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HIV/AIDS Blog Central

Living Memory

By fogcityjohn

August 18, 2010

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

-- Kahlil Gibran

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.

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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.

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See Also
TheBody.com's AIDS Memorial
More Viewpoints on Grief, Death and HIV/AIDS

Reader Comments:

Comment by: James Paul (San Francisco, CA) Sat., Sep. 25, 2010 at 4:23 pm EDT
Please accept my sincere condolences. I am sorry for your loss of a dear friend.
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Comment by: Tristan (London (UK)) Thu., Sep. 23, 2010 at 10:06 am EDT
Thanks for this.
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Comment by: fogcityjohn (San Francisco, CA) Wed., Sep. 8, 2010 at 9:57 pm EDT
@ Nikki (Chicago, IL): Thank you for the kind words, but the person who was blessed with a wonderful friend was me. R was an extraordinary individual, and his friendship was one of the greatest gifts I have ever received in my life. I can only hope that I was deserving of it.
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Comment by: Nikki (Chicago, IL) Thu., Sep. 2, 2010 at 12:47 am EDT
Everyone should be so blessed to have a wonderful friend like you. I wish you the very best with you health.

Nikki
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Comment by: ada (nigeria) Tue., Aug. 31, 2010 at 6:12 am EDT
am so sorry for ur loss.
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Comment by: fogcityjohn (San Francisco, CA) Tue., Aug. 31, 2010 at 1:51 am EDT
Thanks to all for the kind and gracious comments.

@ Eddie (Houston): Your comment is more on target than you realize. In his final months, R asked my then-partner (or whatever he was) to look after me. I think R really was worried what would happen to me after he was gone.

@ Loreen: Thanks for stopping by, my dear. As you know, I wouldn't be blogging here were it not for you. Thanks again.

@ Scott (Seattle): I am truly fortunate to have known R. Our friendship is one of the greatest gifts I have ever received.

@ Rodger (Toronto): Don't be sorry for me. I was graced with R's luminous presence in my life. Although I will mourn his loss until I die, nothing can take away what he gave me.

@ Terron: Our friend R certainly did live life to the fullest. I guess that's a lesson for us all. It's good to hear from someone who actually knew him and who can recall what an extraordinary human being he was. Thanks for reading and commenting.

@ Sammie (Toronto): You're way too kind. If this is one of the best things you've read, then I think you need to read more. ;-) Seriously, thanks very much for the praise, even if I don't feel worthy of it.
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Comment by: Jane (Manchester, UK) Sun., Aug. 29, 2010 at 8:53 am EDT
this was so touching, so similar to an experience of mine
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Comment by: Eddie (Houston, Tx) Fri., Aug. 27, 2010 at 7:30 pm EDT
I am sorry to hear about your friend's loss.Some people are afraid to die when they find out the inevitable is coming.They know they are going to die, but won't let go. I think that's the hardest part of life. Your friend R was clearly not afraid of anything, not even death.Besides his family, He was probably thinking who's going to take care of my friend John after I leave this world? I think he'll be alright!
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Comment by: Loreen Willenberg (Sacramento, CA) Fri., Aug. 27, 2010 at 3:43 pm EDT
Hi Sweetie,
I am so sorry for your loss but celebrate that you had such a wonderful friend in your life. As long as we hold our loved ones close in our hearts, they are with us in spirit. As I read the lovely comments from readers around the world, I see that it is as I imagined - that your compassionate heart and thoughtful words would, indeed, touch peoples lives, if you would only share them in a blog. Much love, Loreen xoxoxo
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Comment by: Diana (Hampton, VA) Fri., Aug. 27, 2010 at 9:53 am EDT
Your story touched me deeply. It is amazing the strength and peace R had with him. The more I read, the more I realize that life is a gift that will be taken when God decides its our time. It is not based on one health condition. God bless you.
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Comment by: Scott (Seattle) Thu., Aug. 26, 2010 at 7:58 pm EDT
Wonderfully written. Thanks for sharing your special relationship with R. You're fortunate to have had R in your life. Thank you
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Comment by: Rodger (Toronto) Thu., Aug. 26, 2010 at 3:50 pm EDT
Oh dear. I'm so sorry. Thanks for sharing this eloquent and loving remembrance.
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Comment by: TUSUBIRA ELIZABETH (KAMPALA) Fri., Aug. 20, 2010 at 8:25 am EDT
Hi John yo indeed brave and right R isnt dead he lives in yo memory and yo heart keep the candle burning, am glad to meet another HIVer who knows positive living.
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Comment by: Terron J. Cook (San Francisco, CA) Thu., Aug. 19, 2010 at 8:37 pm EDT
John: This is a beautifully written article. I also shared a deep liking toward R. He was surely a kindred spirit, and touched the lives of many.

I know that his transitioning remains in the forefront of your mind. It is nice to see you pay homage to a man that truly lived Life to the fullest.

Here's to R! Be encouraged.

Mr. Cook
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Comment by: Green Trees (Atlanta) Wed., Aug. 18, 2010 at 4:10 pm EDT
Such a beautiful story! I feel as if I know R through your writing. Godbless.
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Comment by: Sammie (Toronto) Wed., Aug. 18, 2010 at 2:28 pm EDT
Beautiful, this quite possibly one of the best things I've read in my 27 years of living.
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fogcityjohn

fogcityjohn

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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