love of nature, that we hadn’t drifted with age, that I had spoken with him more when he was looking after my grandfather in the hospital. I wonder how the complexities and mysteries of one person’s life can be sequestered to a bookmark.

Toward the end, as my grandfather fought, clinging to life, sundowning and lashing out at a situation beyond his control, he would sometimes aim this malediction at those who were helping him the most. I think this profound and disturbing metamorphosis in character really eroded Kevin. He was a rather quiet and private man, so I can only imagine him coming home each day after the hospital, sitting in his apartment, sitting with the weight of his father’s disintegration. I think that on an intellectual level, one can rationalize the verbal effluence of dementia — one can understand these words as the products of illness. Deciphering this kind of experience on an emotional level is a different matter altogether.

I remember soon after my uncle died, I was writing to a friend, explaining that I was convinced Kevin’s caregiving had been too draining on him, that he took the ramblings of my grandfather’s twilight dementia to heart. I didn’t even consider the connotations of the cliché I was composing — he took it to heart. His heart did give out. For whatever reason, it shut down. Maybe it really was too much. The heart does not compute; it pumps out and draws in. It holds on to things until it can hold on no longer. It is beyond cure. Who can understand it?

Mark Ambrose Harris lives and writes in Montreal, a city located on unceded Mohawk territory. His work appears in the anthologies In the Company of Animals: Stories of Extraordinary Encounters, Men on the Make, and the Arsenal Pulp Press collection I Like It Like That: True Stories of Gay Male Desire. His essay on body hair and gender identity is featured on Revolver, and his work about parasites and STI stigma is part of Nomorepotlucks #29: Used. His essay Beautiful Books, which can be found in both the Lethe Press anthology Best Gay Stories 2012 and Ribbon Pig Vol. 1, received the Songe-de-Poliphile award from l’Académie de la vie littéraire au tournant du 21e siècle. His arts & culture writing has appeared in Montreal Review of Books, Lickety Split, 2B Magazine, Nightlife Magazine, Empty Mirror Books, and Xtra. He copyedits for Fernwood Publishing and he is a regular contributor to CBC Arts.



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