I can still recall my mom standing at the kitchen sink in my grandparent's house, crying. My grandmother was dying in the back bedroom. I hadn't seen my mother cry before, so I knew that things were serious. It made a lasting impression. A few years later, I visited my grandfather in the nursing home. He was sitting in a wheelchair. I looked down at that frail little man who used to buy me candy and who let me stay up late. He loved me so much, and now he had come to this end. But he was in his mid-nineties and had lived a long and happy life. I did not feel devastated the next morning when I received the call informing me that he had expired in the night. I was sad, but somehow it was okay.
Frequently, on television news reports of fighting in distant lands, earthquakes, and famines, I see the tortured faces of strange and different people wailing, sobbing uncontrollably, and throwing themselves onto the graves of sons, daughters, and friends. I feel bad, but don't really share the pain personally. Unfortunate as it is, it is someone else's grief.
This new experience I'm about to describe is different from all that. I always felt before that no matter what happened, I would only have to encounter this terrible experience a few times in my life at most. My life and the lives of my family and friends would go on until we too grew old and would die. I could deal with that in the abstract. Then came AIDS. That was unplanned for.
Jack was in his early forties. He was athletic and energetic. He was successful and full of life, ideas and jokes. I talked to him on the phone one day in April a few years ago. He told me that he wasn't feeling well at all, and that he just could not understand what was wrong. In May I talked to him again, and I still remember the experience vividly. He said, "They tell me I have AIDS." This was the first time I had actually heard anyone say that. Everybody had heard of it by then, but no one knew what it really was at the time yet. I was staying briefly with a friend in Seattle, looking out the window on a grey, late spring day. I saw tall fir trees, the cloudy sky, and the dim vista of the saltwater beyond. I felt a surge of blood race up from my heart. It actually burned right up my spine to my brain, and my eyes went out of focus. We all knew something was very wrong, but had no real idea what lay ahead.
I saw him again that October. He managed to go out to lunch and eat some of his meal. Later, it was all he could do to climb a flight of stairs. I spoke of Christmas plans. To my shock he said matter‑of‑factly, "I don't think I will make it to Christmas." He was right. Since then, I have lost so many friends and acquaintances that I could not sit down and put all their names on paper, lest I leave someone out.
Grief began to come on a more regular basis – almost routinely. I began to think that I was getting used to the notion that half of all the people I knew were going to die within a five-year period. For a while I adjusted and thought that perhaps the best thing was not to meet new people. It never works that way.
I remember the first time I met Andy. He came to our house in Virginia City on a snowy winter night, with his longtime lover, Joe. He was the Nevada State librarian. Many times I had driven by the Nevada State Library in Carson City. It is a strange big brick building, full of all manner of historical memorabilia. Andy was the top dog at the library, and had been in charge since then Governor Paul Laxault had assigned him to the post twenty or so years earlier.
Andy was a talker, and I enjoyed basking in his knowledge of history, literature, and art. I visited his wonderful custom‑built log home in the desert, east of the state capital, and still recall Andy suddenly unbuttoning his shirt and peeling off his Levis in front of everybody. Standing stark naked, he pulled back the plastic covering to the streaming hot tub that was conveniently located between the dining room and the sunken living room. We all did likewise and listened to Andy tell stories of miners, madams, the Comstock Lode, and other little-known gems of Nevada history.
When we finally dragged ourselves out of the hot, soothing water, we were all a wee bit drunker, fish‑belly white, and wrinkled as prunes. Six months later, I sat in a church packed with state dignitaries. His funeral was touching. Everybody loved Andy. None knew why he had died so suddenly. But we knew.
Mike was a butch construction worker type. He wore boots and had a hard hat on the seat of his truck. No one who believes in stereotypes would have guessed that Mike was gay. No one would have suspected that Mike had AIDS. He kept his pain to himself. His work was the definition of his life, and if he had not been able to get up and go out on the job, he could not have lived. But I knew that his time was coming. He was my roommate – and charge. He began checking into the VA Hospital, and when they told him that there were more people who needed AZT than was available, he came home dejected.
He struggled to continue to work, but one day he came home and I knew he would never go back. He had lost his will to live. I used to feel loath to see him sitting in his pajamas – unshaven, and hair a mess – watching daytime television. This is no fitting end for a proud man, I thought. It took away his pride before it took away his life.
Joe used to work for me. He was always a most positive person. He laughed and joked about everything. Everybody loved Joe. He was just one of those people who never got blue. He was a life‑of‑the‑party type guy. When he began fading I was downcast. I still have pictures of him in my photo album. He wore a big smile and laughed, cracked everyone up and had 'em rolling in the aisles. I saw him today for the last time. He didn't recognize me. They say he will not likely last another twelve hours. I feel grief. I drove away from the hospital in a daze. I put the car on cruise control and watched the road ahead in a blur of tears. I smelled the soft scent of freshly cut spring grass waft into the car on the way, and wept because Joe will never smell that again. He will never feel the sun on his face or hear the laughter of his friends. He has slipped away from us already, and I will receive a call at some ungodly hour tonight, or tomorrow in the wee hours of the morning.
I barely knew Dean. We met at a trade show in Chicago. He let me stay with him in his flat in New York so I could save money when I was there on business, so I was more than happy to have him visit me when I was living in San Francisco. His trip was sad. During his stay we had to rush him to the hospital. I just went down to the lobby store to buy him a bottle of water. As I walked off the elevator of the seventh floor, I heard the emergency announcement "code blue." I knew what that meant.
I stood there in the doorway to his room with that bottle of Avian Water, and watched doctors shock him back to life. Many students watched on. When he could travel I took him to the airport, barely alive. He wanted to go back to Illinois to be with his family to die. The ironic thing I recall from the airport experience was the sidewalk check‑in. Dean was in a wheelchair, pencil thin and obviously in pain. The cheerful baggage guy took his ticket and said something we all say without thinking: "And how are you today?" To which Dean honestly answered flatly: "Pretty awful." Enough said.
About a week later his mom called me from Skokie. He had passed away. Apparently he had told them about his experience at the hospital in San Francisco. "Why didn't you just let him die then and there?"she asked, not unkindly. "I had no legal standing to do a thing about it," I replied honestly. She sighed, but I knew that she understood.
Lake was more than a friend. He was kind of like a kindred spirit. He was a beautiful man – a runner and tennis-player with a well defined chest and a stomach that you could wash clothes on. He was proud and knew that he turned heads, but under the bravado was a victimized skinny little gay kid – an ugly duckling, who woke up one day to find himself a swan. We fell in together and developed a sort of love different from any I had experienced before. Unlike some who insist that an individual can only love one other person, I have never felt that way. Even though we were in longstanding relationships, we had a lot in common with each other that we didn't have with our own partners.
He told me of his miserable childhood and the tortures he went through as a skinny little kid who was in some indefinable way "different." I later wrote a story about him entitled, "What Ever Happened to Leonard?"
We did a lot of just "hanging out," as seems to be the popular term these days. We didn't have to have any particular activity planned. We could enjoy just being together. Taking a walk with his collection of mismatched dogs and my Great Dane, Scoobie, was all the fun we needed. We joked about being lovers in our next lifetime.
Of course, we knew that the possibility of that was just a fantasy. Lake was slowly dying. It really didn't show much at first, though gradually, it became more and more apparent. Over a two‑year period he went from the beautiful athlete to a thin, grey, wasted old man at forty‑five. He looked ninety – like my grandfather did. To me he still was that handsome runner with the beautiful tan and the long, smooth, lean runner's legs and that snide, sassy glint in his grey eyes... "Catch me if you can!"
I saw him at his home in the Sierra up in snow country last Saturday. He had CMV retinitis and was nearly blind. I held his hand. His partner, Jay, took a well‑deserved break and went for a drive. We knew it would not be much longer, but it was a hard go in any case. I stayed with Lake. The April snow was melting – dripping from the eaves. The sun was slanting into the windows with a promise of approaching spring. Lake took a painkiller and zoned in and out of reality for a while. Finally, he came around.
"Lie down by me," he said faintly. So, I twisted myself into an odd shape to fit onto that chrome‑sided hospital bed that they had put in the living room, with all the medical accouterments quietly ticking and whirring along. He dozed in and out of reality. The sun shone on his translucent face. I could barely recognize him. But I saw his neck. The muscular cords still testified to a physique now nearly gone. I rubbed my face against his neck. He knew that I still found him attractive. He cried.
"I feel like I am in a dark elevator," he said, "and when I open my eyes I am all alone."
"No, we are here. Your friends who love you are right here," I blundered. "You are not alone."
But it sounded hollow. It is coldly cliché to say, "I know how you feel," when in fact, you really don't. You can't. So, I added, "I really don't know what to say."
"You don't have to say anything," he said with a sigh. So I didn't. We just didn't talk anymore. There was nothing left to say. He died that night.
Bay Area Reporter
San Francisco, 1991