DIE YOUNG, STAY PRETTY
Eleven years ago today one of my best friends died of AIDS and I still cry from missing him. You know how they say time heals all wounds, well it really doesn't, you just get busier and you don't have the time to dwell in grief. And that's as it should because life goes on you know?
But I just wish so much that Gary was still here.
I remember very clearly one night when we were getting ready to go out and he said that he knew he'd die before he was 30 and that was okay because he never wanted to get old and ugly. Gary spent a lot of time looking in mirrors and was quite enamoured of his appearance. With good reason. If Rupert Everett and Hugh Grant had a lovechild it would look just like Gary - who was definitely conflicted about his sexuality, and who would've been titillated by the idea of a blowjob from a hooker in hollywood, just so he could say he had the experience. And perhaps that is a more accurate description - Gary was into all experiences, sexual or otherwise, just for the sake of experiencing them.
All experiences except growing up.
He was my partner in suspended adolescence and one of the best people to while away the hours with. We would lie in bed and read, and discuss our favorite words which we would then gleefully use in sentences as often as possible. He kept lists of these words tacked up on the bulletin board in his room. We would talk on the phone for hours about everything and nothing and when I could feel myself falling asleep around 2am and would try to get off the phone, he would say, "just one more thing" and we'd talk for another hour. After he died I found notes that he took during these conversations where he would write down things that I said and underline the parts he liked and wanted to remember. He sang in when we were out in public in a very loud, lusty, off key voice and he loved the Smiths and Morrissey better than anything.
Gary didn't have an idyllic childhood. His mom had psychological problems and he was the product of an affair his mother had with a man who didn't love her back. His dad, the man his mother married is a kind man who was dealing with alcoholism throughout most of Gary's childhood. But when Gary was dying I met his biological father and almost passed out because Gary was the spitting image of the man. I can only imagine how painful it was for his dad to raise and love a child who looked like the man his wife was in love with. His mother's illness made her very narcissistic and he probably didn't get what he needed to be able to feel like he could let others in - there had been profound hurt and abandonment. Coming home from school at age 8 to find your mother on the floor with paramedics working to revive her has got to suck. There was a part of Gary that was shut down, he didn't want to get too close or feel too much.
He had a really great friend in high school, Susie K. and he had all of her diaries which he let me read. It threatened me -this intimate friendship which very much mimicked our own sharing of secrets, but there didn't seem to be anyone else he let in. He hung with the guys, he screwed lots and lots of girls, even had a child with a girlfriend when he was 21 - not a high point in his life though he did have a relationship with his daughter. He really hated the mother because he felt so powerless in that situation. Any problems in our relationship were directly related to power struggles and I learned a lot about myself through this relationship.
Gary liked to push people's buttons. He loved to ask inappropriate questions of total strangers. He loved to get a reaction from the world in general. He reveled in intrigue and drama. He would have done well back in the days of Dangerous Liaisons. In fact, he was a 20th century rake. Which is why I fell for him so completely. Our resistance to growing up, our willingness to be distracted by self created drama made us perfect partners at that time in my life.
But the drama that AIDS created in our lives was more like a horror show. In February of '87 I was pretty severely injured in an accident. Gary used to sneak into the hospital after work and climb in bed with me - I was in bad shape, in a lot of pain, and the nights were the hardest. I went home to a hospital bed at my parents house and ate Percodan and cried because I was in so much pain. I also watched the news and it was all about the growing AIDs crisis. The next group that was showing up with the virus were drug using hookers. Then I get a phone call from my friend Dave D. who tells me that he just saw my ex-boyfriend J. at his cousin's the crack dealer's house, naked in the living room screwing a hooker named "sunshine" (I know how to pick'em let me tell you).
So I become obssessed as I tend to do with health related issues and I have a friend drive me to the free clinic, heavily medicated and on crutches to get tested for AIDS. It came back negative - whew! That was the longest week of my life (to that point). I told Gary to get tested or we were never having sex again. I was so freaked out by the whole experience I wasn't feeling so much like I wanted to have sex ever again anyway. So he goes down to the clinic and gets tested - only his results are positive. He swore me to secrecy - I was the only one who knew - and we both handled the information very differently and this is where the learning process realy got started.
Gary went into denial and got very self destructive, started partying and screwing around like he only had a month to live because that's how he felt. I, on the other hand, went into the making deals with God program. I volunteered to work with people with AIDS. I attended medical conferences at St. Mary's medical center on the newest findings and treatments. I immersed myself in AIDS education. I kept his secret and became fiercely protective of him which led to a lot of clashes because he didn't want to deal with his disease at all and I wanted him to deal with it the way I thought he should.
For 3 years he stayed remarkably healthy for someone who was driving the party train while carrying a killer virus, but there was a dark side that came out and got ugly. I watched him use and discard people and became very afraid that he was putting others at risk. He claimed that he was using condoms, but I couldn't know. I would throw fits and call him out and everyone thought I was a jealous lunatic, and sure that was part of it, but it was also the feeling that in knowing and not telling I might be an accessory after the fact.
Then he got arrested for possession and sales of cocaine. He wasn't home when the police came through the door with the battering ram and he claimed he didn't know who the scales and packaging materials belonged to, as well as denying that the half ounce of cocaine they found in his closet was his. I got him out, got him a lawyer and he got house arrest which allowed him to continue to work AND stay insured and his lifestyle continued to be self destructive. He would take the AZT which was the only drug therapy available at the time and it would make him sick so he'd stop. It was like he wanted to make life more and more awful so he wouldn't mind leaving it behind.
He was starting to do so-so when a group of us decided to take him out to the Grand Canyon. He had never been there, never seen the Hopi Kiva reproduction that his grandfather had engineered. We rented 3 RVs and 28 of us caravanned out to Arizona. In retrospect it was kind of crazy and we're lucky we didn't kill him. The 6 of us who were not feeling well at least knew to stay in our own Jamoboree of germs, but the stress of all that time on the road took it's toll on Gary. He spent a lot of the trip in bed and when he was up he was exhausted. On Sunday morning we woke up in the field outside the park around dawn and drove into to the Kiva. Gary was too tired to get up so we waited and had breakfast and talked and that's when people really started to get that Gary wasn't going to get better. That he was going to die. So we cried a lot too that morning.
When he finally started to die it was a slow and insidious process that ate him alive from the inside out. First it was thrush in his mouth, then systemic candidiasis. Next was headaches and neuromas - shooting pains that felt like electric shocks in his extremities. He had the biggest jar of Tylenol by his bed I ever saw and he ate it like candy. By that time he had moved to his Grandma's house where his sister and her husband lived and they took care of him and Grandma. When the Cytomeglovirus affected his eyes and he began the merry go round of hospital admissions he had to finally quit working. He spent his days watching television and talking on the phone when he felt well enough. Gary loved music - all kinds - he used to regularly win prizes by answering trivia questions on KNAC when it played punk rock, so he would record music on his answering machine that would give you an idea of how he was doing. Sometimes the songs would make me laugh and sometimes I would cry.
It took over two years for Gary to die. His hair thinned and he developed wasting disease exacerbated by chronic diarrhea. As the disease got into his brain he took to wandering the neighborhood in his tattered, not so tighty whiteys, claiming that the KGB was after him. One hearbreaking morning he was found in the alley with his duffel bag over his shoulder waiting for Alan to come pick him up in his boat. His moments of lucidity became less and less and he began lapsing in and out of a coma like state. He lost all of the fat on his body and his skin collapsed on the bones of his beautiful face rendering him skeletal. Hospice care workers came everyday to tend to his body, though his sister and his friends also took turns changing his diapers. He developed bedsores that had to be cleaned and tended.
Throughout the last six months there were numerous times when the call would go out, "this is it, he's going". And we would all rush over to Grandma's house and gather around his bed speaking in hushed voices. But after a couple hours, when he didn't die, we'd start to get hungry and someone would go get some hotdogs and beer and we'd end up having a what we called coma-q's. We all took turns going to his house at night to sit with him and watch Jeopardy. You'd think he was unconscious but then you'd hear him say, "what is New York City" or whatever the answer to the question was.
About this time when he was still more conscious than not, I sat by his bed and told him how angry I was that he was leaving me and how much it sucked that he didn't want to stay alive. I also told him that what I knew is that just like our lives are our own to live as we choose so too is our dying and that I wasn't going to try to inflict my will on him anymore so that I could feel less pain about him leaving me. That all I wanted was for him to be okay and I would stay with him until the end. I really wanted to walk away until it was all over. A lot of his friends did walk away because it was probably the hardest thing any of us that stayed had done up till then in our lives. Most of my friends who had died had done so quickly - I'd never been so intimately exposed to this kind of lingering death and deterioration. It was so painful it was hard to breathe and it consumed my life.
I remember holding his hand one night and reading to him and I felt him grab my hand. I looked up and he was looking at me and I could tell he was present. He said, "I feel like I'm stepping off a cliff into nothing and I'm so scared." Gary didn't have a spiritual practice and was militantly aetheistic which I always thought was more about getting a dig in at the mother of his child, who accepted Jesus as her personal savior shortly after the baby was born and became a proselytizing fundamentalist, than anything else. She got her revenge when he was really sick in the hospital and barely conscious. She'd come in with a bunch of people from Calvary and they'd stand over the bed praying for his soul and trying to get him to accept Jesus so he "wouldn't burn in hell". This continued all the way to his death and I think she did get him to say those words during a moment of incoherence - whatever, she was doing it for herself, and as Carl told her when he found out about it, "Gary would've accepted a bag of cheetos as his personal savior."
But that was one of the gifts that came with Gary's death. The understanding that everyone has a grieving process that is their own and it has nothing to do at all with the person who dies. I also got so centered in a faith that I've had since I was a kid, but hadn't accessed in years. I knew that Gary was going to be okay and that no matter how hard it was for him to leave his ravaged body, once he did he would be fine. And that night when he looked at me and said he was scared I climbed in bed and held him and told him that his soul was a butterfly and his body was the coccoon and it was okay to fly away and be free like he was always talking about. I told him that I'd be okay, we'd all be okay and all we wanted was for him to be okay too, so whenever he was ready... and in that moment I wanted nothing more than to hold the pillow over his face and help him on his way, because his humanity had been beat out of him by that fucking disease and to be completely honest it hurt so bad to have to sit there and watch.
But I didn't and it took him a couple more weeks to fly away. On May 13, 1993 I got a phone call at 9:30pm and it was Gary's brother telling me that Gary had gone. And I wanted to cry, but I couldn't right then because what I mostly felt was relief and gratitude that it was over.
I cried later and I still do because I miss him so much - not that sick shell of a human, but my best friend whose word lists I still have, who could make me laugh and piss me off simultaneously, the guy who still had so much of the world to see and so many inappropriate questions to ask - the kind we'd all like to ask, but don't because we're grown up and polite. The guy who died young at age 30, but not pretty. Not pretty at all.