In 1989, two years before receiving his own HIV-positive diagnosis, poet and writer Dennis Rhodes wrote a series of candid letters to New York psychotherapist Daniel Bloom. They remain relevant today.
July 4, 1989
Death is a constant companion to us now, like a distant cousin who used to come for a yearly visit but who has fallen on hard times and has no home to return to. We live as uneasy, wary roommates, each avoiding the other; but there are the inevitable meetings at we come and go.
Any moment of any day is fair game for news of death. A telephone that used to ring with the most innocuous stuff can now produce shudders. If anything was ever normal, or routine, we must strain to remember what that was.
Last Friday, I attended the funeral of my doctor. It was an elegant, painfully simple affair, held at the Riverside Chapel on Amsterdam Avenue. I arrived just as they were shepherding the mourners to the largest room in the house. There were hundreds of them, largely gay men, almost all in suits and ties, most having come directly from their places of business. Many were patients of Jack Weinberg's.
I sat next to my friend Ken, who has lived with AIDS for four years thanks to the great skill and medical finesse of Dr. Jack. I'm sure that Ken was not the only one. Men who came to pay homage to Jack sat numb with the realization that, with his death, they had lost a critical lifeline to their own survival.
Jack was just 44 when the clock stopped. Three eulogists -- a college chum, a medical colleague, and a close friend -- painted a picture of a gentle, cultured man of high intellect, who, simply by being himself, commanded fierce loyalty among friends and patients. While I was among the latter, I had great affection and esteem for Jack.
I have a letter Jack wrote to me after a routine checkup. It is brief, save for some clinical stuff. "It was a pleasure to see you again. The results of your lab tests were fine. We performed these tests, etc. You are in excellent health.... Keep up the good work! Sincerely, Jack." Not an extraordinarily personal letter, but a lovely gesture; how many doctors in the years to come will sit down to write me a letter?
What I want to tell you, Dan, is that I have felt fortunate to have Jack as my physician and you as my therapist. You have much in common with him -- an easy, congenial manner, a clear dedication to your work, and a tolerance which, if everyone had it, would cure much of the world's ills. Look, I don't want to be saccharine or put you on a pedestal, but you are a great influence and presence in my life. I know I'll be coming to see you as an old man. See if I'm not right!
For everything else it is, death is often improbable and incongruous. I went to my doctor to feel healthy and reassured, and he has died. My father -- apparently fit, virile, and strong -- died at 29. I know my personal life-force is very powerful, and I am nevertheless a fatalist.
Like a pin-striped ambassador from a small, peaceful, and unknown country, I have attended three funerals in the past two months. The other two men also died unforgivably young, both barely past 50.
Michael was an actor, a very good actor. Although he never graced a Broadway stage, he worked regularly at distinguished regional theaters throughout the country. Gary and I had breakfast with his dignified and charming 80-year-old mother the day before Michael's funeral. Years before, she had had to make a difficult, ultimately graceful, adjustment to her son being gay. Now she had to accept his death in her own old age.
Eugene was a real character, perhaps (with a bow to Readers Digest) My Most Unforgettable Character. When I first came to New York, a troubled, wounded, but hopeful 22-year-old, Eugene lived next door. Resolutely Irish, having grown up on the tough streets of Yorkville, he was a profane, chain-smoking recovering alcoholic and former longtime bartender in Irish pubs. His anti-Semitic diatribes, while distasteful, were hilarious; nearly everything he said about anything was hilarious. When I think of him, I see how there is no rhyme nor reason about prejudice: While he would rant and rave against the Jews in one breath, he'd excoriate South Africa over apartheid in the next.
I spent many mornings as a young man, sitting across from Eugene, his hands trembling from countless cups of coffee, in a little hole-in-the-wall Third Avenue coffee shop. He made me laugh, and he made me feel that he cared about me. If at that time Gary had assumed a critical role as my surrogate father, Eugene was most assuredly a doting uncle. I regret that in the ensuing years we drifted apart.
There is a photograph, taken just six months ago at my 35th birthday party. Seated at opposite ends of a sofa are Michael and Eugene. They came to celebrate and honor me on my birthday, although both were ill. Just weeks later, I paid homage to each of them at their funerals. I most certainly am not a kid anymore.
Back to the November 1998 Issue of Body Positive Magazine.