Kevin, sweetie –
Over 18 years anticipating your death, bracing for it, while nearly believing the legends of your immortality. Wanting to believe them. Over 18 years preparing for a loss that, turns out, can’t be prepared for at all.
You looked like you were dying when we met. December 7, 1999. T & K showed up at my alley window & casually reported your illness. I was still new to the Ave, barely 21, and didn’t yet understand the will-he-make-it-through-this-one-or-won’t-he tightrope that was your perpetual state of being. Fear still felt urgent. We got to know each other over the next few hours — one of us slumped on the sidewalk, the other cajoling, then pleading. When the cops showed up, you managed to get halfway down the block before collapsing. The ER or jail, they said. As EMTs led you to the ambulance, you broke away long enough to grab my arm & pull me along with you.
“If I’m going, you’re going with me.”
You lasted about ten minutes in the exam room before storming out. (The first lesson of many you’d impart: on future ER visits, I’d know better than to passively wait in the lobby, negotiating access for behind-the-scenes advocacy.) You spent that night on my apartment floor, tucked beneath my grandmother’s crazy quilt. My boundaries were already shit; what else was there to do with you that cold, wet night?
Over our years of more hospital trips, jail visits, prison letters, bandaged feet, clean socks, cups of tea, spiral-bound notebooks, Pepe’s burritos, more “Ay, love, can I get a favor?” than I could count, you taught me the question wasn’t what to do with you, but with all outliers. Anyone too unpredictable, too non-compliant, too fucking much to be granted food, shelter, health care, a toilet, privacy, eye contact, dignity, human recognition. Those so deeply wounded, carrying oceans of pain that systems won’t accommodate and the unscathed can’t bear to be near. You taught me to question my role as a service provider, to understand that, for some, there wasn’t going to be a transitional housing program or achievable end-goal. There would only be today.
(If all I can give is today, am I still worth your time?)
When you stole from me, it was never as much as you could have. When you lied to me, I learned not to get hung up on debatable details, but to hear what was unspoken. None of these lessons were uniquely mine. Did anyone make it off the Ave without dreaming they might pull you up with them? A closet floor, regular sleep & meals, a safe place to get clean: wishing those things could be enough to bring you peace. Everyone wanted to be the one to save you. In you, we embraced contradiction: your volatile and precarious wellbeing; the certainty of your hugs. Blue eyes rolling in their sockets, one sentence flailing over the next; off-the-charts smarts. Your irrepressible charisma. That dark place where it was nearly impossible to reach you. You were a flame drawing so many of us close, and no flame ever burned brighter than a playful Puppet, that wild cackle ricocheting down the alley.
You taught me to love without agenda – not in spite of That or in hopes of This; just as you were. Just as you were… A human being who laughed and encouraged and looked out for, who was generous and funny and ruthlessly self-aware, frequently & bitterly disappointed by those of us who failed to live up to your fierce loyalty, who hurt others and hurt yourself more, who lived with unfathomable pain and self-loathing and somehow, through some measure of resilience I will never comprehend, somehow always kept on living.
Until you didn’t.
If I could tell you just one thing? It would be I’m sorry. I’m sorry I let the ocean wash between us, more and more time seeping between letters until years had passed. And if I could tell you one more thing? It would be thank you. While those social work days are long behind this fisherman, I am forever grateful that you pulled me along with you that cold December night, into that ambulance and on into your life. I would answer the unspoken question you never stopped asking.
(You were, love. You were worth it all.)
But the window for telling you anything has closed. All that’s left is this – telling anyone and everyone else, people who never knew you, who would have crossed the street to avoid you, that your life mattered, and your death doesn’t go un-mourned. For this, I wish I could scream as loud as you. It still wouldn’t be loud enough.
So tonight I light a candle for you, sweetie, and for all who loved you. And that’s the fucking heartbreak of it all – there were so, so many more of us than you ever believed. I hope you can believe it now.