And one more time this year our family is grieving. Sometime around 9am Saturday morning my brother-in-law, Jesse Martinez, took his last breath. He died peacefully in his sleep after a sudden decline in the last 48 hours. Even though we knew this day would come it was still a shock to receive that call. Time stands still in that moment between not knowing and knowing. The second I heard my brother’s voice I realized this was it. And every part of my being willed it to not be so.
Jesse made the tough decision barely a month ago that he would stop his chemo treatments. His cancer had been diagnosed in June as Stage 4 Pancreatic, and it had already spread to his liver…..a hard, hard diagnosis to hear. Chemo was offered, not necessarily as a life extender, but to help improve the quality of life he had left. And for awhile it seemed to work. His numbers got better and he felt pretty good. But then the effects of chemo finally started taking a toll. He hated how it made him feel, and his quality of life plunged. He just couldn’t take it anymore.
I can’t remember the exact year I met Jesse (1997 maybe), but I do remember the circumstances. My brother, Raymond, was in the hospital and I flew to San Antonio to be with him. Jesse picked me up at the airport. It was awkward because at that time my brother was not fully open with our family about his sexuality. He did not grow up in a time or place that easily allowed for full disclosure. Jesse was still his “roommate” as far as my parents knew. Thankfully, my brother and I had that conversation a few years before, but I still felt odd meeting his gay boyfriend. Plus, he was Mexican. I’m ashamed to even admit that our family was also uncomfortable with his ethnicity. (In our defense, we’ve come a long way, thankfully.)
What I also remember is what he said to me that day as we drove to the hospital. He promised he would always take care of Raymond. My brother had a sketchy health history going back to his childhood. (He had recently been diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease, an inner ear condition causing severe dizziness and hearing loss, among other things.) And Jesse was vowing his full devotion to his care. His overeager demeanor was a bit off-putting, yet I felt reassured that my brother was not alone.
There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since that day. The murky waters of gay marriage and living life fully open was an on-going challenge for our family for many years. Thankfully, we’ve all grown and become wiser. Life is often still complicated for gay couples, but the adoption of my nephew, Sebastian, eased so much tension between my parents and my brother. And when they moved to North Carolina earlier this year it was cause for celebration. We were all living in one place for the first time in close to 40 years.
As I’ve written about previously, that celebration was short-lived with Jesse’s diagnosis. We were all in shock that this sweet, gregarious, man would die at 53 years of age. Sebastian would lose a loving Papi. My grandboys would lose the man Caiden calls “silly Jesse”. Raymond would lose the love of his life. And the irony was not lost on me. This man, who promised to always care for my brother, ended up needing the care. Raymond has spent the last six months doing everything he could to make Jesse’s life more comfortable as they cycled through shock, anger, and sorrow. They have lived the vow….for better or worse. Yesterday Raymond shared a realization, that as a gay couple they had hoped for so long to be married, to be legitimate, to be like anyone else. It never, ever occurred to them that having attained their deepest desire….it would be cut short. A lesson for us all, be we gay, straight, Mexican, Caucasian, healthy or sick, serious or joyfully silly. Don’t take any of it for granted. Not one single day.