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An AIDS Death in the Family

July 15, 2013

Mark S. King

Mark S. King

"There were people who displayed remarkable courage then. People who lived and died by their promises and shared the intimacy of death…"

Once, When We Were Heroes

My brother Richard would later refer to it as a "command performance." It was 1989, and he had phoned me after weeks of frustrating silence about the declining health of his lover Emil. Richard said that Emil wanted to see me. "Tonight," he said. Charlie, my partner at the time, and I walked through their front door within an hour.

Richard led us to the sofa in the den where what looked like a mountain of blankets had been piled. I looked toward the blankets, and Emil’s head -- small, ancient and childlike at once -- peered out. A curved brass reading lamp reached over Emil’s face, casting a dramatic yellow glow across his forehead and onto his face.

It was as harsh as the fluorescent strips I had often seen above the hospital bed of so many dying friends -- shining straight down, showcasing the sickness beneath. Who lights these guys? I wondered absently.

"Hey there, Emil," Charlie said. "How’s it going?" I had learned not to lead off with a remark like that.

"Hello, Charlie," Emil said weakly. His voice was a strained breath that worked without the cooperation of vocal chords. He looked shrunken.

Dick and Emil

Emil proceeded to express how much he had valued our friendship. "…and Mark," he breathed out, "I want to tell you how much I appreciate you giving that blood for me…"

It had been an experimental treatment for people with AIDS, giving them the blood of people who were HIV positive and healthy. It was nothing, really. Sixty minutes of my life. Like so many promising treatments, it didn’t work.

"It was easy, Emil, really –"

"Nevertheless," he interrupted, willful to the end.

The blankets moved slightly, and Emil produced a tiny, aged hand from them. It trembled slightly as he motioned to Richard, who acknowledged the signal and left the room. Charlie and I sat there wondering what more to say, finally surrendering to the silence.

Richard returned with an envelope and placed it in my hands. A lovely parting gift? I thought, astounded.

I smiled toward Charlie and noticed that Richard and Emil were without expression, lost in their silent, exhausted daze. I opened the envelope and pulled out a $100 gift certificate to Macy’s. Charlie and I looked at the paper admiringly, and I said how thankful I was.

Richard managed an almost perfectly horizontal smile, and I knew at once he was the one who bought it. I thought of him driving across town for the item, on strict orders from Emil to purchase the certificate and from what store, and Richard wondering if his lover would be alive when he got back.

Emil cast sleepy eyes on Richard and I knew it was time to leave. I leaned forward toward Emil and barely brushed my hand across the blanket as a farewell. Richard led us out, and stood on the porch as we drove away. I watched him close the front door. The porch light blinked out.

We drove through the lovely, tree-lined streets of their neighborhood with our mouths half opened, with words begun and then abandoned. Only after driving for miles did I succeed in delivering a full sentence.


"So, Charlie," I said, realizing I still held the envelope tightly in my hands, "how do you think we should spend the gift certificate?"

Two nights later we would find ourselves on their sofa again, in circumstances far more grave. Charlie and I were bleary-eyed from the chaos that had begun with Richard’s phone announcement an hour before, delivered with stunned clarity, that Emil had died.

We were in the den where we had received the gift certificate only days before, but Emil wasn’t there. He had spent his last days in the master bedroom, by Richard’s side. Charlie turned to the windows behind us and pulled the blinds away. We could hear a vehicle approach.

"Don’t," I said. "We shouldn’t. We better not look." He released the blinds and the car -- or hearse, or coroner’s truck -- drew nearer and was now chugging just outside the window, just beneath us and beside the front steps.

We stared at each other, dissecting every sound, and then knowing when Emil was being taken. We heard wheels, barely squeaking across tile floors, rolling out of the master bedroom toward the front door. A heavy door opened and then closed. I wanted to pull the shades wide open and see for myself, and I didn’t dare.

The vehicle changed gears and began the retreat down the driveway. We held our breath as it drove slowly down the hill and faded away.

Richard walked in to the den and we sat up straight. Just shut the hell up Mark, I said to myself. Don’t start talking now because you’ll just screw it all up.

Richard asked me to stay the night, and Charlie went home to await further instructions. Richard and I didn’t stay up, didn’t talk much at all. He went to bed and I feel asleep on the couch.

I was awakened in the morning by Richard’s voice. He was on the phone across the room, speaking to someone culled from the worn pages of an address book he held cradled in his lap. I quietly rolled over and watched him. He was beyond the grasp of any healing embrace.

Every call began the same, with his weary hello and then saying he had some very bad news. And then he would say it out loud. Emil had died. It was something he had been terrified of ever saying, but that now would be repeated a dozen times on the morning of his lover’s death. He usually made it through the first minute or so, but then would be barraged with condolences and have to say "thank you" and "yes, he certainly was" and "I know he is no longer in pain" a few times during each call. And it was that part that would break him, until he convulsed again into sobs and his goodbye would be hard to understand.

He would sit there and catch his breath, finding the next name in the address book through teary eyes, and then pick up the phone again. And again.

It is one of the most powerful images of my brother that I have.

I sometimes dream of it.


(This is adapted from my book, A Place Like This, about the dawn of the AIDS epidemic in Los Angeles. I am so grateful for our progress since then, but also feel strongly about sharing the truth, and the intimacies that we experienced as a community during the darkest years. Scenes like the one above are still playing out -- 7,000 gay men die of AIDS in the United States every year. Pictured above are Richard (left) and Emil. -- Mark)

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This article was provided by Visit Mark's live blog.

Reader Comments:

Comment by: Ken Warnock (Royal Oak, MI) Tue., Jul. 23, 2013 at 8:45 pm UTC

Thank you for sharing this very powerful story. Over the years, so many of our dear friends and family have died and even though treatment is so much better than even 10 years ago, people are still dying of AIDS. It is our stories that are necessary to provide awareness to the younger generations that this was the reality of AIDS in the 80's and 90's in America. You are an amazing guy!! I hope to meet you soon!!
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Comment by: Bert (Belgium) Fri., Jul. 19, 2013 at 10:58 am UTC
This story was so deep and true.
It grabbed me by the throat and teared me up.
Being + myself but in great health, it always makes me emotional remembering there are others out there that are less fortunate.
Keep fighting !
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Comment by: C B W (Sacramento, Ca 95811) Fri., Jul. 19, 2013 at 3:40 am UTC
Mark ~
Thank You!!
Your ability to share your truth, while sharing history about the disease of HIV/AIDS and more importantly the lives lost to it stops me in thought for a moment. What have I been thinking?? I have had it made. My being diagnosed HIV+ in November 2004, and in January 2005,AIDS someday's consumes my thoughts. ( My Mentor and Hero was Diagnosed in 1987 and is another, that no one thought would be alive today!
You see that man and you are very similar in that you not only TELL THE TRUTH, but you have lived it. For you to share your life,the stories of survival, and the courage with which those you sat with demonstrated as they lost this battle, makes me stop and silently say THANKS. I must demonstrate my gratitude for gifts received!
I realized once more the importance of all the efforts so menial to most, yet so lifegiving in the long run.The failed attempts that so many said yes to. The blood you gave, the various medical treatments, and pharmaceuticals that these men, women and children were subjected to are the reason that today I can live to fight this disease. Today I understand that without the courage and love that the HIV/AIDS community has always displayed I would be just another statistic. You take my mind into the scenes you and my Brother have lived through, and those I have been involved with in my few years of survival.
This all gives me reason to be thankful for the little things in life!
You and so many others are gifts to all of us (PLWA'S) and I just needed to say to you, and my Big Brother - Thank You!!
The empathy,courage,and commitment you demonstrate is making life better for all of us. I thank you for your candor and willingness in making the world a much softer, kinder place with which to live!
P.S. Please give Richard a Hug and Thank Him For Me. What A Fine Man He Must Be!
Moving Forward~~
C. B. W.
Sacramento, Ca. 95811
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Replies to this comment:
Comment by: Mark S. King (Washington, DC) Sun., Jul. 21, 2013 at 8:33 pm UTC
Thank you, for all of that. I really do care about having a chronicle of what AIDS has been like for many of us, or at least, sharing one very specific experience of living with HIV all these years. Thanks for the encouragement!

Comment by: Charles (New Jersey) Thu., Jul. 18, 2013 at 1:31 pm UTC
Mark, such a touching and heart wrenching story. It made me feel sad and scared all at once. And....It uplifted me to feel the love and support you and Charlie gave your brother and his partner. Is this the first time you posted an account of this event in your life? Certainly an amazing contrast in the hiv/aids picture back in 1989 and today, right?
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Replies to this comment:
Comment by: Mark S. King (Washington, DC) Thu., Jul. 18, 2013 at 3:23 pm UTC
I actually shared this story on TheBody about 15 years ago (wow, that was a long time; have I been writing for this site that long?), but it felt right to tell it again, to a new generation of people living with and concerned about HIV/AIDS and our shared history.

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