February 22, 2010
This blog entry is part of a three-part series (check out Part Two and Part Three), in which I recount my experiences applying to Law School at age 47, from the circumstances that led me to apply right up until the schools' decision letters started rolling in.
This Fall I will be attending Law School somewhere that remains to be determined. That is not the big news -- the big news is that I am the first long-term survivor with AIDS to do so. At first I couldn't believe it, but when you keep getting reactions from Admissions offices like, "Wow, never heard that before," you start to figure it out.
I just wanted to do something more with my life than holding purses in a press line for celebrities. As an Entertainment Publicist, I got to help others achieve their goals, while my own remained in the closet. It was time for me to have my own voice. I wanted to make a difference and use my brain. The Entertainment Industry is in too much flux for anyone to call it home these days, and I figured why not jump ship now before I realize I am too old to create that second half of my life.
In actuality this is my Chapter Two, my renaissance. However, it all happened for the wrong reasons. On February 9, 1995, my boyfriend, David Burnside, lost his struggle with AIDS. I was left here to figure out what else to do with my life. I was only 32 at the time. I had a lot of life left -- and I had instructions. David told me I had many more important things to do with my life, that I had to go on and do big things. And if you knew David, you would understand why I know I needed to listen.
But Law School? Was that going to be my big thing? Instead the universe presented the Entertainment Industry -- all wrapped up in Swag Bags [goody bags handed out at events] and high-glam award shows. I was hooked.
Years later I would learn that I went towards Entertainment PR because it was so intense it allowed me to avoid my grief. As society does not allow gay couples to truly grieve their loss -- I mean after all we are just boyfriends, not husbands -- it gets put away, sort of on that shelf in your emotional closet, just waiting to be opened like Pandora's Box. But sometimes Pandora needs to come out when she wants to and she doesn't care where she does it. My grief started to show up in the oddest of places.
I was at the Emmys in 1999, and had four clients nominated that year. No one ever had that many personal clients nominated in one awards show before. One of the four came home with the Golden Lady -- and even said my name in the speech. I, however, got to go home alone, with no one to share this big moment with. Well, not exactly. I got to spend the time with my delayed grief and experience David leaving me all over again. Big moments for other people somehow always turned into big reminders that I was a widower at too young an age.
Finally, the running started to at least slow down. I decided to go back to school, something I promised myself on the day I graduated from Hofstra University with my B.A. in psychology. I knew that sooner or later I would get some sort of advanced degree but was never sure what it was going to consist of.
In the meantime, others are going on with their lives.
Another toll AIDS takes on survivors is the pause button it puts on your life. In between dealing with the duties of a caretaker, and the shocked state you are left in after they leave you, you don't have much else left to move forward. Some days holding on is the best you can hope for. And some days trying not to fall too far back is an achievement in itself.
Time does heal all wounds. That and a good therapist. And having patience with yourself, allowing yourself to heal and trying to keep taking those baby steps that don't seem like much at the time but eventually you do get out of the house, and into places you have never seen before. And eventually you get used to the fact that your loved one is there with you -- just not by your side. You carry them in your heart everywhere, and they, too, get these new experiences, just in ways you never expected. The cool thing is you can talk to them whenever you want. I know I do. When I have a big problem, I always ask David for advice. Lots of times I already know his answer but most of the time it's so I can hear that amazing Scottish brogue one more time.
I stayed in Los Angeles, even in the same apartment, because I was too scared to leave David behind. I did all of these cool things in the "Biz" but all the time I knew my heart was tethered to this place. Until I was ready to break this tie, or somehow find a way to lengthen the leash, I was not ready to make the big steps I knew I needed to make. One important small step I made was taking classes in Political Science at Santa Monica College, a junior college in the University of California system. I was so concerned with not feeling out of place or sticking out like a sore thumb, I went to the campus a few days before classes started and I scoped out what the students were wearing. The last thing I wanted to look like was that old person in class who dressed like your parents.
Eventually this Law School thing just kept rearing its ugly head and I had to give in. Part of my delay was dealing with David's illness, and part of it was my own health problems. You can't really devote much time to academia if you are too busy fighting for your own life. But part of it was this internal struggle I was having -- my dad is an attorney and one of the last things I wanted to do was become a carbon copy of my father. I was already his namesake, and I was not about to choose his career because I had run out of options. So I continued to look everywhere else but where instinctively I already knew I would belong.
To contact Thomas, click here.