Excerpt From Heaven
’s Coast: A Memoir By Mark Doty Essay, Research Paper
Prologue: Is There a Future? April 1993
In 1989, not long after my partner Wally and I took the HIV test, the pain in my
back–which had been a chronic, low-level problem–became acute. I went to a chiropractor
I’d seen before, a rough-and-tumble kind of guy with a strange, cluttered little office on
a shady part of Main Street in the Vermont town where we lived then. Dr. Crack, as I
thought of him, was his own secretary, and furnished his office with all manner of
cast-offs and inspirational posters, along with many implements of vague and mysterious
use. In general, he did not inspire confidence. He snapped me around with considerable
force, and though I felt much better after being treated by him, I also felt a mounting
sense of nervousness about the degree of force he used. One day the crack my neck made as
he whipped it into place was so loud that I resolved to see the new-age doctor my friends
had spoken so highly of instead. She had cured one friend of a nervous tic in the eye
simply by massaging a spot on her spine; others swore by her gentler style of
On my first visit, as I lay on my stomach in a room full of ferns and charts marking
the locations of chakras and pressure points, she touched one vertebra which throbbed,
seemed almost to ring, painfully, like a struck tuning fork. I felt she’d touched the very
center of the pain in my sacrum, the weak spot where my ache originated. When I told her
this, she said that the particular vertebra she was touching represented "faith in
Under her tentative touches–delivered with less pressure than one would use to push an
elevator button–my back simply got worse, but her diagnosis was so penetratingly accurate
that I never forgot it. After a while, I went back to Dr. Crack, and my back got better,
but not the rupture in my faith.
The test results had come back negative for me, positive for Wally, but it didn’t seem
to matter so much which of us carried the antibodies for the virus. We’d been together
eight years; we’d surrounded ourselves with a house and animals and garden, tokens of
permanency; our continuance was assumed, an essential aspect of life. That we would
continue to be, and to be together, had about it the unquestioned nature of a given, the
tacit starting point from which the rest of our living proceeded. The news was as
devastating as if I’d been told I was positive myself. In retrospect, I think of two
different metaphors for the way it affected me.
The virus seemed to me, first, like a kind of solvent which dissolved the future, our
future, a little at a time. It was like a dark stain, a floating, inky transparency
hovering over Wally’s body, and its intention was to erase the time ahead of us, to make
that time, each day, a little smaller.
And then I thought of us as standing on a kind of sandbar, the present a narrow strip
of land which had seemed, previously, enormous, without any clear limits. Oh, there was a
limit out there, somewhere, of course, but not anywhere in sight. But the virus was a kind
of chill, violent current, one which was eroding, at who knew what speed, the ground upon
which we stood. If you watched, you could see the edges crumbling.
Four years have passed. For two of them, we lived with the knowledge of Wally’s immune
status, though he was blessedly asymptomatic; for the last two years, we have lived with
His has not been the now-typical pattern of dizzying descents into opportunistic
infections followed by recoveries. Instead, he’s suffered a gradual, steady decline, an
increasing weakness which, a few months ago, took a sharp turn for the worse. He is
more-or-less confined to bed now, with a few forays up and out in his wheelchair; he is
physically quite weak, though alert and responsive, and every day I am grateful he’s with
me, though I will admit that I also rail and struggle against the limitations his health
places upon us. As he is less capable, less present, I do battle with my own sense of loss
at the same time as I try not to let the present disappear under the grief of those
disappearances, and the anticipatory grief of a future disappearance.
And I struggle, as well, with the way the last four years have forced me to rethink my
sense of the nature of the future.
I no longer think of AIDS as a solvent, but perhaps rather as a kind of intensifier,
something which makes things more firmly, deeply themselves. Is this true of all terminal
illness, that it intensifies the degree of what already is? Watching Wally, watching
friends who were either sick themselves or giving care to those who were, I saw that they
simply became more generous or terrified, more cranky or afraid, more doubtful or more
trusting, more contemplative or more in flight. As individual and unpredictable as this
illness seems to be, the one thing I found I could say with certainty was this: AIDS makes
things more intensely what they already are. Eventually I understood that this truism then
must apply to me, as well, and, of course, it applied to my anxiety about the future.
Because the truth was I’d never really believed in a future, always had trouble
imagining ongoingness, a place in the unfolding chain of things. I was raised on
apocalypse. My grandmother–whose Tennessee fundamentalism reduced not a jot her
generosity or spiritual grace–used to read me passages from the Book of Revelation and
talk about the immanence of the Last Days. The hymns we sang figured this world as a veil
of appearances, and sermons in church characterized the human world as a flimsy screen
behind which the world’s real actors enacted the struggles and dramas of a loftier realm.
Not struggles, exactly, since the outcome was foreknown: the lake of fire and the fiery
pit, the eternal chorus of the saved–but dramatic in the sense of scale, or scope. How
large and mighty was the music of our salvation!
When the Hog Farm commune came to my town in an old school bus painted in Day-Glo
colors swirled like a Tibetan mandala, the people who came tumbling out into the park had
about them the aura of a new world. Their patchouli and bells and handmade sandals were
only the outward signs of a new point of view. We’d see things more clearly, with the
doors of perception cleansed; fresh vision would yield new harmony, transformation. I was
an adolescent, quickly outgrowing religion when this new sense of the apocalyptic replaced
it with the late sixties’ faith in the immanence of Revolution, a belief that was not
without its own religious tinge and implication. Everything promised that the world could
not stay the same; the foundations of order were quavering, both the orders of the social
arena and of consciousness itself. I couldn’t articulate much about the nature of the
future I felt was in the offing, but I could feel it in the drift of sitar music across a
downtown sidewalk, late summer afternoons, and in the pages of our local
"underground" newspaper, The Oracle, with its sinuous letterhead as
richly complicated as the twining smoke of the Nepalese rope incense I used to burn. I was
sure that certain sorts of preparation were ridiculously beside the point. Imagine buying,
say, life insurance, or investing in a retirement plan, when the world as we’d always
known it was burning?
One sort of apocalyptic scenario has replaced another: endings ecological or nuclear,
scenarios of depleted ozone or global starvation, or, finally, epidemic. All my life I’ve
lived with a future which constantly diminishes, but never vanishes.
Apocalypse is played out now on a personal scale; it is not in the sky above us, but in
In the museums we used to visit on family vacations when I was a kid, I used to love
those rooms which displayed collections of minerals in a kind of closet or chamber which
would, at the push of a button, darken. Then ultraviolet lights would begin to glow and
the minerals would seem to come alive, new colors, new possibilities and architectures
revealed. Plain stones became fantastic, "futuristic"–a strange word which
suggests, accurately, that these colors had something of the world to come about them. Of
course there wasn’t any black light in the center of the earth, in the caves where they
were quarried; how strange that these stones should have to be brought here, bathed with
this unnatural light in order for their transcendent characters to emerge. Irradiation
revealed a secret aspect of the world.
Imagine illness as that light: demanding, torturous, punitive, it nonetheless reveals
more of what things are. A certain glow of being appears. I think this is what is meant
when we speculate that death is what makes love possible. Not that things need to be able
to die in order for us to love them, but that things need to die in order for us to know what
they are. Could we really know anything that wasn’t transient, not becoming more
itself in the strange, unearthly light of dying? The button pushed, the stones shine, all
mystery and beauty, implacable, fierce, austere.
Will there be a moment when you will die to me?
Of course you will cease to breathe, sometime; probably you will cease to breathe
before I do, though there’s no way to know this, really. But your being, your being-in-me,
will last as long as I do, won’t it? There’s a poem of Tess Gallagher’s about the
aftermath of her husband’s death, one called "Now That I Am Never Alone." Of