If I Say His Name
August 24, 2015
Rip me off, I don't care. Use me, steal from me, reproduce me without permission. I would just hate for all the work that I have done to be lost when I die. ... Just don't shelve me when I'm gone.
-- Robert DeAndreis, June 1995
Have you ever read the works of a writer that you'd never met, yet you felt an inexplicable connection to? I have. His name was Robert DeAndreis. Five years ago, nearly the beginning of my life with HIV, I wrote a short post here on TheBody.com on how I spent the hours just before receiving confirmation of my diagnosis. In it, I shared about the power of Robert's words, the unique comfort they provided, and the loss I felt upon learning of his death.
August 2, 2015, marked the 20-year anniversary of his passing. Although it has been some time since I wrote here, I hope to enlighten those who never heard of Robert, about who he was, what he did that was so noteworthy, and try to explain my connection to him.
In many ways Robert was like any other gay man in his mid-thirties, but he had some qualities that made him unique. He was a fifth-generation San Franciscan and damn proud of it. This might explain not only his tenacity, but his open-book way of describing his experience living with AIDS. He was less than perfect in many ways but that's what made him so perfect. He was ballsy, he was introspective. He was a romantic at heart, but a bit of a slut. He was at times vulnerable, and others, enraged. He invited you in as a reader, while keeping you at bay -- asking for space, when required. All of this made for captivating material and soon, I found myself a devoted follower (long before the word became capitalized).
Robert used the last two years of his life to document something few others had the courage or the foresight to accomplish. In 1995, 1,677 people died of AIDS in San Francisco, but to the best of my knowledge, only one wrote about it for the world to see. In 1993, after being diagnosed with AIDS, he took disability leave from his teaching job, and re-invented himself as an author. In total, he wrote exactly 100 essays for The San Francisco Sentinel. With no real Internet to speak of, and no effective drug combos yet to suppress HIV, papers like this were the main source of information, for both HIV-negative people and those who were running out of time.
Robert's first 79 essays were compiled into a published anthology, HIV Commentary: Preparation for Life's Ultimate Journey: A Collection of His Weekly San Francisco Sentinel Columns, 1993-1994 and the final 21, I lovingly scanned from microfilm. In doing so, I reviewed more than two years of this weekly "gay" newspaper. Although it contained plenty of information about AIDS, there was no one attaching their photo and putting a face to the epidemic. At the time, AIDS equated certain death and very few had the balls to publicly say, "I have it." No tweets, no Facebook posts, and definitely no blogs. HIV was wiping out my community at an alarming and even noticeable rate (I lived three blocks from Castro Street at the time), yet there was little talk about what living with death outside your door was like. Robert's weekly article showed us. Sometimes it was ugly, sometimes it was humorous, but it remained uncensored and 100% real to the very end. To say I was riveted with the select glimpses into his life would not be an understatement.
My deep and lasting connection to Robert is impossible to explain. I consider myself part fan and part literary stalker, as I have read most everything he wrote for public consumption. I've gone through his personal journals and letters from his fans that he left to the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Historical Society. I have communicated with family, and been reassured that he was lovingly surrounded by them when he died. His sister graciously gave me an autographed copy of his book that I will treasure forever.
In the aforementioned piece, I described the sadness and anger I felt after losing my gay "brother." In many ways, I still think of him like that. Sometimes, when I get resentful of my daily dose of Complera or routine blood draws that require fasting, I remind myself, "Robert would have loved the chance to take your single-tablet regimen" or "Robert would easily have traded your labs and your twice-a-year doctor visits for what he endured medically." I believe if I say his name and remember him once in a while, then he really isn't gone.
Because writing this blog, it was important to me that his dying wish to have his words live on was granted. In the distant future, when this plague over, we will want to see where we have been. Reading through several of my favorite stories of his, there were times I swear he was speaking to me from beyond. His final published sentence was, "So never give up on yourself because sometimes the best is yet to be." Well said, Robert. Well said.
Rest in peace, my brother. See you on the other side.
Robert's final article in The San Francisco Sentinel, July 26, 1995. Read more of Robert DeAndreis' work.
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