Toga Party

The passage of time is not something that I think about much. I don’t wear a watch, and I rarely consult a calendar—except to keep track of inevitable doctor appointments, birthdays, and anniversaries. I rise with the morning light and cast off the day when sleep overtakes me, allowing the rhythms of nature to take their natural course. The year 1984, however, sticks in my mind for a few reasons: the dystopian Orwell novel, the introduction of Apple’s Macintosh computer, and for the only toga party I ever attended—and will never forget.

That year I managed the San Fernando valley branch of a technical publications company, while a talented young colleague managed the Redondo Beach branch. I seldom saw Mike face-to-face, but remained in frequent phone contact with him as our offices shared work on a regular basis, and our efforts needed to be coordinated. By all accounts he was not only a very good manager, but also a remarkable athlete, having attained near-pro status in golf, tennis, and baseball. In person Mike appeared to be the pinnacle of health: fit, friendly and handsome, with a quick, mischievous smile.

All of this changed in 1984 when one of the company’s owners informed me that Mike had been diagnosed with late-stage colon cancer, and would be taking a leave of absence. “He is very sick,” I was told. “We don’t know when he will be returning to work.”

Several months passed without further news, and I must admit that thoughts of Mike receded into the background, suppressed by the hectic, day-to-day stresses of managing my office’s many operations. One day, however, I got word that Mike wanted to have a toga party at his home in Redondo Beach, and I was invited. The news threw me off balance. A toga party—at the home of a terminal cancer patient? Did he really feel well enough to do this? How could he leave the hospital? After only a few minutes of pondering, however, I think I came to the same conclusion as did other co-workers who were invited to the party: how could we refuse the request of a dying friend?

On the afternoon of the event, Sue—my girlfriend at the time—reluctantly agreed to accompany me to Mike’s party. She had never met Mike or my other coworkers, and wasn’t looking forward to being seen in costume among strangers. Still, we dressed one-another in togas made of pinned bed sheets, and Sue shaped Roman wreaths from branches plucked from the olive tree in my front yard. I thought she looked pretty, but I felt silly, and dreaded driving the hour to Redondo while in costume.

It was drizzling when we arrived at Mike’s apartment. Cathy, his slender, toga-wearing girlfriend, greeted us warmly and seemed happier than I expected, under the circumstances. As we were among the first to arrive we sat on a couch with a view of the courtyard while dusk settled in, and watched for the next hour as other co-workers, friends, and family members approached in their togas and filled the living room and kitchen with ever-increasing chatter.

Several of us enquired about Mike’s health and whereabouts. Cathy informed us that his father and brother were at the hospital with him. Apparently Mike had simply unplugged his IV and monitors, and they were now on there way here.

The drizzle turned to gentle rain, splashing the courtyard outside, spotting the windows and making it more difficult to see the blue, lamp-lit walkway. Finally someone spoke out: “He’s here!”

Mike appeared from the shadows, propped up by his father on one arm and his brother on the other. He walked slowly and his balance was poor, and I could see that he had lost weight and was quite frail. Yet somehow, somewhere, he had managed to exchange his hospital gown for a toga.

“Hi,” he said weakly, stepping inside. “Is everyone having a good time?” He made prolonged eye contact, flashed a white smile, shook the men’s hands and hugged the women affectionately.

He was helped to a chair against a wall in the center of the living room while his toga-wearing sisters, mother, and girlfriend glided about him like swans. They dabbed his forehead with a damp cloth, squeezed his hands, rubbed his back gently, and generally attended to his needs.

For the most part Mike stayed seated, resting one hand on a cane and looking like a prince on a throne. Occasionally his eyes closed and his head bowed as the morphine he had been prescribed for pain made him sleepy. Many of us approached him cautiously, gently, not wishing to disturb him but at the same time wanting to express our concern and gratitude. Through it all he maintained an optimistic tone and thanked each of us for coming.

Mike wove in and out of light sleep, his attention waxing and waning. At times his face hinted at an internal struggle that only he could feel—but soon it passed and he would regain his composure. He did not eat or drink, but watched contentedly while the rest of us devoured hot dogs and hamburgers that his father and brother cooked on his grill, downed beer and wine, and ate corn chips and bean dip, cold-slaw, potato salad and a tossed green salad made earlier by members of his family.

Sue and I mingled and made small talk, speaking to others about our jobs, the weather, our families, and how we all made our togas. We laughed thinly and a bit too often, and most of us avoided talking too much about Mike—the elephant in the room—for what could we say at this point?

A shuffle of activity caught my eye, and I glanced up to see several women helping Mike briskly to his feet and toward the bathroom. Soon after there was no mistaking the muffled sound of him vomiting over and over again. It seemed to go on forever.

“His doctors remove one liter of fluid from his abdomen each day,” someone beside me said. But I didn’t see who, for my eyes were fixed on the bathroom door. “His intestine is perforated from the cancer, so it just leaks in.”

From that point on the party struggled to maintain its footing. We and the other guests sat and stood in our togas, food and beers in hand, feeling a little out of place. We continued to discuss things of little importance or lasting value, and Sue looked tired, but we shouldered on because, well, Mike wanted us here.

After a while Mike’s sister entered the living room and made a surprise announcement: “Everyone,” she said, “Mike would like you all to gather in the den. He has something to say!”

Numerous eyebrows raised in unison, and a note of discomfort rang in the room, but we shuffled obediently in a quiet procession toward the den.

To my utter amazement, the four walls and ceiling of the room were painted with puffy white clouds against a deep blue sky. Mike sat in the middle of a white leather couch, Cathy on one side and his mother on the other. There were so many of us squeezing into the room that those in front had to sit on the floor, while those behind them knelt, and those behind them stood against the walls—forming a tier that entirely surrounded the room. The sight of us in our white togas with wreaths on our heads—all standing against the blue sky and cloud-strewn background—frankly took my breath away. I think each of us realized it at the same moment: we looked like angels.

“Thank you all for coming,” Mike began, hushing the murmur of the crowd circling him. “You are all dear to me, and I wanted each of you to be here.” With that, he glanced at his girlfriend beside him, and painfully slipped off the couch onto his knees before her.

“Cathy,” he said, taking her hand in his, “will you marry me?”

She was visibly shaken. Her free hand covered her mouth and tears filled her eyes. After a few beats of her heart, she responded with a breathy: “Yes!”

We in the audience gasped as well, for what of the timing? What of the audacity of his love; his will to live? But there it was, in a fragile body riddled with cancer and kneeling in a toga before us.

Mike’s best friend handed him the engagement ring, and Mike placed it on Cathy’s finger, sealing the deal. Applause and squeals of approval filled the room.

As the evening wound down and friends and colleagues began to leave, a few of us men remained in the cloud-painted room with Mike, seated cross-legged on the carpet like disciples before him—not talking much, yet not wanting to go. The hours ticked by until finally my girlfriend Sue poked her head in the door and said: “It’s getting late, Norm. Maybe we should think about heading out.” So I rose from the floor, shook hands with Mike and was staggered by how firm his grip was. I thought about the journey he was soon to take utterly alone, held back my tears, and struggled for words.

“Take care, my friend,” I finally said. “Thank you for a memorable evening.”

“Thanks for coming,” Mike said. “Glad you could make it.”

As we drove back home in the rain Sue turned to me and asked, a bit angrily: “Why didn’t you want to leave?”

“Because I’ll never see him again,” I said. And I never did.

Mike died two weeks later, before his wedding day.