The Tulips on Park
Ken was particular. If and when he got sick, he was going to Lenox Hill hospital or nowhere. Having had many bouts of AIDS related hospitalizations, he was done with the likes of St. Vincent's, the crazy cast of characters that populated the emergency room and the burn-out of an over-burdened AIDS ward. Located in the heart of the ritzy Upper East Side at 77th and Park, Lenox Hill was a world apart and a different experience all together. Not that any of this mattered. In 1999 Ken was the picture of health. A former Fosse dancer, at 49 he was still turning heads at the bars. Never mind that he couldn't tolerate any of the new meds that had begun saving lives by the dozens back then. He was strong as an ox and he looked great.
But the day after his 50th birthday Ken went into Lenox Hill with a persistent pain in his right side. Tests had been run but his doctor couldn't figure out anything. "It's probably gall bladder," I said. "It's often hard to diagnose." Sure enough, his gall bladder was inflamed and surgery was scheduled. I had mine out a couple of years before and knew there was nothing to it. "Julie Andrews just had hers out and she was back in Victor/Victoria in 5 days." I assured Ken, "this is nothing.". He had a beautiful corner room to himself overlooking the tulip beds that grace the islands in the center of Park Avenue, a yearly sign to winter-weary New Yorkers that indeed Spring has finally arrived. They were yellow. I pointed all of this out with perky optimism on my first visit to see him at Lenox Hill but I could tell Ken had started to give up.
What was supposed to be routine surgery revealed lesions covering his liver and gall bladder. Non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Ken started to drift away a little bit every day after that. He was on heavy pain medication and his moments of lucidity were fewer and fewer. I would pipe in with whatever conversation I could during those precious moments hoping somehow it would will him back to life. But then his eyes would go blank again, his mind confused with pain and disease. My eyes would drift out to the tulips which seemed to grow brighter and stronger as Ken became weaker and weaker. It was a matter of days before he was in that precarious situation of which would kill him faster, the disease or the treatment. With my encouragement, he opted for treatment which landed him in ICU. He died there as I held his hand. It was almost 1 AM on a Saturday night. I left the hospital and just walked and walked for blocks counting the beds of tulips along the way. I hit 13 before I hailed a cab and went home.
I was reminded of all this because I had to go by Lenox Hill for a back x-ray today. I stopped to look up at that second floor corner room for a few minutes and wondered who was in there now. The earth on the island in front of that window is freshly tilled ready for a new planting, the tulips being finished for the season. My mother or someone more religious than I would surely find symbolic meaning for Ken’s death in the new life of a tulip born of a dormant bulb. But to me, the tulips on Park Avenue just make me sad.