A few months before my boyfriend died, Mark decided to stop fighting liver cancer. The tumors were inoperable and aggressive, despite a year of chemotherapy. Mark was 31. I was turning 29. As I drove him home from his last doctor’s visit, a new Lee Ann Womack song played on the radio. We couldn’t ignore the lyrics:
“Never lose your sense of wonder, don’t let a hell bent heart leave you bitter, when you come close to selling out, reconsider – when you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.”
“I like that song,” Mark said. “It says everything I want to tell you.”
All I could do was hold his hand. The moment was too heavy and tender to bear.
A week before Mark died he told me he would look after me. I’m reminded by a line in our song: “Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance.”
I want to believe Mark is in heaven, watching over, from a better place. I can see why heaven is so popular in the West. It’s a comforting notion. Like reincarnation comforts many in the East – living another, better life, based on the good you’ve done.
Mark’s ancestors were Buddhist. His family came to the United States from China. To better assimilate in an all-white Midwest suburb, they converted to evangelical Christianity. And Mark was taught that heaven had a catch: a very real and fiery hell, a place bad people went — Buddhists and gays included.
I never learned about heaven and hell as a kid. My Italian-Catholic mom became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and taught me the dead went nowhere. They were asleep, waiting for new bodies when God turned the Earth into paradise. Gays and Buddhists allowed — if they stopped being gay or Buddhist. The unrepentant would go back to sleep and never wake up.
Mark and I met and lived in San Francisco, a gay city and an Asian city, more than one-third Asian. It was liberating for him. When Mark chose to return to the Midwest to die, I went to live with his Chinese parents. We all rose to the occasion despite insurmountable differences. Growing up, Mark lived under a strict hybrid of Christian and Chinese cultures. Assimilation ruled. He became a doctor because that’s what was expected of him. But as I watched Mark explore his own passions – cooking, painting and languages – we both had to face his death with childhood beliefs that weren’t all that comforting. In the end, Mark relied on what he knew: heaven. And he asked me to consider it, too. I’m reminded every time I hear our song.
Mark’s death was labored and prolonged, as if his young body was fighting against all its unfinished business. That’s why reincarnation appeals to me when thinking about where Mark might have gone. Where any of us might go, to continue what we couldn’t finish this time around, to make amends, be truer, give and get more joy.
This fall is the 7th anniversary of Mark’s death. And I wonder, of all the 7-year-olds now in second grade, which could be Mark reincarnated? I believe it’s a child with a sense of wonder: A child who begs to help in the kitchen, has a flair for finger painting, a love of foreign languages — and a thing for dancing.
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