One last moment in the lights…
Like his life, Jim’s death held enough suspense, drama, and intrigue for a three-act play, and as usual, he was the reluctant star of the show. Jim and I attended the same college, both majoring in theatre. Jerry, a talented actor, told me about a play directed by one of the professors who cast a musician named Jim, who had written an original song for the show. Jerry invited me to the after-party so I could meet him.
They held the party in the small theatre, crowded with actors from the show and their friends. I saw Jerry walk toward me, accompanied by a tall, well-built blond kid with a guitar slung over his shoulder. Jerry introduced us, and I was unable to take my eyes off Jim. He smiled shyly, politely ignoring my stare. He was beautiful, humble, and unpretentious.
I surprised myself when I asked Jim if he’d write a song for my play, Heaven’s North of Here, and gave him a copy of the script. Weeks later, Jim came over and played the song he had composed, Young Girl. He appeared apprehensive, but I recall how his rich, melodic voice resonated deep in my soul, and his lyrics perfectly conveyed the feelings of the main character, a suicidal young girl.
“Young girl, do you know the reason for this dream…” Jim captured the emotion of the play in his haunting melody and lyrics. Unexpected tears of embarrassment rolled down my cheeks as he sang. It was the first of many times I would feel understood and connected to this man for years to come.
Over the next ten years, Jim and I toured high schools and colleges across the country with Heaven’s North of Here, Jim opening and closing the show with his music. After the performances, we opened an emotional, often profound discussion with the audience that brought Jim and me closer every time. Neither of us understood this poignant experience that organically developed out of the play’s impact on the audience. We were just grateful to be included.
We toured the Midwest for a week presenting the play in nearby high schools. One night at our hotel over a glass of wine, I confessed to Jim that I was in love with him. That’s when he revealed he was gay. Over the next few hours, we shared our feelings of embarrassment, rejection, and disappointment. Ironically, our respect and love for each other began to grow even deeper. We experienced fully knowing and being known by another human being.
They diagnosed Jim with AIDS in the early summer. We were both devastated, knowing that AIDS was a death sentence. Neither of us knew how to handle the news until Jim came up with an idea; “Let’s use our real-life struggle with AIDS as a creative endeavor, in a play about AIDS.” Any apprehension either of us had, seemed to vanish at that moment.
The show is about a playwright named Mona and her musical collaborator and best friend named Jim, who is diagnosed with AIDS. The show’s story dealt with hope in the face of despair, using my script and Jim’s music. Renting a fifty-seat theatre in a crowded business district surrounded by offices, I soon cast and directed the play.
Jim managed to attend Encore’s opening night on what coincidentally was the first World AIDS Day. We couldn’t afford to rent searchlights, so an actor parked his jeep with its emergency lights flashing and pink helium balloons tied to the antenna at the entrance to the parking lot. The theatre was difficult to find, but somehow the play sold out. Local papers interviewed us, publishing photos about the play on the front page.
Sitting in the back of the theatre, I watched Jim laugh and cry throughout the show. When the play ended, I introduced Jim as the inspiration for the show to a standing ovation. The audience continued to applaud, urging Jim to sing one of his songs, which he did in a strong voice and pitch-perfect. It would be Jim’s last performance. He died one month later. That night was indeed his final encore.
The show closed, and a new cast assembled for the real-life drama of Jim’s death; his partner Clyde, his parents, Les and Betty, and me. Clyde had moved Jim’s bed into the living room in front of the fireplace, where we spent our time talking, laughing, and sharing the privilege it was to be part of Jim’s life…and soon his death.
Jim had drifted off to sleep in the middle of a conversation one day when we were alone, so I turned on the television, and CNN announced we were at war with Iraq, showing footage of American airplanes bombing a mosque. While Jim slept, I wondered if he knew what was happening in the world, and more importantly, in our world. Jim stirred, rolled over, and mumbled, “Is anyone out there?”
“I am.” I whispered.
Dance On A Star
I asked Jim if he wanted me to write his eulogy, and after several minutes he agreed but insisted that no one donate money to any charity.
“If they want to remember me, they can plant a tree.”
“I’ll plant a fruit tree,” I promised. We shared a quiet, familiar laugh. Jim grew somber and asked if I was going to be OK. I said I thought so, and at that moment, I suppose, I believed it. Neither of us was religious, so I was surprised when Jim asked, “What do you think is going to happen?” I knew he trusted my opinion.
“I think you’re going to become an angel.”
“Yeah. And I think you’ll watch out for me.” Jim gently touched my cheek with his fragile fingers, then closed his eyes and slept for a long time.
Jim’s birthday was approaching. While steadily growing weaker and sleeping more often, he was looking forward to turning thirty-seven years old. The night before his birthday, we painted banners with messages from each of us; Happy birthday to my sensitive and creative son, Clyddie loves Jimmy, and Happy birthday Jimbo, Les’s favorite nickname for his son. I painted, Celebrate, Dance On A Star, encompassing the words with silver stars and pink balloons.
On his birthday, I made a card with my daughter’s crayons, blue construction paper and substituted his lyrics with mine in a song he had written years ago, Freedom Sea. His lyrics were sad and even more significant now because it was about the finality of sailing home.
“You ask me where’s my heart, you ask me where’s my smile, somewhere lost within the miles…Someday far away from town, I will settle down… I won’t sail no more, I will come ashore…”
I wrote new lyrics to his song on the inside of the card and childlike drawings of a sailboat being lifted toward the heavens by pink balloons, sailing past stars, the moon, and beyond a silver glitter galaxy.
“…and with a final restless wind,
you’ve set your sails to sail again,
Point your bow for lands unknown
Courageously you sail on home
Cast your sights toward morning’s light
Drift peacefully through the night
Sail past the moon and up so far
Sing with angels…dance on stars
Journey beyond the clouds and skies
Where love lives forever…hope never dies
There’s rainbows at horizons’ end
I send my love with you…my friend.
And now I have a need in me
To dream of you still sailing free
Your course is set…the way is clear
You’ll find heaven’s north of here…”
That night, we sat around Jim’s bed as he began nodding off to sleep. Clyde noticed Jim’s ring had fallen off his frail finger onto the bed, so he slipped it back on Jim’s finger, dramatically pronouncing, “with this ring, I thee wed.” We all burst out laughing, cherishing Clyde’s sardonic humor in such a solemn moment. Jim scarcely spoke above a whisper but began to recite;
“In sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, to have and to hold…to have and to hold…to have and to hold…”
Then Jim peacefully slipped into a coma.
A restless wind…
Driving to Jim’s house on the day he died, I savored what I knew would be the last dawn of my friend’s life. Gray misty clouds hung low over the horizon, and radiant rays of sunlight resembling long, outstretched arms streaked through the gloomy haze, as if a message to Jim to hasten his journey. A sense of calm washed over me as I realized it was Jim, letting me know he was waiting for me.
I put my ear to the front door and listened. Silence. I tapped gently and waited. Les opened the door, tears streaming down his cheeks, looking older and more stooped over than usual. Betty appeared, her small, round eyes filled with pain, her face red and swollen, shaking her head as if to say, there’s no hope. I had never seen Les cry, and Betty had never given up hope that a miracle might save her son.
I felt myself slipping into another reality—the reality of death. I never knew anyone who died, no one my age anyway, and had lived until this day, unaware of my mortality, in a fantasy granted to only those of us who remained unscathed by death. A quiet voice inside my head said, ‘after today, your life will never be the same.
Moving in slow motion, I watched from both my own perspective and from above me. Clyde sitting on the bed dabbed the side of Jim’s mouth with a soft cloth. The hammering sound of my beating in my chest was the only sound I could hear. I noticed Jim’s eyes wide open, dark, and colorless, staring…seeing nothing.
“Come on in. Molly’s here, honey. I told you she’d be here.” Clyde said, wiping away what dribbled on Jim’s chin.
Stopping a few feet from his bed, I barely recognized Jim, his appearance had deteriorated, and the dark purple Karposi Sarcoma tumors disfigured his once handsome face. The lesions had spread gradually at first, causing him more embarrassment than pain, and in contrast, his body, perfected by years of exercise and discipline, had wasted away until only a skeletal frame remained. Most of his thick, blond hair had fallen out months ago from the chemotherapy treatments he had endured.
“I have a choice, Moll, the tumors, or my hair. I’ve got to give chemo a chance…”
I think I hated Jim losing his hair as much as he did, maybe more, but I had learned to ignore the physical atrocities AIDS inflicted on him over time. I’d simply lock into Jim’s eyes, which were the color of a pale blue summer sky, with slightly drooping eyelids that made him appear sleepy. His left eye sparkled, and it seemed as if a small, shining star was in the center of it. I’d always tease him, telling him that aliens had probably abducted him as a child and implanted the star as an experiment, a way of keeping track of him. We’d always laugh when I’d say that, but, secretly, we both thought it might be true. To this day, I still wonder why there was a star in his left eye.
Clyde told me Jim couldn’t talk or see, but he could hear us, and I should talk to him. I sat in the chair next to his bed, frightened for the first time. Where are you? Can you hear me? I reached for his hand and stroked it gently. It felt limp and cool. I recognized his hands from the hundreds of times I watched him play his guitar, long delicate fingers, and hands, a pinkish color lightly dusted with fine blond hair.
Jim’s breathing came in short, raspy gasps now, reminding me of when I learned to control my breath to endure the pain of childbirth and hoped his labored breaths were protecting him from the pain of death. I no longer was afraid, and confident Jim was aware of my presence. Confined inside of what remained of his body, the light he radiated, the light that was him, seemed to be shining even brighter. Something extraordinary began to manifest itself, moment by moment, and I knew to try and be completely present.
“Can he close his eyes?” I needed to ask. Clyde explained Jim was too weak to close his eyes, but Les had gone to buy eye drops to keep them from drying out. I hadn’t even noticed Les had left.
We sat around Jim’s bed, talking and laughing, and I never let go of his hand. Clyde teased Jim about the phone bill, questioning how conversations about our creative schemes and plans that seldom materialized lasted so long.
Jim’s mouth twitched as if he was trying to speak.
“It’s ok, honey, don’t talk. Save your energy. We’re here,” Clyde reassured him.
“We love you, Jim…we’re all going to be with God very soon,” Betty seemed unaware of anyone else in the room.
Jim’s mouth continued to twitch as I heard the voice in my head say, “I love you. I want you to know I love you, and I’m going to leave now,”
“I wonder what he’s trying to say?” Betty asked.
“Tell them, Molly!” The voice pleaded with me to repeat it. I opened my mouth, and the words spilled out.
“He says he loves us,” I repeated.
“Yes, of course, that’s what he trying to say,” Betty replied. “And we love you, Jim, we’ll be with the Lord.”
“We know you love us, honey, we know,” Clyde said, kissing Jim’s forehead.
“Goodbye, I’m leaving now,” I heard the voice say.
“He wants to say goodbye to us,” I blurted out.
“You’re going to be dancing on a star soon, honey,” Betty cried. “Where is Les?”
Betty was anxious, waiting for Les to return with the eye drops. I was still holding Jim’s hand, straining to burn the image of it into my mind forever, while Betty sat on the other side of the bed, touching, always touching him.
I noticed Jim’s eyes had returned to sky blue with his left eye sparkling brighter than ever and focused on something above the foot of his bed. Glancing over my shoulder, I looked, but nothing was there.
“What is he looking at?” I asked.
“He can’t see Molly,” Clyde said. I had forgotten his eyes had turned dark, unseeing, and empty. But now Jim’s eyes were sky blue and opened wide, staring incredulously at something only he could see, while making sure I witnessed him seeing it.
Jim’s breathing grew lighter and more shallow. Just then, Les walked in with the eye drops, and everything began to happen instantaneously and in slow motion at the same time. The sun started to blaze through the window in a dazzling, blinding light, and in a flash, the gloomy gray clouds disappeared. A bird broke the tranquility of the moment, serenading us from beyond the window with a pure and melodic melody. The bird’s song gave way to the sound of Jim exhaling a long-drawn-out last breath, his eyes dark and unseeing again. Time stopped. I sat motionless, hoping to hear the songbird sing one more time, but it never came—only the sounds of Clyde and Les sobbing and Betty wailing.
Clyde calmly announced it was twelve o’clock and that Jim had died at exactly noon.
“High noon! How dramatic,” I said, laughing uncontrollably, until finally succumbing to my raw grief and uncontrollable tears.
Thirty years have passed, and I find myself once again writing about Jim. I’m older now, and the seasons seem to creep by faster, reminding me I’m in the third and final act of my own life. I’ve never gotten over Jim’s death, I never want to, and I never will. The mystery and magic of the day he died are forever etched in my memory. It’s become a part of me.
Sometimes I pretend Jim became that angel who watches over me, and occasionally, he will whisper song lyrics for me to write. I can imagine his hands playing his guitar, and I yearn to hear his music again. Every so often, I dream about the star that I’m sure still flickers brightly in his left eye.
Memories grow more distant with time, yet Jim is still alive, living in my imagination and inspiring me to continue to believe in the world we once created and made real.
“I believe in pink balloons, the stars, the moon, and you…
I believe in hopes and dreams, star shine, moonbeams…and me and you…”
“I believe in more than this, A soft embrace, a lover’s kiss…and you, I miss…
I believe in strength and dare…moments shared, our souls bared…and how we cared.
I believe in a stolen glance, Eyes that plead for one last chance…our final dance
I believe in me and you, heaven sent the love we knew
Someday I know I’ll see you soon…Past the stars…
Beyond the moon…”
Lights fade to black
END OF PLAY
Molly Hardy is a California -based playwright, writer, director, producer, and lyricist.
Ms. Hardy’s critically acclaimed plays have been produced in colleges, theaters, prisons, the US Military, and high schools throughout the country. Her plays include Kitty Claws and the Magic of Dreaming, a musical with lyrics by Ms. Hardy and music composed by Grammy award-winning composer Larry Blank, produced and toured throughout Southern California. Her play Heaven’s North of Here, produced throughout the United States, deals with teen suicide, and her program Students Against Suicide, developed with several high schools, in articles in Youth Magazine. She also wrote Encore, a play about hope in the face of despair, and several others. Ms. Hardy created a playwriting program for foster youth with the Los Angeles Unified School District and Probation Department called Life Matters. She recently completed a screenplay about singer/songwriter Phoebe Show titled Something Real.
Ms. Hardy has authored several essays and studied with award-winning memoirist John Evans at Stanford University and is currently working on her book, Travels of a Tragedy Queen.