Heaven Tastes Like a Cinnamon Roll

I called him ‘Cousin David’ but he was more like a brother to me. He passed away January 5th, as his husband Jon and I were holding his hands, cheering him lovingly across the finish line. His death was beautiful.

I always intended to be with my cousin when he died, because he wanted his husband Jon and me by his side. I was honored by his request, which I knew about for months. We all planned that when the time came, I’d be summoned to his bedside for his final hours. We had no idea I was destined to be there for the entire last two weeks of his life. I was supposed to return home to San Francisco after my snowy Christmas visit with him in Madison. I was supposed to go to Spain for a New Year’s vacation. I was supposed to drop everything and fly back to his side whenever the final moments came, but that’s not what happened.

I arrived in Madison on December 22nd to visit and keep David company while Jon went to Miami for a much-needed respite with his family. David seemed fine although he was upset that he dropped his favorite porcelain teacup that morning. “It just fell out of my hands,” he said. We didn’t think any more of it, and despite random discomforts related to his late stage pancreatic cancer, we had a wonderful time together, just the two of us. We talked for hours, looked through old photos, and I read aloud to him the twenty-four page story I wrote back in 1995 about our fabled trip to Ecuador and the Amazon rainforest. Neither of us had read the story in decades, and we laughed as we reminisced about our colorful adventures. It was on that very trip that I dared to finally broach the subject and ask if he’d ever been attracted to men. He was in his mid-forties and had been closeted – even to himself – his whole life. It was an epic conversation that unfolded in front of a roaring fire in our cozy room at a rambling old hacienda until well past three in the morning. It was a conversation that irrevocably changed his life for the better, and we reminisced about that too.

During the last months of his life, David still had a hearty appetite and acquired a new habit of purchasing and eating delicacies to live out his final days. So as soon as I arrived for my visit, we feasted. We ate smoked whitefish and lox, and chocolate babka he ordered from Russ & Daughters in New York. And on Christmas Day, not only did I bake him my grandmother’s light-as-a-feather orange cake, but we also indulged in the world’s best cinnamon rolls ordered from Neiman Marcus’ online catalog. Fresh from the oven, they were the most deliciously soft, chewy, crispy, salty, sweet, buttery and cinnamony rolls we’d ever had. We marveled at their perfection. “Cousin,” I said to him as I relished another bite, “If Heaven has a taste, it’s exactly like these cinnamon rolls!” He absolutely agreed.

After three lovely days together, everything changed. It was the day after Christmas, and the “sudden, steep decline” that the oncologist had foretold many months ago, did indeed occur. She said David would be coasting along at a plateau, and then abruptly, everything would change as the cancer progressed into its final phase. She said that’s when David’s health would go downhill with a sharp and rapid trajectory, although none of us knew how it would actually manifest.

It started with a fall. We realized later that the fall didn’t cause David to become bedridden and weak, but rather was a symptom – just like dropping his teacup – that the cancer was progressing, impeding his nervous system, and stealing away his strength and mental clarity. As the only other person with him, I was swiftly thrown into a whirling pool of unknown territory, taken aback by developments I had never expected to happen when I was there. When I found David on the cold white tile floor in the bathroom, I was stunned. I coaxed him into a sitting position and then dragged him across the bathroom floor using his bath mat as a sled. I did not know where my strength came from, but I was determined to get him out of the bathroom and into the hallway where I could surround him with pillows and a blanket and make him as comfortable as possible before the hospice nurse could arrive to help us. Jon caught the first flight home and returned the next morning.

There is no need to explain what followed, except to say those next ten days were difficult. They were not that difficult, all things considered, as I understand the end days of cancer can be brutal – but they were not easy and they were not fun. However, those last ten days of David’s life were remarkable. They were priceless. They were incredibly rich with love and healing.

When Cousin David realized the time to die had arrived, he wanted to say goodbye to those closest to him. Spontaneous phone calls were made during his random moments of lucidity that took the recipient of the call by surprise. One of the first calls was to my mother – his older first cousin whom he adored. My mother is a character unto herself, and when I put the speakerphone up to David, she immediately launched into a speech, the topic of which was so unlike her.  “David,” she said, “I just saw a documentary on National Geographic that was narrated by the man who played the driver in Driving Miss Daisy. He went all around the world asking people in different countries about death, and regardless of their culture or religion, everyone said the same thing – that when we die, we see a beautiful light that is comforting and full of love, so when you go David, you should know that everything will be okay.” My heart wanted to burst, and I was laughing and crying at the same time. My mother had been resistant to this way of thinking for years, which she’d always dismiss as fantasy, and then, when it really mattered, she started quoting Morgan Freeman to her dying cousin to encourage and comfort him. My mother’s best and most beautiful self showed up, and I don’t think I’ve ever loved her more.

The outpouring of unabashed love during the goodbye calls that followed was profound. Some people didn’t want to say goodbye and instead said “I’ll see you later.” Others tearfully reminisced about their favorite memory, or simply wished David ‘Godspeed.’ And one by one, even though farewells were said in unique ways – they all conveyed the exact same kind of love. Over the days, David managed to speak to everyone on his list, and I was so fortunate to be a witness to most of it! And I wondered why it took someone’s death to unleash so much love. Why couldn’t we just readily admit our love for everyone while we were still very much alive, and receive it in return? It’s a strange phenomenon among the human species that we are typically so afraid of love. It’s not that David didn’t love others or know he was loved, it’s just that his upfront emotional confession of love – the tears and the openness and the expanded heart-centered expression shared with his family and friends was so magnificent and rare. It was literally a once in a lifetime experience. I said to him, “Cousin, you are dying a rich man – not because of your material possessions, but because of all the sparkling jewels of love that are surrounding you.”  He completely agreed. In those moments, it was simply evident that the only thing that mattered in life was love. Everything else was secondary.

When David finally passed away, Jon and I – and David too! – were ready to say goodbye.  His last two days were especially difficult.  Although he was mercifully pain free, he was restless, uncomfortable and ready to go.  While it’s true that a few days earlier he said to Jon that he wanted two more years, he also later said, “I want to die, but I don’t know how.” What finally allowed him to go was when Jon tearfully approached his bedside and fully released him with the most loving, heart-wrenching words of acceptance and farewell.  Although David was “out of it” by then, he heard every word, and by the next evening, it was obvious that the time had come. Sabbath candles were lit in his grandmother’s silver candlesticks, and their light emitted a soothing glow throughout the bedroom while ethereal meditation music was softly playing in the background. Jon and I were gently talking to him, telling him we loved him, and as David slowly took his remaining intermittent breaths, they became exhalations of peace and release. And just before his last breath, I silently heard him say to me, “This is great! It’s wonderful!” and after he expressed his final exhalation, he was gone. I was so happy for him!  It was all I could feel in those sacred moments following his soul’s transition from the body…total joy and happiness. I’m still so happy for him. He’s just fine. He is vibrant and exuberant and very much “alive” although the rest of us earthly mortals are heartbroken at our loss.

Those that are remembered, live, and every Christmas Day, from here on out, I will indulge in the world’s best cinnamon rolls, and think of my heavenly Cousin David.