It breaks my heart to think that he died alone. No one there to comfort him, to wipe sweat from his brow. No one to hold his hand, and say "I'm right here with you. You're not alone. You don't need to be afraid, its okay to let go when you're ready."
There was a thirty-six year gap in our ages. He was a proud, extroverted African-American man or as he preferred to say "person of color." An only child, born and raised in Boston, he'd traveled the world, but never learned how to drive. I was an introverted white woman. The youngest of four, born in New Hampshire, raised in Vermont, who had barely traveled outside of New England, yet we understood each other perfectly.
We were co-workers, who along with a group of four or five others became great friends. We'd lunch together, laugh and solve the world's troubles. On occasion our tight knit little group would take in a Sox game, or head to a restaurant in the North End to celebrate life's milestones; birthdays, the holidays, new jobs, retirements. We both loved music and literature and talked on the topics often. "Did you see Miss Labelle on the Grammy's last night?" he'd say knowing I did, "Child, that hair and the outfit."
He was a big man, over six feet and was by far the best dressed man or woman in our office. His skin was a deep, dark mahogany, his salt-n-pepper mustache always neatly trimmed, his clothes well made and perfectly fit. He kept a spare tie in his desk at all times so he could change if he stained the one he was wearing while eating lunch. He loved to shop for jewelry at Tiffany's. His laugh, oh his laugh, it was loud, deep and genuine and one of the most joyful sounds I've ever heard. He was a man of great faith and he worshiped at the same AME church he'd attended with his parents as child. Every Sunday he sat in the exact same place. It was the seat his father had occupied before him.
He kept his life neatly compartmentalized; work friends, church friends, family, friends from his club. He was vigilant in keeping all of these worlds separate. A member of our group, the only other male, was very interested in the club Karl frequented on weekends. This guy was white, straight and very conservative, the polar opposite in life experience and world view from most of our group. He was dying to know about this "club" and teased that if he found out where it was he'd to show up there some Saturday. On one occasion when he called the house and Karl's roommate answered, his desire to know got the better of him. He casually asked the name of the club and was rewarded with the information he'd been so anxious to have. A suburbanite, what he didn't realize was the club was the oldest operating gay club in the city of Boston. It wasn't long after that he dropped the bomb and revealed what he'd learned to Karl. It almost cost him his friendship. He'd crossed a line he shouldn't have, in Karl's world the lines didn't cross, the lives didn't intersect.
I took the T to Brigham and Women's hospital after work. Karl was in the hospital again, but we didn't know what was wrong. When I took the elevator up to his room, I found he had the room to himself. I sat by his side and we talked about this and that. Occasionally, he would start talking nonsense and then a few minutes later make perfect sense again. Right before visiting hours ended, a nurse came in to take more blood, "where did he want her to stick him?" she'd asked. Unable to form an answer, he looked at me like a lost child. "Take it from wherever he appears to be the least sore," I told her and she did. Blood drawn, I kissed him on the cheek and told him "I'll see you tomorrow." When tomorrow came, so did the phone call that Karl had died.
Its been sixteen years and still he crosses my mind. I wish he were here to see the strides made within the gay community; marriage, adoption, no cure yet, but better treatment options for HIV/AIDS, more positive portrayals of gays and lesbians in the media. When Barack Obama was elected President, out of all my African-American friends it was Karl that I thought of first. As I sat listening to Obama's acceptance speech on election night, I cried tears of joy that the day had come, tears of sorrow that my old friend hadn't lived to see it. He would have been so proud.
Its strange what one comes to realize over time. After Karl died, all the worlds he'd strived to keep separate came together. I'd always thought it was a shame that he'd chosen to keep each aspect of his life in a little box, even said so to friends. Then one day I woke up and discovered, I've done the exact same thing. Keep it safe, keep it private, let each box sit on its own little shelf; family, work, work friends, volunteer work and friends, etc. I am intensely private, always have been and I have begun to ask myself why? What is the risk in sharing? What have I lost, what have I gained? What will happen if you let it all go? Can I change? Do I want to? I'm on the fence and its becoming somewhat less comfortable than it used to be.
If one called his house and got the answering machine, one would hear Karl's deep baritone voice politely inform the caller that he was unavailable to take their call and to please leave a message after the tone. After that standard message was delivered he would say "Uhuru," and the machine would click off. Uhuru, the Swahili word for freedom. Uhuru, something we all seek. Uhuru, something we must look within ourselves to find. Uhuru, something to think about.