Honoring the "Gay Family" I've Lost to AIDS
November 15, 2013
I finally told Ron why I was so sick and missing so much work, but still was not ready to deal with the alcoholism. He suggested I take a vacation which is how I wound up in Puerto Rico on Memorial Day Weekend of 1992. And it took coming to in a crack house there, with the dead body of a young Puerto Rican man next to me who had overdosed the night before, for me to come to the conclusion that I had a drug problem. I swore off illicit drugs that day and started drinking round the clock! (Ron died of AIDS in 1996 but lived to see me get sober, as well as attend my commitment ceremony to Orlando Martino in 1995.)
By the summer of 1992 my gay family had expanded to include my former roommate Eric Pfeiffer and his boyfriend Marcus (also HIV positive and still alive and a member of my gay family); my dentist Russell Arendt; my BFF Tim Hennessey (aka Cousin Pearl) and my mother's hairdresser Edward Urbanelli. Those days, I couldn't imagine a gay family being complete without a dentist and a hairdresser!
These men played a huge part in saving my life that summer. Russell, a gorgeous and successful dentist, had developed AIDS; and I was one of a dozen or so men on his care team and the only one who drank. I thought it strange that none of the other men on his care team wanted to go out drinking after our weekly meetings. But it was Eddie, the hairdresser to all the best blondes of the Hamptons, who spelled it out to me very clearly one day. He took me to the Dune Road summer house of Alison Gertz and introduced me to a young woman who was dying of AIDS and had gone so public with her diagnosis that she had become a media sensation as a "woman with AIDS." Soon after being diagnosed she not only went public in a big way but began speaking at high schools all over the tri-state area with her simple message: " If I can get AIDS, anyone can." (After she died of AIDS in 1992, her friends formed Love Heals: The Alison Gertz Foundation for AIDS Education, for which I am a speaker to this day.)
When we left, Eddie turned to me and said: "Isn't it amazing what she's done with the knowledge of her disease; and look what you've done with that knowledge. You're nothing but a drunk!" Wow, did those words hurt coming from one of my gay family members. (Eddie died of AIDS the following year.) I knew he spoke the truth but truly felt I couldn't stop.
Toward the end of August of 1992, I was with Russell the night that beautiful man finally succumbed to AIDS. I got so drunk that night I had to call in sick to work the next day -- which is why I was home when Eric called. Eric called to say he was in San Francisco General and would not be getting out, and he had to see me before he died. So, within 48 hours, I was walking into SF General Hospital to see yet another young man who looked like he was 90 years old.
Eric very quickly proceeded to, what we call in the rooms of AA, "12-step me" with his simple statement: "Jimmy, you are an alcoholic and you need help. If you don't get sober, you will be the next person lying on a deathbed and it will have nothing to do with AIDS and everything to do with the disease of alcoholism."
After a lot of tears and bargaining on my part, I finally promised Eric that no matter what happened, I would get the help I needed. That night, with me asleep in the room, Eric died. The next day I kept that promise, and called both my parents and my boss Ron Plummer to say I needed help. I left SF and went to outpatient care at Seafield Center in Westhampton Beach. I eventually got the help I truly needed when I entered their inpatient program on October 5, 1992. I have been clean and sober ever since.
Thankfully, I was sober and present to witness the deaths of members of my gay family like Ron and Eddie, as well as my "husband" Orlando Martino, who I was with when he died on August 25, 2002, at the age of 40, in Cabrini Hospital, NYC.
So, on World AIDS Day of 2013, I would like to honor the members of my "gay family" that I lost to AIDS: Jay and Pierre; Greg and his partner Philippe; Russell; Eric; Eddie; Ron; and Orlando. These men showed me how to be fabulous as a gay man; but they also showed me how to live with this disease, and how to die with grace and dignity.
I may have lost most of my gay family to this disease, but I have to thank my biological family -- Fay and Jim; Barbara; Tommy; Billy and Nancy -- for giving me the love and support I needed to get through all of this.
And I did live happily ever after when I married Brian Mott on August 1, 2012. Brian is also a longtime survivor, as well as my rock and best friend!
This World AIDS Day I will have the honor of speaking at: "A Special Event in Observance of World AIDS Day 2013" taking place at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, N.Y., on Thursday, Dec. 5, at 5 p.m. The event will also introduce Dr. Perry Halkitis, author of The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience. Through interviews conducted by the author, the book narrates the stories of 15 gay men who have survived since the early days of the epidemic. My husband Brian Mott and I had the great honor of being two of those 15 gay men interviewed for the book.
Jimmy Mack works full time, volunteers as an emergency medical technician, and speaks to youth about HIV/AIDS through Love Heals: The Alison Gertz Foundation for AIDS Education. He lives in Southampton, N.Y.
Read Jimmy's blog, A Long Night's Journey Into Day.
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