This American Gospel: Our Motorcycles, Our Morphine, Our Lives in Death

We’ve just sanded down the finishing touches of a new Mockingbird publication, called This American […]

Ethan Richardson / 1.25.12

We’ve just sanded down the finishing touches of a new Mockingbird publication, called This American Gospel: Public Radio Parables and the Grace of God. As you might imagine, it’s based on This American Life, the radio program known for its consistently indelible human interest pieces, which span the full Mbird thematic landscape, from judgment to acceptance, from resentment to freedom, law to love.

In our many conversations leading up to the project, it has become evident that this show is loved by a wide variety of Americans. The NY Times Magazine, for their renowned annual “The Lives They Lived” feature on the men and women who died in 2011, signed the project over to Ira Glass and the TAL crew. Not surprisingly, they came up with a series of stories about Americans you may not have heard of, but can almost absolutely relate to. The project, which was called “These American Lives” and came out with the Christmas Sunday paper, contained a collection of oddball stories about American oddballs who died–and died in very telling ways.

One of these was 44-year-old comedian Mike DeStefano, whose story about his first and last Harley ride with his terminally ill wife, Fran, was captured in interview and printed. The images will stick with you. A Harley, an IV stand, a paper gowned AIDS patient and her HIV-positive husband, an ex-prostitute and her wild lover. Despite its coarseness, it’s a touching illustration of life in dying, and death in living. It points to the paradox of a love that kills the life of the living, and lifts to life the dead and dying.

He is interviewed by Marc Maron of the “WTF” podcast.

DeStefano: When I was 21, I found out I’m H.I.V. positive, O.K. I was diagnosed with H.I.V. That was 22 years ago, 23 years ago, and that’s what changed my freakin’ life. I met this beautiful girl, Fran, and she had been a recovering addict as well, and she was also [H.I.V.] positive. We moved to Florida.

Maron: Why?

DeStefano: Because we were dying. I was 22; she was a little older than me, about 28 or 29. And we literally came to Florida like two old people would do, Marc, and that’s what my life was at that time. I didn’t know how long I would live. I was told by the doctors back then, people got the virus, and they died in four or five years, you know, so I expected that to happen.

She started getting sick. I think it was a five-year period of slow deterioration and then these rapid, like, she had pneumonia 15 times, and she was in the hospital, and she was given her last rites a few times and survived it, and it was just a brutal time.

Maron: I remember you shared a story once about taking a motorcycle ride.

DeStefano: Yeah, during her last days, she was in the hospice, and I had just gotten a Harley, my first Harley.

Maron: I saw you drive up on one.

DeStefano: Yeah, I rode up on one today. I love motorcycles. And, you know, she wanted to — well, she came out and saw it, and she got upset, you know, like she was angry at me, and she went back inside all pissed off that I had the motorcycle. So [I say to this guy that worked there], I forget his name, let’s call him Bill, “Why is she so mad at me?” He goes, “Well, she just feels like you’re moving on with your life, and you don’t love her anymore, like you have this motorcycle, and you don’t need her anymore.”

And I realized how much I did need her, like I loved her, she was my best friend. And so what I did was I went home, and I brought some of my work shirts back to the hospice. And I brought them into her room, and I said, “Franny, my shirts are a freakin’ mess, and I need you to iron them for me.” She got all: “Screw you. I’m in the hospice.” So I left. I come back, 20 minutes later, all the shirts are ironed. You know, she got up.

And then she’s like, “Where’s the motorcycle?” Now she’s excited about it.

And that guy was right. She just wanted to know that I still needed her, like I loved her, you know what I mean? [Dying] people, they feel “I’m alive.” They pass away at one moment. Until that moment, they are alive, and they want to be loved, and they want to give and share, you know.

So now she wants to see [the Harley]. I take her out; she wants to sit on it. I put her on it. She wants to start it up. Now she’s wearing a paper dress, she’s got her freakin’ morphine pole next to her, and she’s sitting on this Harley, and I’m worried about her burning her freakin’ leg off. So she says (pleading voice), “Can you just take me for a little ride around the parking lot?” And I’m like, no, I can’t — I’m thinking, get the hell —

Maron: You’ve got a drip IV —

DeStefano: Yeah! And then it just hit me: I’m like, no, you have to, you’re in this moment, you have to do this motorcycle ride. You know? And it’s dangerous, and what if she falls? And what if one day I’m telling this story: “Yeah, my wife, she almost died of AIDS, but then I killed her on my Harley. She fell off and banged her freakin’ head.” That’s a messed-up story.

And that’s when I realized, you know, screw it. Of course I’ll — yeah. So I’m riding around the hospice parking lot, and then my friend who’s a cripple in a wheelchair comes barreling over in his van, laughing, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m riding Franny around.” Franny’s like, “Can we just go out on the street a little bit?”

Maron: Where’s the morphine drip? She’s holding it?

DeStefano: She’s holding the pole! Marc, it was a pole with four wheels on the bottom, and we’re riding around this hospice, and you could hear the goddamn wheels jangling and banging; it was insane.

And then I pass the front door, and all these nurses are standing out front, and they’re all crying. They’re watching us, and they’re crying. And I didn’t know why they were crying. I was like, Why are they crying? I didn’t get what they were seeing. I didn’t know. Because I was just in it; I was living it. I knew my wife who had suffered, she was a prostitute, she was a freakin’ heroin addict, she was beaten by pimps — this was her past — and then she ends up with AIDS, and she’s dying, and all she wants is a goddamn ride on my motorcycle.

So the next thing you know we’re on I-95, because women, it’s never enough for them. We’re on I-95, and she unhooks the pole, and she’s holding the morphine bag over her head with her gown that’s flying up in the air so you could see her entire naked, bony body with the morphine bag whipping in the wind, and we’re passing by these guys in their Lamborghinis, and I’m looking at them like, What the hell kind of life are you living? Look at me, I’m on top of the world here.