I met Bruce and Michael at their ceramics studio in Providence, which was also their home. Fresh out of grad school with no idea what I was doing with my life, I was still tagging along with artist friends who seemed to have a much better idea of what they were doing with their lives. Bruce and Michael threw a little party and my boyfriend at the time decided it would be a good idea for us to go. It was a lovely party with great food and interesting conversation and I felt like I belonged there. So much so that I asked if Bruce and Michael needed a studio assistant.
I was serious and they sort of laughed me off. I told them I liked vacuuming, that despite my masters degree in metalsmithing, I had a fair amount of experience with clay, and that I was willing to do the grunge work. Somehow, it worked, and they hired me. Working for them wasn’t really a job, it was more like getting paid to hang out with smart and talented friends all day who loved good food and decided on a whim to buy a plastic kiddie pool for the roof one hot afternoon so we could drink beers and swing our bare feet in cool water while watching the Amtraks to Boston whiz by.
Eventually I left them for a job that paid more, and then they left Providence for a studio that cost less and we got together every once in a while to make food and play board games and laugh until our guts ached. I got married and they read a passage at our wedding, a few lines from Walt Whitman’s Song of the Open Road. Then when they got married, once it was legal for two men to legally wed, they had friends read the same passage at their ceremony.
Bruce got sick not long after he turned 50. His doctor told him he had stage 4 prostate cancer, the kind of cancer you’re not supposed to die from when you’re in your fifties, the kind of cancer they rarely bother to treat because it moves so slowly. But it moved fast in Bruce’s body, the cancer cells replicated and tumors set up shop in his organs and along his spine. Always a man who loved a good meal, Bruce lost his appetite and his body began to shrink, his bones stuck out in all the wrong places, he was mostly confined to bed. He traded his clay for brushes and pencils and learned to meditate to pass the painful hours.
In the little sitting room on the second floor of the house they lived in, perched over the store they sold their ceramic pots, Bruce was in a hospital bed, laying on his side. Our friends had brought over their new kitten much to his delight and it was using its needle sharp claws to bat at his feet. I sat next to him and asked him questions, about the bruises on his arms, about the new paintings and needlepoint he was working on, I wanted to know how he was feeling. He looked past me at Derek’s shoes and asked if they were comfortable. Derek said they were very comfortable and took them off and left them for Bruce to wear and Michael dug around in a closet for an old pair of shoes so Derek would have something to wear home.
In the corner of the room was Bruce’s massive jade plant, the kind we always see at greenhouses that are marked with a sign saying: not for sale. With big, thick, silvery branches and bright green leaves. I’d killed more than my fair share of plants and I always marveled at Bruce and Michael’s collection of living things. I stared at the plant while one friend curled up next to Bruce in his bed and Derek helped another friend with a knitting project. I had always admired the jade for its independence. You’re supposed to practice benign neglect with a jade plant, watering liberally only when it was parched, and then letting it be, to drain out the excess and keep only what was necessary. Jade’s are good at saving things, they’re good at waiting.
It was the last time I saw Bruce, he died a few weeks later while I was on a work trip. I answered the phone in my hotel room and received the news with a mix of shock and panic. I was too far away from home. My co-worker rescued me and called the corporate travel center and re-booked a flight first thing in the morning. I always jokingly referred to Bruce and Michael as my “two gay dads” not because my own father wasn’t good enough, but because they both acted as surrogate parents, advising me when I needed it and loving me when I felt unlovable. When I checked out of my hotel early in the morning, my face splotchy from lack of sleep and crying, I told the man at the desk my father died and I needed to get home and a driver standing nearby ushered me to his stretch limo and sped the whole way to the airport, refusing payment or even a tip when we arrived.
At the memorial, my ex-boyfriend presented me and a big group of friends with cuttings from the jade, newly planted in tiny terracotta pots, a little metal talisman hanging from a copper hook that was punched in the soil. I brought it home and neglected it for years. I watered it occasionally and left it near a window, but I was so terrified of killing it, I spent most of the time pretending it wasn’t there. Over the course of three years, it barely grew.
I think about Bruce a lot. When I’m anxious or not sure what to do, I imagine what Bruce would tell me I should do. I imagine him laughing at me, poking all those insecure places that need a little poke because he knew I had the answer and I was just to afraid to decide. I finally started feeding the plant and watering it infrequently, and it started to grow. I had to stick a wooden skewer in the pot so its fragile stem could lean against it for support. It was becoming apparent the tiny little pot it was in was just too small but I was afraid to repot it. What if I killed it? What if all the leaves fell off? I lost Bruce years ago, and I didn’t want to lose his plant too.
This past weekend, on a bright sunny day, a day Bruce probably would have spent daydreaming about what annuals he was going to plant in the beds outside the store/house, I sat on the floor, with a blue tarp and bags of dirt and stopped neglecting my plants.
The overstuffed pothos was split into multiple pots, a little rubber plant got split in two, and the aloe plant we’ve had for years got a bit mangled but is now stretched out into three individual pots. And Bruce’s jade finally graduated to a larger pot, one that will allow it to continue to grow. In a few days I’ll give it a little water, and then I’ll let it be and hope the stressed out roots will relax and settle into the new pot.