June 10, 2006

Reach out . . .

Can it be twenty-five years since the first case of AIDS? It is hard to believe. Any discussion of human catastrophe in my lifetime makes me feel like I have a boulder sitting in my stomach. The thought of AIDS or HIV gives me a persistent dull ache in my chest. From 1983 to 1995, twelve friends of mine, young gay men in their 20s and 30s, succumbed to the disease. It's not much compared to the entire communities of friends decimated and it is nothing compared to the grief of the partners and the families they left behind. But it is grief, my own personal pain, and every time I think of one of those guys, I feel a lump in my throat.

That era was before email and the internet, so I phoned or wrote these friends. Some had moved to the west coast or east coast or stayed in Ohio. Some died early and alone in what seemed then like some freakish medical anomaly. In 1982, Brian Loree visited me in my grubby first Chicago apartment right before he started graduate school. He lost 40 lbs in the next few months and then died of pneumonia. Pneumonia? Others died surrounded by friends, family and community, in hospice or at home. I didn't know it at the time, but Rusty Gorham was making his last rounds visiting friends around the country. So disfigured was he by Kaposi's Sarcoma that our waiter--in a Halsted Street restaurant--dropped the tray of water on us in surprise.

At the end of 1992 Queen Elizabeth made a speech about her "annus horribilus." Her son was a tabloid joke and her castle sustained a fire. Young men were dying by the thousands, including three classmates of mine, all close friends, who died in as many months. What did her Maj know about a bad year?

I had late night urges to go through my address book (remember those?) and call up to say, "Please assure me that you are still alive. Are you OK?" But I didn't. I continued to phone occasionally, visit when I was in town or write letters (remember those?) Was I a good enough friend? Was I brave and cheerful in the face of such tragedy? Who knows.

This 25th anniversary came simultaneously with some other news of past friends. Two straight men from my past are suddenly newsworthy. One was recently featured in a New York Times Magazine article about his community activism and the other is an award-winning documentary filmmaker. I would love to email or call and say hello and congratulations. But I can't.

If I heard from some long-lost friend in that way, how would I feel? Delighted, charmed, skeptical, suspicious? It hasn't happened to me and I have a very unusual last name. Anyone with computer access could have my address, phone number and email address in two seconds. But no one has contacted me. Do any of my classmates, bunkmates, old neighbors, boyfriends ever wonder what I am doing?

The premature deaths of my friends put them out of contact with me forever. We might have eventually grown apart anyway, as people do, but that does not diminish the relationship we had. What about those long-ago friends who are still alive? Is there a statute of limitations on hearing from old friends?

At the very end of his life, my friend Russ Harold had dementia and no functioning liver. He received a blood transfusion every evening, so he was lucid for a while thereafter. If he was up to it, he took my phone calls. One night I said, "I will miss you so much. I'll miss your letters and I won't be able to talk to you anymore." "Yes, you will," he said."You can always talk to me."

Imagine That: Letters from Russell

OUTLINES excerpt, 1997

The Names Project: AIDS Memorial Quilt

Immune Enhancement Project

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