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AIDS. Remember Me?

On the morning of my thirtieth birthday, I checked my then-partner, Shane Sawick, into the hospital.  He would not come out.  Shane died just two weeks later, suffering from Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy (PML); one disease, among many, battled in his long war against AIDS.  Once in the hospital, the illness quickly progressed, and in just a matter of days, he could no longer speak, blink, nor respond in any way.  Through it all, though, his mind still raced, and processed, and thought.

Long before that ill-fated sojourn, I remember lying next to Shane one night, reading, when he suddenly grasped my hand.  “Will you remember me?” he asked.  I smiled and nodded benignly, “Of course,” as if this were a given.  He more firmly squeezed, focusing his eyes on mine.  “No,” he insisted, “I want to be remembered.”

At the time, the notion that knowledge of him would remain when so many others before had died, largely forgotten, seemed almost lofty.  And yet I instinctively knew that I needed to find some way to pay tribute, for I too had felt that same desire:  to have walked the earth and for it to have mattered.

Since then, my life has changed dramatically.  My partner of nine years and I are the proud fathers of two amazing boys.  My days have gone from being filled with parsing out pills and leading safer sex workshops, to ones focused almost exclusively on the kids’ schooling and sports, where the most traumatic of incidents can often be cured with a simple kiss.  And yet I am also fully aware that my ability to be both parent and partner is directly formed through my experience as caregiver for Shane and my friends.  Were it not for them and that tumultuous time, I would not be the writer, father, lover, or person I am, and I owe a debt of gratitude to those lost during those tragic years.

More often than not, that period is often spoken of as if it were a purely historical event, a footnote in our collective history.  There seems to be an unwillingness to delve more fully into that experience, to examine it, and discover its inherent value.  Indeed, something about the reticence of the LGBT community to fully explore the AIDS epidemic reminds me of Shane’s catatonic state.  Just like him, there are emotions and thoughts coursing throughout, just under the surface, even if unacknowledged.

I understand the need to move on and fully realize that not all may be willing or able to return to that era, in any manner.  Many have found other causes to adopt.  Some have attempted to lose themselves in parties and clubs.  And others are still exhausted, trying to recover from the toll AIDS has taken, both in numbers lost and in our own emotional health.

Other communities, however, have also experienced horrible atrocities, but have managed to find paths forward, and it is essential that we do the same.

Imagine the Jewish community without any mention of the Holocaust, or African Americans, without any discussion of slavery or the fight for civil rights.  More recently, imagine the United States without any mention of 9/11.  It has been my experience that in the LGBT community, AIDS seems to be most often spoken of in whispers, further compounding the notion that who we are, what we do, and the issues we face are somehow illicit.  How can we adequately pay tribute and honor when even the mere mention of those years is met with uncomfortable silence?

Several years ago, there was an article in the LA Times which I still find haunting–perhaps because I so identify with it.  The story was about the NAMES AIDS quilt and how it now lays largely in a warehouse in Atlanta, gathering dust.  And yet there is a woman there who tends the quilt, who has been there since that first day in San Francisco with Cleve Jones.  She works endlessly, patching and mending panels as they are returned from exhibits.  She plays dance music to “her boys” as she works, often alone late at night, and wonders why people have forgotten.

Everyone has their own way of honoring.  There is no one correct way of doing so.  While for that woman honoring took the form of the quilt, for me, I chose to write.

Over 12 years ago, a single line popped into my head, which I immediately wrote down.  At the time, I didn’t know who was speaking it, what that line meant, or what it would become.  But as I continued to write, it became clear that the voice in my head was Shane’s, and that simple sentence would eventually become the opening line of my novel, Songs for the New Depression, which attempts to honor those we’ve lost.

Each person will have their own manner of paying tribute.  It is not so important how we choose to remember, but that we remember and honor at all.

So write a story.  Sing a song.  Beat a drum.  Create a work of art.  Read a book.  Talk with friends.  March in the streets.  Whatever you do, find a way to honor our fallen, lost to AIDS.  Together, we can break through the sorrow of those tragic days, but we first must dare speak its name.

Cross-posted at Huffington Post, Bilerico Project, and LGBTQ Nation.

10 Responses

  1. Bob

    What a great article. I have been so moved by reading your book, and one other, a similar story by a dear new friend, Rocco Piacente, called The Half-Mile Miracle. Both of your books deal with love, loss and strength.
    My cousin, a beautiful, talented graphic designer, died of AIDS in NYC in 1994, Even though we knew that each other was gay as teenagers, he had the strength to move away from our Midwestern town and make an honest life for himself. I, unfortunately, was too fearful of who I was and endured a 31-year marriage to a woman who did not deserve that fate.
    18 years after his death I am trying to recover his life through his friends. I waited way too long, even though I came out in 1998 myself. It has been tough so far, but I won’t give up. Somehow, this is my way of remembering, by making sure my beautiful cousin is not forgotten.
    Thank you for your words and their encouragement and conviction to me, to do what I need to do.

    March 15, 2012 at 7:39 pm

    • Bob, Thank you so much for your note! I really empathize with your life’s journey. So many elements resonate with me, and I hope That your journey forward brings you peace, joy, and understanding. I appreciate your note, K

      March 15, 2012 at 10:26 pm

  2. christine

    Yoir article reminded me of the fear and panic that struck the hearts of everyone in the 80s and early 90s. And of the gut wrenching despair I felt when a closr family member was diagnosed HIV positive. That person is doing well almost 14 years later. Something I am so thankful for. But have never said to that person. Because ‘ its not something you talk about.’

    March 13, 2012 at 7:25 pm

    • It seems like no matter how far we’ve come, we still have so much further to go… I appreciate your note!

      March 13, 2012 at 8:34 pm

  3. Faith

    Kergan – I’m still working. Actually, today, I feel like I’m doing more important work than I’ve done in a long time. More important than the work I’m doing is helping those in the future, which it is, I feel like I’m honoring all of our friends that we lost. Shane, Paul, Jeff, Ron, Michael, David, Claudio, Frank, Mark, Howard, Joey and everyone else.

    BTW, whenever I see a man in overalls, I think of Shane 🙂

    March 13, 2012 at 7:52 am

    • Thank god you are! So proud of you! (And I’m the same way about the overalls!)

      March 13, 2012 at 8:47 am

  4. Jim Platt

    I sat on the SAG board of directors at the seeming peak of AIDS death in the Hollywood community. Each month at our arrival for the meeting there was another list posted of any number lost during the previous month. America lost a lot of talent to this vicious killer. May they all never be forgotten, as remembered in the films they played in, and for those who never made it to the screen, and those who died just trying to live….

    March 12, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    • Jim, Thanks so much for the great note. Sounds like we had a similar experience. I lived in WEHO for many years, and that time, from around ’85-’95, is seared into my memory. Which makes it all the more infuriating when I encounter those who seem to care less about the lives lost, and the toll taken on our community. I want to grab them by the shoulders and shake them, for that chasm is enormous, and the lack of willingness to tackle that loss and all that it means is incredibly short-sighted…

      I appreciate your note!

      March 12, 2012 at 8:18 pm

  5. NancyOfUtah

    A very moving article, Kergan. We have to remember those who have been taken away by Aids. Thank you for reminding us.

    March 12, 2012 at 4:06 pm

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