Tim was on the other side of the kitchen counter
looking at a list I had written of what he should check on in the house while
my husband, Din, and I were on vacation.
“What’s that thing on your neck?” I asked.
Tim touched the egg-size swelling below his left
jaw. “I don’t know.”
Din suggested it might be a clogged salivary gland.
He’d had one once, and the doctor had prescribed sucking on lemon drops.
I didn’t know whether Tim sucked any lemon drops
while we were away, only that when we got back a week later, the swelling was
the size of a half-orange.
Tim and I shared a daughter, though we had not been
romantically involved for 20 years. I asked if he had seen a doctor. He said he
had been to the Native American clinic, which had suggested an endoscopy to see
if the growth was cancerous.
I drove Tim to the test. At 6-foot-3, he usually
carried 215 pounds. He was now below 200 and looking dusky. I had known him
since I was 24, the age our daughter was now.
We had met on a movie set in South Carolina when I
jumped off the back of a production van and into the path of Tim and his
father, Will Sampson. I recognized Will from his role as the Chief in “One Flew
Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” but had never in person seen anything like these two
men: hugely tall, dressed in cowboy boots and Wrangler jeans, Tim’s hair black
and lustrous, Will’s silver hair braided with red ribbon.
I said “hey” and was gone. Tim later told me that
as he and his father had watched me run off, Will had drawled, “Not baaaad.”
Tim looked bad today. His hair seemed to have
collapsed. Gone, too, was his enviable posture. He appeared caved in on himself
as he walked from the waiting room to the lab, and I knew.
“There’s a hole on the back of my tongue,” he said
Tim had stage 4 cancer, an HPV-related tumor, the
same type and in the same location that the actor Michael Douglas had. Tim did
not remind me that Mr. Douglas had produced “Cuckoo’s Nest,” the stage version
of which Tim later performed on Broadway, reprising the role his father had
Before long, Tim was living in our guest room. I
had insisted he move out of the $250-a-month room he’d been renting in a
rundown house where a childlike bearded woman from upstairs would knock on his
door after midnight wearing a negligee, and a man in the room below smoked
incessantly despite being hooked to an oxygen tank.
It was no place to undergo cancer treatment, which
I had urged Tim to start.
“I’m going to use cannabis oil,” he said. He had a
medical marijuana card to treat pain for ailments incurred over decades as a
professional stuntman and active alcoholic.
I loved Tim deeply when we were a couple, but our
day-to-day lives had been a wreck, especially after our daughter Tava (“feather”
in Creek) was born and Tim and his friends kept brawling in our house after
long nights of boozing, leaving clumps of hair — and once a tooth — on the
I left Tim before Tava turned 3. He was 36. Later
that week, he took his last drink.
Several months after the diagnosis, Tim was having
trouble swallowing. The growth was the size of a half-cabbage, and no matter
how strenuously Din and I pleaded with him to get traditional medical
treatment, he declined. Where he came from in Oklahoma, he said, Indians went
to the hospital for cancer treatment and died.
I said I appreciated his suspicion of white
hospitals, but we were in Portland, Ore., home of some of the best cancer
centers in the country. But I was not his wife and never had been. I could not
force him to do anything.
Tim was lying on Tava’s childhood bed the day she
was scheduled to fly home for Thanksgiving.
“I don’t care what I have to go through,” he said.
“I only care about what it’s going to do to her.”
I had seen him cry maybe twice in 30 years, and
never like this, helpless to not cause his child pain. I kept my hands on him
until he quieted.
“Wow,” he said. “That felt good.”
We decided I would tell Tava. I made it simple. I
held her hands and said her daddy had cancer, and that whatever happened she
was going to be
fine. I also told her he was being stubborn about
treatment, and that maybe a word from her —“Daddy,” she said. “You gotta bust a
Earlier in the week, Tim’s doctor had said, “Your
window for treating this is almost closed.” Still, Tim had stalled. Now he
wanted to do everything, and right away.
He set up the guest room so he had what he’d need
within arm’s reach: meds, mouth swabs, TV remote. He would move from bedroom to
bathroom several times a day, wearing scrubs not unlike the ones he wore when
performing the role of the Chief, though they hung more loosely as the weeks
We did not tell many people about Tim’s condition
or that he was staying with us. Those who knew sometimes said, “It’s good of
you to have your ex living with you.” Or, “That’s really cool of Din.” But Tim
was in serious trouble, and helping him did not strike either of us as anything
In February Tim started nine weeks of radiation,
five days a week. Chemo had worked him over — his weight dipped below 170, his
hair was gone, his face spattered with chemo-related hyperpigmentation. But the
toll radiation took was devastating; each day he looked more wasted.
He said he felt full of poison, made from poison.
Even water tasted “like garbage.” I would sit him at the counter and scramble
him an egg. He would look at it. I made him a portion of oatmeal a 5-year-old
could finish in two minutes. It would take Tim 30, with me saying, “Come on,
babe, one more bite.”
His weight dropped to 153; he looked as if he were
made of sticks. He needed to rest during the three steps from bedroom to
bathroom. I told Din I didn’t think Tim was going to make it.
I had been there before with Tim’s father. Nearly
three decades earlier, Will was recuperating from a heart-lung transplant in a
Houston hospital. While the transplant had been successful, he had been too ill
from hard living and undiagnosed scleroderma to rally. Tim and I flew from Los
Angeles to be with Will in the I.C.U. He was unconscious, but you could feel a
spark zipping around the room. The next morning, the spark was gone.
Tim and I watched the blood pressure monitor drop
from 9 to 6 to zero. They revived him, but only for 20 minutes. After they
revived him again, a doctor pulled aside us and asked, “What do you want us to
Tim looked as if the floor was falling from beneath
him, and I saw that there was no way he could decide. I shook my head at the
doctor: If Will’s heart stopped again, let him go. Within minutes he was gone.
I found a pay phone and sobbed to my mother that I
didn’t understand how some girl from Brooklyn got to make the call for a man
who’d had to break the back of the world to survive.
“Because you could,” she said.
“My dad liked you,” Tim told me then. “He knew
you’d take care of me.”
I thought of this as I tried to get Tim to eat that
egg, that oatmeal. Din was there with the assist. He and Tim had been
basketball stars in high school; they had long watched N.B.A. games together in
our kitchen, hooting and disputing calls and pantomiming overhead jump shots.
Now, no matter his other engagements, my husband
was home with Tim whenever the Trail Blazers were on TV, Din sipping a beer,
Tim struggling to breathe, his eyes above the paper mask showing he was barely
Tim finished his treatments in May. Food still
tasted like trash, but he could eat ice cream. I bought it by the half-gallon.
His weight climbed through the 160s. He said his goal was to get his taste back
by Thanksgiving. It was back by August.
He asked if I would make him my mother’s meat
sauce. When Tava was home that month for a visit, she moved frozen containers
of that sauce, and her father, to a studio apartment.
“You guys saved my life,” Tim sometimes says now,
three years later.
“Yeah, yeah, that’s right,” we say, and go back to
watching the game.
first date, I dared to give her a lingering hug on a crowded subway platform on
West Fourth Street, an unusual display of physical affection on my part, which
I blamed on the wine. It was the start of spring, the city in bloom.
by the hug, she agreed to see me again.
wandered the city, strolling through the Upper West Side and Harlem. Smiling
her shyest smile, she told me she dreamed of living in Harlem and starting a
family after finishing graduate school. I began to visit her at her studio in
Washington Heights, where we would spend hours.
make us dinner, mostly pasta sprinkled with Parmesan cheese — the only thing
she knew how to cook. We spent evenings watching CNN and debating politics,
whether or not Obama would win the election. By the time she laced her fingers
with mine and kissed me as we sat crisscrossed on her carpeted floor, our
mouths reeking of garlic and tomato sauce, it felt like we had known each other
all our lives.
one of our evening strolls, our hands brushed. It never crossed my mind until
then to hold hers in public. I felt a thumping in my chest when I did. She took
my hand without question or pause, as if she expected it.
so right. No one blinked an eye. Then one sultry day that summer, I felt
comfortable enough to lean in and kiss her in Central Park where we were
sitting on a beach towel. I never knew something inside me was transforming
until the L-word slipped from my lips and she smiled.
always like this. I hadn’t been around displays of affection growing up. My
stepfather and mother were in love but showed it only with a subtle smile
across the room or a vague innuendo that passed as swiftly as a breeze rustling
the mango trees.
At 17, I
moved to the United States from Jamaica, where I had felt as if I were the only
lesbian in a country in which police turn a blind eye to mob violence against gays and sex between men is
punishable by law. When I arrived in New York City and had the opportunity
to date women, I was still glancing over my shoulders.
I kept my romantic affairs with women casual, never getting too invested.
Though I was out about my sexuality, I never felt the need to display affection
in public. But when I met my future wife, things changed. We wanted to hold
hands everywhere. We kissed goodbye on the subway and put our arms around each
other in the theater to keep warm.
might seem like nothing for a straight couple. But I’ve noticed that there is a
strange hierarchy of handholding that dictates who gets to express physical
affection without repercussions. For straight couples it’s fine, of course. For
white gay couples it’s a little less fine. For black lesbians like us, it can
feel like a radical act.
into our relationship, I convinced her to move to Brooklyn, where I had been
renting. Bedford-Stuyvesant was more affordable than her Harlem fantasy.
fit easily into the scene on Fulton Street, with its mostly African-American
and Caribbean population. A place where the bass of dancehall and reggae merged
with hip-hop and old-school R&B; a place where one can smell curried goat
and jerk chicken alongside fried chicken and catfish. A place where summer
months mean block parties, people-watching on stoops and strolling through the
neighborhood to another backyard barbecue. A seemingly urban utopia populated
by well-dressed transplants and those born and bred in the “do-or-die.”
would soon learn that it is one thing to be black and lesbian in this urban
utopia and another thing to act on it.
was no taller than 5-foot-7. Yet he seemed to hover over us, with shoulders
spread like the wings of a falcon. In his eyes were the flames he swallowed,
his pupils hardened into something we couldn’t break. “No Rasta woman do dat,”
he said with a sneer.
gestured wildly at us with our dreads, our hands intertwined, me in a summer
dress and her in cutoff shorts and a tank top. Surely he was not talking about
our outfits but the fact that we were holding hands. He flung his condemning
words into the sudden soundlessness of busy Fulton Street.
happened to us many times since moving to Brooklyn, but this time stood out
because of his insistence on causing a scene.
glared at him. “Only a coward picks on women,” she said.
menacingly close and repeated his words. But before my wife could say anything
more, I tugged her arm and said, “Just keep walking.” My chest tightened and I
felt helpless, reduced to a position of surrender like I would have been back
my mind in that moment was the fact that I was on American soil. I may have
been able to flee the intolerance of my homeland, but it turns out that
intolerance moved to New York City too.
are times when my wife and I walk out of our building without reaching for each
other’s hand, already too weary of the reactions we may get. Too weary of the
gestures or comments that may ruin a night or an entire day.
Jamaican men seem to take it as a personal affront to their manhood when they
see us together. After we pass, they spit words at our backs like chewed-up
cane husks: “Sodomites!”
sides of my eyes, I can see them adjust themselves, getting ready to rise from
their squatting positions and haul themselves onto soapboxes. I squeeze my
wife’s hand, chilled by the hostile stares, angry that I let them get to me.
married, I remind myself, holding on tighter, my wedding band pressing
uncomfortably into my flesh.
time the man with the loud mouth hovered over us, I had almost given up
fighting. Days before, we had encountered another black lesbian couple. We knew
them — they are part of the large yet still mostly familiar population of black
lesbians who seek asylum in Bed-Stuy because of its affordability.
couple saw that we were holding hands, they said, “You two are brave! We don’t
hold hands around these parts of town.”
white lesbian couple could walk holding hands or even tongue kiss in the middle
of the street, lesbians of color, particularly black lesbians, have a hard time
doing the same. I felt outraged when this became more apparent to me, as an
open femme, who can pass as straight — the ultimate trigger for men who have a
hard time accepting that women like us are out of reach.
that we could not openly love each other as black women without some men
presuming ownership of our bodies shook me to the core. Something had to give.
I had not left a homophobic country to continue living in fear in America.
that bright evening, as the man lambasted us on the street corner, I relapsed
and pulled my wife away. “You don’t know what he’s capable of!” I snapped,
surprised at my words and ashamed that I’d turned my fear into rage toward her.
But I did not want to lose the woman I love to someone who appeared to have
nothing to lose.
clenched my teeth to steady my words. I could hear my heart pounding between my
ears. Meanwhile, the man stared us down. He shook his head, baffled; our public
display of our love appearing to cut him deeply, causing rippled lines across
his dark forehead.
girl,” he whispered with a hint of possession, of familiarity. “How can you
embrace dat lifestyle?” He clutched his chest in pain, looking at me as though
I was the one who needed to be reasoned with — as though I had lost my mind in
this foreign land with this foreign disease. “You know bettah.”
evening, my wife and I walked home without holding hands, and I had never felt
so robbed. I became angry at the world, at myself, at my wife. I grew so angry,
in fact, that I could not be angry anymore, especially when I realized that I
could destroy our love with my pent-up rage.
down the street holding my wife’s hand is perfectly normal, I told myself. And
I have become determined to fight for this love and our freedom to express it.
Gays and lesbians before us fought for this, and we would too. We would dare to
find a home, our place, on Fulton Street, as we have found a home in each