The Promise


The Promise Essay, Research Paper

The promiseThe following ad appeared in the Lonely Hearts column of Time Out magazine for the week of September 9-16, 1992: “SUCCESSFUL WRITER, 29, gay, tall, dark, handsome, seeks non-smoking, significant other 25-35, to share love of cinema, good food, and maybe the Sunday papers. Photo, telephone essential. Box 388.” I received 16 replies, but one letter stood out for several reasons. It was very long – 20 times as long as all the other replies put together – and very serious. It made all the other photocopied scrawls and scribbled notes seem like the cynical bids for easy sex they were. I met Drew Morgan at the Barbican soon after. He was 27, a computer programmer from Queensland, Australia, on a two-year working holiday visa. When I saw the short, smart young man marching towards me, my immediate reaction was, “No.” We spent the afternoon watching a play, and in the evening watched television and shared a bottle of champagne. Drew confessed that if he drank alcohol at all he preferred a sweeter wine, such as Mateus Rosé. Mateus Rosé? He had to be kidding. No wonder the Bollinger seemed dry. Still, it did the trick. We went to bed. One week later, we had afternoon tea at the Savoy. This time, he was more handsome than I had remembered. We went on to see Don Giovanni at the Coliseum, and then had supper. He had a glass of rosé; I drank champagne. The sex was even better this time around. Ten days after our first date, Drew called to say that he had taken “a unit” in the Jericho area of Oxford (he had been living in Swindon). “Are we going steady now?” he asked. I laughed. Nobody had ever asked me that before. It was typical of courteous, old-fashioned Drew to put it this way. I was ridiculously pleased. I had auditioned three other men who had replied to my ad but, for one reason or a dozen, they had failed. “Yes, I suppose we are.” I did my best to let Drew into my life. As his friends were on the other side of the world, mine had to become his. This was not difficult: Drew was far more likeable than me. We went to a Halloween party organised by a magazine I used to write for, which, for some reason, had a Wild West theme. Half of the people there were in cowboy outfits, smashed on margaritas, and, if it was strange for me to see so many old colleagues in one place, it was even odder for them to find me, after all this time, part of a couple. I was proud to be seen with Drew. The novelty of the phrase “my boyfriend” had not yet worn off. In conversations with friends, I had even started to say “we”. We celebrated my 30th birthday at the Groucho, 16 of us gathered in the club’s Bloomsbury Room. I plied them with champagne; they showered me with gifts. What made the most impression, however, was Drew’s birthday card. In addition to copying out the entire lyrics to Gene Pitney’s Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart, Drew had neatly printed: “The song on the opposite page actually sounds really nice when sung and I should probably let you hear it. At the moment you mean an awful lot to me, even if I don’t always show and/or say it. Anyway, what can I say, the big three O. Let’s hope we all see thrice thirty and more years yet as the future unfolds. Happy birthday my love. The adventure has just begun.” Love is good for self-esteem. On Australia Day, January 26, 1993, Drew sent me a list of all the things we had done since our first meeting. We had been through a lot together in four months (a holiday in Nice, a cruise through the Caribbean, fights, flu and near infidelity). On Valentine’s Day, I received eight cards. Each one had a letter inscribed inside the front. When read in the correct order they spelled ILOVEYOU. Hardly a week went by without some sort of billet-doux from Drew. Once, I got an apparently meaningless mass of colourful letters snipped from magazines and sealed between two sheets of clear sticky-backed plastic – an accompanying note told me to use “this specially punched piece of paper as a cipher-key”. The cutouts in the blank sheet revealed MARK, I LOVE YOU; DREW. Every month a card celebrated our latest anniversary. In May, we moved into a new flat in Islington. We fell into the roles of housekeeper and breadwinner. Drew went out to work, I stayed at home writing, and did the shopping, laundry and cleaning. When he left the office, Drew would call from Reading or Paddington to tell me he was on his way back. I could then time dinner accordingly. He would come trudging up the stairs – “Hi, honey, I’m homo!” – and we would embrace on the landing. It was the best moment of the day. There were times when I wondered if Drew needed a surrogate mother more than a lover. After all, back in March, he had given me a set of six liqueur glasses on Mother’s Day. I later put this down to my insecurity, not his. He had rescued me and took just as much care of me as I did of him. Lovers were supposed to look after each other, that was what they did. I simply had not experienced it before. We were both strangers to domestic bliss. The Diaries Of Kenneth Williams were published that year. I ploughed my way through them even though, in spite of the odd moment of hilarity, they formed the most depressing book I had ever read. The silly, wise, old queen made me appreciate my own good fortune. One autumnal afternoon, I looked up from the page. I was sitting on one of the new sofas that had finally arrived. There was a momentary lull in the rush-hour traffic. The gilt frame of the mirror that hung between the bookshelves glowed in the setting sun. I was waiting for Drew to come home. My God. I was actually happy! That night I wrote in my diary: “I realised today that this is one of the very best periods of my lifeanything can happen.” On October 26, Drew discovered a swelling on the left side of his groin. It was more than five months before Drew’s lump was correctly diagnosed. In March 1994, he was told that the swelling was not hardened faeces, as had originally been thought, but a swollen gland. After several delays he was operated on, and subsequently diagnosed with melanoma, skin cancer: it would be a miracle if he were alive in two years’ time. He discovered a second lump, at the base of his neck. After a first, traumatic course of chemotherapy – the Dacarbazine almost wiped him out – Drew returned home. Drew was stretched out on the sofa. The white cherry blossom outside the window seemed to glow in the lingering light. “I don’t think I can go through all that again.” Drew turned to look at me. “At least I could go to work before the chemo started.” “Don’t worry about work. The agency’s giving you sick pay.” “Only for 12 weeks.” “It will all be over in two months. You’ve got two more courses to go. That’s only two more weeks.” “That’s easy enough for you to say. You have no idea how awful it is.” “I try, Drew.” “I know you do. I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’d do without you.” “Go back to Oz.” Drew said nothing. A car with a boom box in the boot shattered the silence. I hoped the bastard crashed. “You don’t have to continue the treatment if you don’t want to,” I said. “It’s up to you. But they wouldn’t be spending thousands and thousands of pounds on you if they thought it was a waste of time. What’s two more weeks of hell if it gives us longer together?” “I don’t like needles.” “Neither do I. If they could stick them in me instead of you, believe me, I’d let them.” “I know you would.” He took my hand. “I don’t want to lose you.” The lump in my throat was back immediately. It was never far away nowadays. “You are not going to lose me, Possum. Just try. I’m not going to do a runner.” I gave him a hug, making sure I rested my chin on his right shoulder. The lump on his left was bigger than ever. This is hell nor am I out of it. “You know you always say I can ask you anything?” “Yes.” “Well, promise me that if things get really bad you’ll help me end it all.” “And how will you do that?” “I don’t know. Take all my pills. Jump off the roof. Listen to every REM CD. I don’t want to turn into a vegetable. The thought of being in pain and unable to move gives me nightmares. Promise me, Mark.” “I promise. Now, d’you want a glass of champagne or not?” The subject made me uncomfortable. I was sure that if I had been in his position I would have felt the same way. But it would not come to that: Drew was just reassuring himself. I put the idea out of my mind. Early each morning the following week, Drew received a dose of radiotherapy. We fell into a cruel routine in which he woke feeling better and came home feeling worse. “Get Well Soon” cards arrived almost every day. Drew put them up in his bedroom at first, but took them all down when he ran out of space: “They won’t let me forget.” Drew veered between irritability and apathy. His mood darkened as each day passed. On Saturday evening, Channel 4 celebrated the opening of the new Glyndebourne Theatre with a live, five-hour relay of the inaugural production, The Marriage Of Figaro. I drank a bottle of fizz; Drew, a bottle of elderflower pressé. I cooked sirloin steak: perhaps the meat would build him up. He burst into tears when I got into his bed. It had been a long time since he had let me touch him. The radiotherapy made him sore. Artificial sunburn to cure skin cancer had never seemed like a good idea. His hair had begun to thin. I held him till the sobs subsided. I was warm, drowsy and depressed. It was good to feel his bottom in my lap again. “Uh-oh.” Drew reached round and gripped my erection. “What d’you expect me to do with this?” “Whatever you want.” “I’m not in the mood.” He turned over and threw the duvet back. He was not hard. “If you do something for me though, I’ll do something for you.” “And what’s that?” “Kiss Lumpy. He’s part of me – and if you love me then you must love him.” I could not love the lump. I hated it. There were times when I felt like plunging my hand into Drew’s groin and ripping the evil fungus out. It was a sickening request. The Drew I knew would not have made it. “Go on. Prove your love for me.” I lowered my head, closed my eyes and touched it with my lips. “Thank you.” I lay back. “Oh dear.” He laughed. I had gone limp. On Monday, June 6, Drew began his second course of chemotherapy. He had nightmares and was in great pain, constantly vomiting; the different courses of medication contradicted each other. On the Friday, he was weeping before we got through the front door. “I’m sick of people sticking needles in me. I’m sick of throwing up. The tumours are still growing. I don’t want to be in pain any more. This is not quality of life. I want to die. I want to die right now.” I tried to hold him but he shoved me away. “Is that the best you can do? You promised you’d help.” “Drew, it’s too soon.” I was shocked. He was beginning to scare me. This was not just another panic attack. “I will help you. Please don’t ask me to keep my promise yet. You’ve got to help me, too. What will I do without you?” “Oh, for pity’s sake. You’ll find someone else.” “I don’t want anyone else. I’ve given all my love to you.” “Look, I know all this has been bad for you as well, but I’m the one who’s in pain, I’m the one who’s dying. Now will you help me or not?” Drew seemed determined to arrange his own death. I was glad that he felt he could ask me to help, but at the same time wished he had not. What would I do if I were him? Would I leave him a note and then jump off Tower Bridge with a brick in each pocket? Surely the shock of that would be easier to deal with than helping me to kill myself? It was impossible to say. I would want to spend as much time with Drew as possible. I would want him to be with me at the end. Running away to die alone might be seen as an act of betrayal. Drew had not run off back to Australia, and I was not going to desert him. The following week, Drew’s parents, Aileen and Jack, arrived from Australia. Drew’s condition continued to deteriorate. The cancer spread to his liver and kidneys, and he was given two months, not two years, to live. He lost the use of his right eye and wore an eye patch. He told his parents that he was gay, and that Mark was his boyfriend. The fact that Drew and I were lovers was not mentioned at all. Jack would talk to me about shells, or golf, or garbage disposal, but not about anything that mattered. Aileen seemed to be constantly biting her tongue. I had kept my parents out of the mess for as long as I could, but I had to talk to someone. That evening I called my father and explained our parlous financial situation. “Well, I won’t let you starve.” I did not think this was the moment to tell my father that his son was queer. I had vaguely planned to tell my parents formally in a few years’ time, when it would have been obvious that Drew and I were “married”. Besides, the honourable way would be to break the news in person, not on the telephone. However, four hours later, I could contain myself no longer – Drew was dying, for Christ’s sake – so I called my mother and poured my heart out to her. Had she known I was gay? “I’d had my suspicions.” There was a hardness in her voice that I had not heard before. “Whatever you do, don’t tell your father.” “Why not?” “It’ll kill him.” I was surprised by her certainty. I explained what we were going through, but my mother seemed too shocked to offer much sympathy or understanding. “It’s such a shame that his parents had to find out.” I could not believe my ears. “Would you rather I were dead than gay?” “You know what I mean. If Drew hadn’t told them, it would have been one less thing for them to worry about.” My mother, of course, saw the crisis through their eyes, not ours. In other words, she wished I had not told her. “How would you feel if Dad was dying of cancer? Well, that’s exactly how I feel about Drew.” I was glad that I had finally told my mother, but my timing had been bad. There was now a distance between us, and a secret between my parents. July came in on a heatwave. I went for a swim at Drew’s gym. The sheer health of the bodies on view was overpowering. At the hospital, I found Drew sitting up in bed against a mountain of pillows. He showed me two lumps on his chest that had come up overnight. He was like a mushroom bed. There were tumours in seven other sites besides his groin, shoulder, liver and kidneys. The doctor had told him it was unlikely he would survive for two months. The chemotherapy and radiotherapy had not prolonged his life, they had hastened his death – and made his remaining time a misery. Their spectacular failure was a shock. When it came down to it, the doctors were still in the Dark Ages. Drew’s moods changed by the minute. He was petulant, euphoric, angry and desperate. I liked it when he lost his temper with me: it showed the real him had not been entirely smothered by drugs. “You won’t forget your promise, will you?” He had taken off the eye patch. It made him itch. “No, of course not.” There was no one around. “It won’t be easy in here.” The point of no return was rapidly approaching. I had no problem with mercy killing in theory – it was basic common sense: suffering had no meaning – but could I actually carry one out? There was still time for Drew to take an overdose. Perhaps I could bring all his pills in from home. The cancer spread to his head. The lack of motor control in his right arm was attributed to a brain tumour. The end-game had started. My main aim was to get Drew home as soon as possible. The thought of him stuck in the corner of that ward alone, longing but unable to die, was unbearable. On Tuesday, a doctor from the palliative care team spelled out the options. Drew could either have an epidural, which would eventually wear off, or a coeliac block, which would not. This involved destroying with drugs the nerves that led to the tumour in his groin. It was a risky procedure because it could cause paralysis below the waist. “I’m not going anywhere,” said Drew. The operation took place the next day and was a success, even though the doctor had to inject the drugs through Drew’s front: the tumour was so large it blocked the usual approach through the back. Drew had second thoughts about going home right up to the moment of his discharge. He was understandably apprehensive about leaving the hospital, cutting himself off from its resources and staff. But when the pharmacy delivered his drugs at half-past three, our sorry caravan trailed out of the ward. At home, I unpacked the bags, started on the laundry and tended to Drew’s needs. He was snoring when I went to bed. It was heartbreaking to see him lying there, wearing the eye patch, an anti-thrombosis stocking on his swollen left leg, the morphine pump under his right hand. The following evening Drew perked up and came downstairs. The tumour had grown so large that the chain he wore around his neck had started to chafe. He unhooked the clasp and placed the crucifix round my neck, sealing it with a kiss. “You’re not going to chicken out, are you?” “No.” I held the gold cross in my fingers. “Does this mean you don’t believe any more?” “No. I still believe. I believe He will understand. There’s no such place as hell.” “There is. This is it.” “We’ll be together again one day. I know it. I’ll be waiting for you.” I could feel my eyes begin to prickle. I was sick of crying. It solved nothing. “Have you decided when?” “The sooner the better. I’m fed up of waiting. Every day it gets worse and worse. My parents can’t take much more. If this goes on they’ll have a nervous breakdown.” “They’re not the only ones . . . At least Lumpy can’t hurt you any more.” “No – but his spawn, his evil children, carry on his infernal mission. They’re in my liver, my chest, my brain. It’s disgusting. Look at me! I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have no pain. We can’t let Lumpy win. I’ll decide when to die, not him.” “Not tonight though, Possum. I’m not ready.” Now that we were home again, I felt stronger, more in control. I wanted us to be together for as long as humanly possible. “Okay, but, remember, you promised. Don’t let me down.” The dog days dragged on. Drew, wearing my old bathrobe, sat on the terrace in the sun. His morphine intake went up and up. It took care of the pains in his back but it also took him further and further into dreamland. His head lolled, his eyes rolled, his lips mouthed silent words. His mother’s hostility turned to aggression. The inevitable confrontation finally occurred over Drew’s body. We stood on either side of his bed, arguing about the best way to look after him. “I realise you used to be a nurse, but in this country the patient’s wishes come first. I don’t care how you speak to your husband, but if you want to remain in this house you’ll keep a civil tongue in your head.” Aileen, not surprisingly, hardly spoke to me again. That night, the heatwave began to break. Blue lightning, distant thunder, no rain: apocalypse soon. Drew’s hiccups plagued him almost as much as his dreams. I stayed with him until each crisis had passed, then staggered back to my own bed. We were never more than 15 feet apart. Drew’s parents and I circled each other uneasily. Jack told me how he had saved Drew’s life when he was two years’ old. He had given his baby son the kiss of life when he stopped breathing in his cot. The closed curtains in Drew’s room made the sunshine behind them seem even brighter. It was hot beneath the roof. The two old Pifco fans that I had found in the salerooms at the top of the road whirred away furiously. That evening I heated up some tagliatelle and ate it sitting on the stairs so I could watch TV and keep an eye on Drew at the same time. Drew’s breathing became more and more erratic. Just when it seemed that he had stopped breathing, his lungs would wheeze into action. It was known as the Cheyne-Stokes syndrome. Drew sat up. “Horrible! Horrible!” My blood ran cold. I rushed to his side. “What is it? What’s the matter?” I hoped it was just a bad dream. “Why am I like this, Mark? I hurt. I hurt.” “Where’s the pain?” “My head, my heart, my back.” He began to cry. I held him so long I thought he had gone to sleep. He had not. “Oh, make it stop, make it stop.” “D’you want a booster?” “I’ll do it.” He pressed the morphine pump and lay down again. “Don’t leave me.” “I won’t. You know I won’t. Not ever.” I held his hand. No one should have to suffer this much. It was time to keep my promise. The clock of St Mary’s struck three. Over two hours had passed in what felt like seconds. Drew was still awake. “D’you want a Temazepam?” “Please.” I fetched one of mine: they were stronger than his. I was not sure I could go through with it if he were awake. He closed his eyes. I stroked his arm. The half-hour chimed. My heart began to thud. I let go of his hand and stood up slowly. “Drew?” There was no reply to my whisper. I crept into my bedroom and picked up the pillow. I was afraid the thumping in my chest would wake him. This was not me. It was someone else in a parallel universe. They were about to do something I would never do. The air on the top floor became hotter and heavier. I held my breath. I kissed Drew goodbye. Then, gripping the pillow in both hands, I placed it over his face and pressed down firmly. “I love you, Drew. I will always love you.” His hands shot up and grabbed my wrists. His strength was astonishing. I whipped the pillow away. His blue eyes bored into mine. Shock and terror were mixed with sheer rage. At that moment I experienced true horror for the first time. Nothing that had gone before had prepared me for it. I felt something give inside, a sort of dull crack and an icy blackness bloomed in my brain. Vertigo, panic, desire and relief welled up. I burst into tears. “I thought that that was what you wanted.” I flung my arms around his neck and sobbed my heart out. Now he would think I wished him dead. “Not yet. Not yet. I’ll let you know when, somehow.” I could not stop shaking. Was I going mad? The notion suddenly seemed attractive. He held me as I wept. “There, there, my poor baby.” I did not sleep. I stayed beside Drew and watched over him. I was there when incontinence finally arrived. The pads that had been provided were pretty useless, so I switched to the condom that led, via a tube, to a bag. It had to be kept in place with adhesive tape. Drew continued to fight the cancer. It was as if he still hoped for a last-minute miracle. He seemed to fade in front of my eyes. He was ineffably brave. On Friday, he stopped taking anything by mouth. We used miniature sponges on plastic sticks to moisten his lips. I kept on talking to him but did not expect him to answer. I jumped when he suddenly stroked my cheek and said: “Hello.” “Hello.” I tried to smile. “Now. Do it now.” “I can’t. Your parents are still here. As soon as they’ve gone.” It was our last day together. The fact that time stood still was no consolation: Drew was waiting to die. I swung between panic and determination every few minutes. I had to go through with it. It would be the ultimate proof of how much I loved him. The planet spun on. The “cash for questions” scandal raged in Westminster; Tony Blair appeared to be leading John Prescott in the race for leadership of the Labour Party; Brazil and Italy would meet in the World Cup final in Pasadena on Sunday. It was all utterly irrelevant. Only Drew mattered. The Macmillan nurse asked me if I needed a night-sitter. “You look as if you could do with some sleep.” “I’ll sleep when it’s over.” We had seen too many strangers in the past week. “It shouldn’t be much longer. He’s put up such a fight.” She picked up her bag. “I like coming here. This house is full of love. Drew’s very lucky to have you.” I was terrified his parents would insist on staying the night. In the end they left just before half-past ten. Aileen, as usual, told Drew to “take care of you for me”. They seemed so vulnerable as they walked up Packington Street, his father still wearing his Akubra hat and shorts with knee-length socks. I locked the door. There was no way out. I had to keep my promise. Half of me had been secretly hoping that it would be too late. On the other hand, the thought of Drew dying in the belief that I had failed him at the vital moment was unbearable. I climbed the stairs. I fetched my pillow. I watched myself as, way down below, I walked into his bedroom. I lit the scented candle that had flickered through each night. Five minutes more: I would just sit with him for five more minutes. I held his hand. I could not believe it when St Mary’s struck midnight. Time had telescoped. “Drew? Can you hear me?” He moved his lips but no sound came out. “Blink once for yes.” He blinked. “Do you still want me to keep my promise?” Blink. “I’m going to ask you 12 times. Blink twice if you change your mind. Do you want me to help you die right now?” Blink. After the third time, I just said, “Right now?” Each time Drew blinked. After the 10th time I paused. If he blinked in the next few seconds I would not go through with it. He might have been dreaming or subconsciously maintaining a rhythm. He did not blink. “Right now?” Blink. “Right now?” Blink. I waited for another blink. I prayed for another blink. Drew simply gazed into my eyes. If I waited any longer, it would be torture for the both of us. I kissed him. His breath smelled of death. “Hold on to my wrists. I love you, Drew.” It was easier the second time. We both knew what to expect. I pressed down so hard I was afraid I would break his nose. He was much weaker now, but the strength of his resistance still surprised me. It was pure reflex. It had to be: his instinct for survival overrode his will. I kept the pillow there long after the bucking had stopped. When I eventually removed it, and flung it to the floor, his mouth was open. I closed it and kissed him goodnight. I undressed and lay on my stomach beside him, my right arm across his chest. It was over. At last it was over. I felt nothing at all. My other self, high above, watched over us. I fell asleep.Click here for part two.

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