Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Honouring an important stranger

Wrapping up 24 years of my life has been hard to do because it necessarily means dealing with so much stuff from Nigel’s life. And then there’s the stuff from Nigel’s life before me, something challenging in its own way. Today is a good day to reflect on that, and to tell a tale I’ve never told before.

On September 14, 1993, Nigel’s partner before me, Gary, died from complications of HIV/AIDS. Nigel had spent a lot of time at the hospital toward the end, but wasn’t there when Gary died. “I think he waited until I wasn’t there,” he told me. The one thing he didn’t tell me, though, was the date Gary died: I found that out when I found Gary’s death certificate among Nigel’s papers.

Nigel was broken by Gary’s death as I was by Nigel’s, but he’d just turned 29, and was far too young to remain alone, something his mother specifically said to him. She was right, of course, and Nigel dated some guys before we met, breaking off those efforts when he and I became serious.

I arrived in New Zealand as a tourist on September 12, 1995, and Nigel played host and guide, showing me the sites as we waited to see if we were really compatible. He took me to Rotorua (of course!), and I noticed that he seemed to have become distant. I felt even communication was becoming strained, so when we were sitting in the motel room in Rotorua, I finally said to him, “Look, if you don’t want to continue this, that’s fine—just say so. We’ve both got a lot riding on this, and if you don’t want to go on, we don’t have to, but we need to decide before we go too far.” I was specifically thinking about me moving to the other side of the world, which is a rather big deal. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken so bravely in my entire life, before or since, but it was important to not waste time.

He came round, and the Nigel I’d fallen for was back. What happened after that point was our 24-year-long story. However, at the time I never knew why Nigel had started acting differently in Rotorua, not until I started going through Nigel’s papers recently: Nigel started acting differently, I now know, because that was around the time of the second anniversary of Gary’s death. I well know how present that date is in a widower’s mind.

Nigel would’ve had mixed emotions: He probably had feelings of “betraying” Gary, but he would’ve seen that as irrational when he knew that Gary wanted him to live his life and be happy. And, he also knew by then that he wanted to be with me, and that I wanted to be with him. It must’ve been very confusing and even upsetting, but he never told me, not then or ever. That's not all that surprising when he never even told me when, specifically, Gary died.

This was actually typical for him: He didn’t talk about Gary all that much (apart from a few happy memories) because he didn’t want to upset me, and I didn’t ask very much because it was his business to talk about and I didn’t want to force him to talk about painful things. In other words, we were protecting each other.

When I arrived in New Zealand to live, Nigel had photos with Gary in them all over the house. I didn’t mind because I knew Gary had been so important to Nigel, though there were times I felt like I was sort of “competing with a memory”.

A few years later, after his older brother and his father died, Nigel began grief counselling. He told me the topic of the photos had come up, and he asked me if they bothered me. “Not at all,” I told him, because by then it was true: They were part of the environment we lived in, and that included lots of stuff from his life with Gary (furniture, artwork, books, classical and opera records, all sorts of things). They were also part of Nigel.

It took me years to notice, and after a few moves to new houses, that the photos of Gary had disappeared, all apart from one he kept on his nightstand. It began, I now think, when he told me he wanted to put away the family photos because, he said, he didn’t want “all those photos of dead people” sitting out. It’s possible there was nothing more to it than that—and we never did have many photos out after that—however, I also think it was evidence that Nigel was moving forward.

None of that extended to dealing with personal stuff that had belonged to Gary. There were some clothes, a box of various things, a couple old briefcases with personal papers, those sorts of things. Because Nigel didn’t deal with them, I had to—and I found that incredibly hard to do, as I first wrote about in February when I said, “I felt like I was erasing Gary’s life.”

That feeling got worse the farther I got into my “Biggest Project Of All”, and I ran across the truly personal stuff.

In his last days, Nigel asked me to take all of the letters that he and Gary had exchanged when they were courting, when Nigel was still in New Zealand planning his move to Australia, and “put them in the box with me”. The trouble is, I had absolutely no idea whatsoever where they were, or what I was even looking for, and by that time Nigel was feeling pretty bad and I didn’t want to push him too hard. I never found them until “The biggest project of all” began. I’ll now honour Nigel’s wish by burning them and will eventually have those ashes added to his, as he wanted. However, that won’t be right away because there still could be more I haven’t found yet.

I was trying to figure out what to do with Gary’s more personal stuff, something other than just putting it in the rubbish as if he never existed and never mattered. I was talking about it with a good friend of mine, and he asked if there was something I could do, as he put it, “to celebrate Gary while getting rid of his things, too.” And then it hit me: I could honour Gary by doing for him what I was going to do for Nigel, and burn those personal papers. Gary’s ashes were scattered in Sydney Harbour sometime before Nigel returned to New Zealand in 1994, and there was nowhere I know of in New Zealand that was special to Gary. So, I’ll take the ashes from those papers and mix it in with my garden compost to help nurture life with the ornamental plants I’ll be planting on my property: Life from death to honour a life.

I’m keenly aware that lots of people simply won’t get why this matters to me so much, and that, as I said back in July’s post, “Some might say I care too much, but I wonder, why don’t others care as much?” The reason I care is that Gary mattered to Nigel, and Nigel mattered to me. That’s really all there is to it. Gary loved Nigel and helped him become who he would be when I met him. I’m grateful because it helped prepare the way for the wonderful life that Nigel and I had. So, I need to honour Gary’s life by symbolically closing the book in a more respectful way than just dumping the bits and pieces in the rubbish. Clearly this is all about me and my values, and I’m okay with that: Rituals surrounding death and mourning are always about the living, anyway.

I’ve learned a lot about Nigel and his life through dealing with all the stuff he left behind. It’s been fascinating to learn more about how he approached his career, and also to finally be able to fill in some of the gaps (like the date that Gary died, which answered a decades-old question for me). I even feel like I know Nigel a bit better now, and that’s probably surprised me the most about this gargantuan job of sorting through stuff.

I’m determined that this project will honour the life of my Nigel, just as he tried to honour Gary. It’s not always easy or straightforward to work out, and it’s often exhausting, but finishing the “mission” is what’s important to me. That, and honouring the man who was important to me by honouring the man who had been important to him.

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