Recently, Jose went into the hospital. He had to have a surgery to find the source of an ongoing and debilitating pain in or around his stomach. As I understand it, doctors operated on him several times for the same pain over the course of the last two years. In the first surgery, they took out his gall bladder. Then, when that didn’t stop the pain, surgeons went in two more times to put stints into a bile duct. Each time he went for surgery, which included hospital stays, Jose came out feeling all right. Each time, however, the pain started again.
This time, when the pain struck, it was so serious that Jose needed opioids to control it. He went to the emergency room, where they gave him the painkillers and told him to set up a time to see his doctor. The doctor said that he had to send surgeons in to see what the problem was. At first, the doc thought arthroscopic surgery would do the trick—send in a scope with some grabbers on the end and, bing, the offending piece of whatever would be gone forever.
As it turned out, the closer Jose got to the surgery date, the more it became apparent that scope-and-scissors wasn’t going to do the trick. They would have to go in big.
While all this was going on, Jose tore some cartilage in his hip that needed surgery. That took him off his bike—he’s an avid rider—and put him down for six weeks while the wound healed. Then came a blood clot in his lower leg that needed more attention. All the while, this pain in his stomach bent him over and put him to bed for days at a time.
“You’re an old man, now,” I said. “These things go wrong. It’s like a car at 100,000 miles. The engine runs fine but the brakes, oil pump, water pump, alternator, and power steering wear out and have to be replaced. Once the mechanics get all these peripheral things taken care of, you’ll be good as new.”
It wasn’t the most sensitive thing to say. A man turning sixty is a big deal. There’s only ten good years left. A person doesn’t like to see that approaching. But Jose and I have often talked about our mortality and the importance of time escaping us. He took it as I had intended, as a ribbing well deserved.
Even in a debilitated state, Jose’s interesting and inspiring. I first met him when I was twenty. I was drunk in a bar and had a crush on his girlfriend. He held revolutionary ideas and mixed with crowds that resisted the onslaught of Reaganism. He thought highly of Latin American activists, liberation theology priests, and the workers’ struggle against imperial capitalism.
There was something about Jose. At the time, I thought it all too heady and complicated. I hated Reagan and what he represented. But I kept to my drunk self, went on and off to the university, and worked like an animal at minimum wage jobs.
Years later, Jose and I made acquaintance again. I don’t remember where or how, it was just one of those things. Jose was involved all over town with poetry and art. I envied him. By this time, I was sober, married, and had two kids. My own struggle with alcoholism separated me from the edgy and the advent garde. I hung around on the fringes of artist groups, and poets. But being in my own life, I didn’t have contact with the creative people I needed that would inspire me to greater work.
Jose’s story, which I admire, takes a different turn. After 12 years and a good retirement built up, he left a law firm where he worked as a document analyst. He was good at what he did and worked on countless cases. The firm thought enough of his work to send him all over the country. He made an astoundingly good wage and his future seemed bright.
All the time, he thought of poems and pictures. After years of deferring his creative pursuits, he thought deeply about what he wanted in life. Creativity agitated him. His mind often wandered far from his work. He felt trapped. The money was good. The travel prospects motivated him. His coworkers and the lawyers at the firm held him in high esteem.
Then, he made the break. He quit the job and used the retirement savings to set himself up as an artist and poet. The money kept him going for a while. Commissions for murals and other works began to take hold. About the time he ran out of his own money, about two and a half years after his quit the firm, he was making a living as an artist.
And he did it right. He went to every art opening and poetry reading he could. He built relationships all over town and became acquainted with artists and writers around the country. Seeing that there were few Hispanics involved in writers’ circles around town, he formed a collective with other Latino poets and writers. He became over the course of a few years a real force in literary and artistic groups around town.
Ask him today, and he will say that he’s hardly making a living. I don’t see it like that. He may be on the edge, but he brings in enough money from sales of his paintings and drawings to support a poetry habit. His work pays the rent on a large studio in Kansas City, Kansas, where he disappears for days at a time working. He shares a house with other creative types, a nice two-story in a quiet neighborhood.
Fortunately, through all his painful ordeals, he’s had health insurance. It affords him decent, if not very good healthcare. Being an artist on the edge of the financial razor, his problems likely would have him out on the street.
It was with some satisfaction I visited him in the hospital. He was doing well and I’m glad I had the time and freedom to come see him. He had just undergone a surgery more serious than he could have imagined. The had to open him up like a melon and get in there and knead around his guts to find out that the initial surgery years before had left a piece of the gall bladder in there. This (we hope) was the offending agent. He has a scar over a foot long. It reminds me of what might happen to a guy slashed with a sword.
Almost two weeks out of the hospital, he’s doing better. He’s in good spirits. He moves slowly. He is active. When he attends a board meeting or workshop in a day, that’s as much as he can hold out. We have been in the habit recently of walking my dogs together. It will be quite a few weeks before he’s back up for doing that.
I’m going over to Jose’s today. He’s going to help me with a poetry manuscript. It’s a little, insignificant thing built from poems I’ve written over the last twenty years. All my poems are short. The long ones, I fear, hardly hold together. But people tell me they are good, so I ought not have any qualms about publishing a chapbook of about fifty of them.
Jose published his chapbook last year as part of the same series of publications that I am publishing mine. I can rely on him. He has the insight to see what I cannot in these poems. He will find the theme that I’m missing. While I sit on his porch, I will think about our lives together, how they have intersected and diverged. I look forward to his criticism. He’s enough of an artist and has the experience to tell me straightforwardly what’s wrong with my poems and how I can fix them.
And I will think about the days when we can walk together again, breezing along downtown streets, lost in conversations that add to the friendship we already share.