A Season In Hell: My Medical Nightmare – Part 6
By Don Millard
A few days after I drove back to Connecticut, a letter from Helena arrived. She’d written it on the plane. In the letter she told me I touched a part of her life that no one else had and thanked me for helping her to be honest with herself. Needless to say, I wrote back. Her next letter told me that she’d been in a relationship for the past 8 years and had been living with the guy for the last 4 years. She said he was a great guy, but she’d known for a long time he wasn’t the one for her, but she’d been putting things off until she met me. We had now also managed to talk on the phone a time or two. I didn’t pressure her, as I figured if it was meant to be, it would happen.
Even so, I wanted to give her something to mark and honor the time we’d shared in Florida, whether we saw each other again or not. So I found an engraver and told him what I had in mind. I explained to him that I wanted a calendar made of just the month of January on a small block of walnut. On the left hand side would go Helena’s full initials and on the right would go mine. The 8 or 9 days we’d spent together in Florida would be in red, while all the other days of that month would be in black. The engraver did a great job, and when it was done I sent it to Helena.
She loved it and said it was something only I would think of. Actually, truth be told, the original idea belonged to JFK. Just a week or two after the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy commissioned Tiffanys to make a calender for the month of October and to engrave those incredibly tense 13 days of October much deeper than all the rest of October, just as they’d been etched deeply in the minds of his closest advisers. JFK then had his and the recipients’ initials in the corners. President Kennedy gave these out to about 12 or 13 people, including Jackie.
Thinking about that calender now, I wonder if Helena kept it, or if it’s quietly rotting in a landfill somewhere with a dirty diaper on top of it.
Near the end of January the sun came to shine on my life as I got a new letter from Helena telling me that she’d broken up with her boyfriend and wanted to come see me for a long weekend as soon as she could.
I was starting to feel good about myself again. Even though my sickness had robbed me of so much, I was still me. Discovering that I could still draw had helped a great deal, of course, but so had Helena. After all, none of my friends who were single had a sexy girl from another country flying in to see them. It was also good to find out that my illness hadn’t completely ruined my looks. Still, I would’ve gladly given up all of this and more in return for my health.
Just a few weeks later, I picked up Helena at the airport and our adventure began. We stayed at The Bee & Thistle Inn, one of those great bed & breakfast places that dot the New England landscape. This lodging was especially sweet for me, as I’d been staying with various people when I could ever since Pete’s folks and brother had returned to the shoebox in late January. I even spent a few wintry nights at a local truck stop. That was fun. I’d start the car and then turn the heat on full blast until my car was roughly the same temperature as the Equator. After I turned the car off, the trick was to fall asleep before the car got cold again. It’d been very hard to find a place to live in Connecticut on my own as the rent was and still is TOO DAMN HIGH. I had no real family left up here who would take me in, but I was willing to do anything to stay rather than go back to Florida, even sleep in my car in January.
I took Helena to New York City for the day and we had a great time. We took a lot of pictures and had someone take a picture of us near the skating rink at Rockefeller Center. It was great to be able to show her around the city, especially Greenwich Village, my old haunt from my acting school days. She lived in a small town in Canada, but was only about a half hour from Toronto. We ended our tour of New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, paying special attention the Van Gogh paintings we saw there. It was great to be with a girl who was fun AND smart. For me, intelligence is the ultimate aphrodisiac. If there’s a meeting of the minds, the body will follow. Of course she has to be cute, too. Don’t want you all to think I’m any less superficial than the rest of us.
I took Helena back to the airport on Monday and as we kissed goodbye, I hoped that she’d had as good a time in and out of bed as I had. She wrote soon to tell me that the our weekend had been perfect and that she loved me. Our main form of communication was by letter and she was a great letter writer, with beautiful handwriting. I still have some of those letters she wrote me tucked away in my little box of memories I’ve kept ever since I got sick. Every now and then, in my darkest hours, I go through this box to remind myself that, in spite of this horrible illness, there have been brief, shining moments in time when I’ve been loved and wanted.
Being in a long distance relationship was something new for both of us. It was exhilarating and deflating at the same time. The hardest part was not being able to see each other any time we wanted to, as well as sometimes wondering if the other person was on the same romantic page. Remember, this was during those prehistoric days before cell phones. Our goal, for now, was to try to see each other at least once a month.
At the end of February, I managed to find a place of my own in the beautiful, historic town of Old Saybrook, just two towns over from my hometown of Clinton. Although it was just a room for rent, it was really a large family room with a bed.There was also a tiny table in the corner of the room with a kids chair that made an ideal art table for the my Van Gogh drawings.There was a washer and dryer in the next room so I could do laundry here as well. There’s nothing sadder than having to go to the laundromat. It was in a great area, too–just a road away from Long Island Sound. I could also walk down to a private local beach. It was only about a mile from that little community of houses on the ocean known as “Fenwick,” whose most famous resident at the time was Katherine Hepburn. It was perfect. Except for my crazy landlady.
Just a few weeks later, in March, Helena made the 10 hour drive from Canada to Connecticut to spend nearly a week with me for my birthday. We basically lived in a hotel for a week and took full advantage of it. On my birthday, she gave me a set of oil pants, even though I was still only drawing at the time. “For when you’re ready,” she said.
Since returning to Connecticut, I’d thrown myself back into my Van Gogh drawings. I seemed to really hit my stride one evening when I sketched Vincent’s “CafeTerrace At Night” in one sitting without having to erase one single mark. It was the strangest experience, as if Van Gogh himself was guiding my hand that night. I was also reading Irving Stone’s “Lust For Life” at the time and in many ways I felt like Van Gogh.
I’d would end up doing 20 versions of Vincent’s paintings and called my collection “Impressions of Van Gogh.” One of the most interesting challenges in doing these was to try to get the same effect with colored pencils that Vincent got with oils. I brought a couple of my best drawings to a local little gallery just down the road from where I now lived and showed them to gallery owner. She couldn’t believe they were colored pencil drawings and told me if I ever wanted a show with them, I could have one here.
In April, for Easter, Helena sent me a plane ticket so we could spend it together. She was now living in her parents’ home and we’d have a few days all to ourselves before her folks returned from Florida. It was great getting to see Toronto as well. Toronto looked like a clean version of an American city. I don’t remember seeing even a burger wrapper or cigarette butt on the sidewalks. It was also cool to see the Hard Rock Cafe that was basically in right field of Blue Jay Stadium and to go up in the CN Tower. I never thought I’d ever get to see Canada after I got sick.
One thing I never did was tell Helena that I was sick or what had really happened to me in 1989. What was I supposed to do? Announce it at Easter dinner with her parents? “Just want you both to know that my intentions toward your daughter are honorable. Oh, by the way, I also have a horrific mystery disease that’s never happened to another human being in the history of recorded time and I can never have a normal life because of it. Pass the potatoes.” To which, I’m sure, her parents would say, “Oh, wow, he’d make a GREAT son-in-law!” Yeah, best to just talk about the weather.
But, seriously, how could I even begin to think about marrying someone and not tell them what really happened to me? But if I did, would they still want to be with me? Would they run away? Would they think I was crazy and not believe me like the doctors did? Since my illness, all the women in my life either die or go away.
So, a long distance relationship, full of travel and adventure, was perfect for me. It was like a romance with all the dull bits cut out.
Helena and I took advantage of another opportunity to be together about a month later, even if it was only for a night and a half. She was pitching in a fast pitch softball tournament in Buffalo, and our plan was to meet up at the tournament in Buffalo and then drive to Niagara Falls after the game. It took me about 9 hours to get there, but I made it, pulling into the ball field as Helena was on the mound, pitching. The game was soon over, and it was on to Niagara Falls for “Bunny” & “Bugs”, the goofy pet names we’d given each other.
We got to the hotel in the evening, and I remember our room had a hot tub in it. This sure beat sleeping at the truck stop. We went down to the Falls the next day and gazed out at that awesome display of nature’s raw power from the Canadian side, of course. Heh… In looking through my little cardboard box of memories just now, I came across a receipt from the DENNY’S in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Looks like we had two Molson’s apiece, sandwiches, and mozzarella sticks. It’s dated May 25, 1992. I should probably throw this out, huh? Sick or well, I guess I’ve always been a sentimental fool.
We looked at out the Falls for one last time later that afternoon. Our time was up, as it was Sunday and we had to both go back to work on Monday. We kissed goodbye, then got in our separate cars, and drove away in separate directions. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would be the last time I’d ever see Helena in Canada.
You know, I bet if I went over Niagara Falls in a barrel I’d LIVE.
Helena had planned to come down to see me and rent a cottage on the water in Old Saybrook in the summer, but her mother, who had been battling cancer off and on for a few years, took a turn for the worse. Once again, the cold water of reality had been splashed in our faces.
It was around this same time when my landlady hollered down the stairs at me, “Don, phone call!”
As I walked over to pick up the phone on the wall, I figured it was either my Dad or Pete, as only a few people had my number and I didn’t encourage phone calls because it was actually my landlady’s number. When I picked up the phone and said hello, I was surprised to hear a female voice on the other end of the line.
It was Amy.
To say that I was surprised would be an understatement. She had tracked me down through my Dad and she wanted to talk–about everything. She was able to talk, she said, because her boyfriend was at work and wouldn’t be back for a few hours. So we starting talking and talking and talking. She told me that she didn’t even go on a date for nearly a year after we broke up. She wanted to know what I was up to and how I was doing. I told her that I was in a long distance relationship with a girl from Canada.
“I still have a lot of guilt about you,” she said, her voice cracking.
“Don’t,” I said. “This was just something no one could have foreseen. It was a nightmare no other couple had to deal with.”
“Too many people got to me,” she said.
We talked for a very long time and it was, I think, a very healing conversation for both of us. I know it was for me. I’d written her a long letter in 1990, but she’d never replied so I figured the letter had meant anything to her. But she brought it up and said: “It was a beautiful letter, and I’ll probably keep it for the rest of my life.” She said she’d been living with her boyfriend now for about a year, but it wasn’t working out.
“I’m not happy,” she said. “And you’re the first person I’ve told.”
Our conversation about everything ended only when Amy’s boyfriend came home.
“He just pulled in the driveway. I gotta go,” she said, hanging up. I just stood there with the phone in my hand for a while, trying to take it all in.
The next evening after I came home from work, my landlady came downstairs and said to me: “You were on the phone for 3 hours last night. I’m taking the phone out of your room.”
Less than a week later a card from Amy showed up. Inside the card was a photo of her kissing “Elvis”, her cockatiel that she’d trained to whistle the theme from the Andy Griffith Show. Also included was a photo of me holding “Sophie” the Basset Hound puppy I’d gotten Amy for her birthday that her Mom made her get rid of. She’d written a few paragraphs in the card as well, including these lines:
“There are so many things I want to say, but I’m better in person. I could never express my feelings well on paper. One thing I do know is that I wish I was your older, more mature girlfriend. I miss you very much! I miss you every day.” It was signed, “Love Always, Amy.”
Summer turned into Fall and sometime during that transition, Helena’s mother died. It was frustrating for me not to be able to be there for her in person. After this event, our letters to each other dried up and there was no more talk about us getting together as the weather turned cold. Amy and I, meanwhile, had started talking on the phone as Christmas drew nearer. She’d broken up with her musician boyfriend and had moved into her own little apartment in Tampa.
Once again, I planned to come down to Florida for the holidays. Helena would also be down there and we’d agreed to meet up at some point to “talk about things.”
Just a few days before Christmas, as I was leaving for Florida, Amy gave me directions to her apartment. She wanted me to stop by before I got to Cape Coral. Cape Coral could wait.
This time there was no heroic drive straight through to Florida. I spent the night somewhere in the Carolinas. By late afternoon the next day, I was closing in on Tampa. It just didn’t seem real that I was on my way to see Amy, but it was. It’d been quite a year. When I was only about a half hour away, I called Amy from a rest stop pay phone and told her I’d see her soon.
“Cool!” she said.
It was now dark when I pulled into her apartment complex. At that moment, even with this illness, I wouldn’t have traded places with anyone. When I knocked on her door, it was almost immediately flung open and Amy threw her arms around me and hugged me tight.
Her apartment was tiny but cute. She was already cooking dinner and opened the refrigerator to show me she’d picked up a six pack of out favorite beer, RED STRIPE. After dinner, since it was Friday night, it was time to watch a new show Amy had been telling me about: MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. It was like they had designed a television show just for us. We laughed and laughed. That night we made love and I got the best night’s sleep of my life since this medical nightmare began.
When I awoke in the morning, I was alone. Then I looked over and saw that Amy was sitting in a little chair by the bed, smiling.
“You slept so good,” she said. “I’ve just been sitting here watching you sleep.”
Christmas had come early, as it were.