August 18, 2010
I recently marked an anniversary. Unfortunately, it wasn't the kind you celebrate. No, it was instead a profoundly sorrowful occasion, the second anniversary of the death of one of the dearest friends I've ever had -- my friend R.
R didn't die from HIV. It was cancer that killed him, a disease that in another time carried almost as much stigma as HIV does today. Although R was HIV-negative, the virus shaped much of the last three decades of his life. To understand why, you need to know a little bit about his personal history.
R described himself as "a nice Jewish boy from the Midwest." He came to the Bay Area for college in the early '60s, went on to law school in San Francisco, got married, and then settled in the city I now call home. He and his wife had two children, whom R loved dearly, and for a while it seemed he would lead the life of a conventional heterosexual married man.
But in the mid-'70s, R's life took a different turn. He realized he was attracted to men. Like so many back then, he sought therapy in the hope of "changing." Fortunately, he found a therapist with the good sense to tell him not to bother fighting his true nature. So R and his wife divorced, and R came out, while keeping primary custody of the children. Despite all the turbulence in his life, R was always an amazing father.
In 1978, R met the man he described as the love of his life. On their first date, however, this man had a seizure, the cause of which went unidentified. They'd later discover that R's new love was gravely ill with a disease that did not yet have a name. R and his newfound love stayed together for the next seven years, until AIDS took his partner's life. (Astonishingly enough, despite having unprotected sex for all of those years, R remained uninfected by HIV.)
After his partner's death, R was overcome with grief. He'd lost the most precious thing he'd ever had, and he thought of ending his life. He later told me that in the days after his partner's funeral, he'd had a dream in which his partner appeared to him to tell him that it wasn't his time yet. So R shelved any plans to kill himself. He said that it was at that point that he more or less lost all sense of fear.
As he explained to me in that nasal, midwestern accent that he kept insisting he'd lost, "I just figured there was nothing to be afraid of, because the worst thing that could possibly happen to me had already happened." And as if to prove that he feared nothing, not even the disease that had killed the man he loved, R fell in love again . . . with an HIV-positive man, a man to whom R would remain loyal until he died.
With that background, I guess it shouldn't be surprising that R would be one of the first people with whom I would share the news of my diagnosis in 2004. We'd been introduced by a mutual friend before I came to San Francisco, and R and I had unexpectedly become good friends after I moved here. When I broke the news of my diagnosis to him, I saw anger flash briefly in his dark eyes, but it passed, and he fixed me with a calm, steady gaze. "Okay," he said evenly, "tell me what's going on medically."
And from that day on, R became my rock. He was the person I knew I could turn to in a crisis, and turn to him I did. He supported me through my struggle with lipoatrophy, counseled me on my relationship, and was always there to calm me down when, for whatever reason, it all seemed too much. I came to love R deeply, not in a romantic way, but in the way one loves a friend whom one trusts completely.
Not long afterward, R got his own diagnosis. He had a rare form of cancer, but it was at least treatable. He began chemotherapy, and for the next two years, it worked well. We spent some wonderful times together during those two years, and to be honest, I think I neglected other friends in favor of R. It was as if I wanted to have as much time as I possibly could with him before it was too late.
Then his chemo stopped working. There were discussions about possible alternatives, but before any could be explored, disaster struck. A tumor began to bleed, and R ended up in the ICU. His family came from around the country. We were sure we'd lost him, but the doctors brought him back from the edge. He was moved out of the ICU, and one day, I went to visit him after his various doctors -- oncologists, nephrologists, and internists -- had met with him to discuss his prognosis.
I stood by the side of his bed and he took my hand. Once again, he fixed me in that same steady gaze and told me that it was over. He was going to die. I burst into tears at his bedside, while he quietly held my hand, his eyes never once leaving me. The absurdity of the situation hit me, and I told him, "I'm the one who should be comforting you." "You have to do the hard part," he replied gently, "You're the one who's being left behind." It struck me then that this was typical. Even on his deathbed, R was still taking care of me.
He recovered enough to return home to hospice care. I remember the first day I went to visit him after he got out of the hospital. I'd intended to go up to his apartment and visit him there, but he surprised me by meeting me on the sidewalk outside his apartment building. I'll never forget the sight of him approaching, his arms outstretched to embrace me. I felt like I was seeing Lazarus risen from the dead.
R's last few months were a precious time for me. For the most part, we did what we'd always done, talking, laughing, and joking as if we had all the time in the world. But of course we didn't. R's health continued to decline as his cancer spread unchecked. He began to eat less and less, and he tired much more quickly. Sometimes he'd have to nap while I was visiting.
In his final weeks, R spent a great deal of time with his rabbi. He told me about their discussions, and I learned a great deal about Jewish views of the afterlife. R told me that some Jews don't believe that there is any life after death and that our only immortality is that we continue to exist in the memory of those who have known us. R said this is one reason Jews stress the idea of tikkun olam, or "repairing this world," because this world is all we have.
R died on a Friday, but I couldn't be with him. His tiny apartment wasn't big enough for anyone but his partner, his immediate family, and his hospice nurse. I got the news late that afternoon at work. Things became a blur. There was a memorial service, a funeral, and then we sat shiva. A cantor sang. (Is there any language more mournful than Hebrew?) And then suddenly it was over. R was gone, and I had nothing but his memory.
He left me a diamond stud earring that I never remove. I will wear it forever in remembrance. There truly isn't a day that I don't think of him. I personally don't believe in an afterlife. But if it is true that we live on in the memories of others, then R is not dead. He is living still, in my memory.
Outlier: My Unusual Journey With HIV
My name's John. I'm 49 years old. I'm a lawyer by profession. I now live in beautiful San Francisco, California, after spending a long time on the east coast. I was diagnosed in 2004, so I've been positive for something like five years.
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