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 found 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.