Friday, November 20, 2009

Remembering Stephen

Tough day of writing today. I am working on a semi-autobiographical novel, set in 1990-91 when I lived in Los Angeles. My main character, like myself, decided to add a little substance to a life that was then consumed by go-go boys, drag shows, bar hopping and a lot of clothes shopping. Enter AIDS Project Los Angeles and the Buddy Program.

As I introduced various characters attending the three-day Buddy training, I took a break to dig around my basement, wondering if I'd find a memento that survived my nine moves since that time. Call it a hunch, but my first thing to search was an old blue plastic carton that contained old tax files and appliance manuals. In an unmarked double pocket folder, I discovered items that left me weeping. I could only look at one item at a time before taking a break to compose myself. The first thing I noticed was the catering business card of Stephen, my first Buddy who died of AIDS complications in August 1991. Next came a research project quote from grieving parents in September 1987, the coded source now lost:

He was our son.
He is all our brothers.
Our Michael is gone.
Try and save the others.

I found the contact list of the twenty-seven other people who participated in the same Buddy training, an old APLA news bulletin and then the really emotional documents. First was a sheet of scratch paper on which I'd scrawled notes from my first phone conversation with Stephen. It included facts about him, his needs, his current medical issues and my first meeting time, simply written as "Wednesday 4:30". I found a journal entry about the day I first met Stephen, the note reflecting my own naive optimism of the time. Also, in the folder were head shots of Stephen from his fledging acting days and the addresses of the hospice where Stephen lived his final days and the Jewish temple with the date and time of the funeral service. Hardest of all to take was a thank you card from Stephen's parents, sent a month after the funeral, the front containing a simple quote from Stephen:

Don't ever leave me,
but don't hang on too tight.
Love is like a balloon:
sometimes you have to let go.

Inside was the brief handwritten note: "Steve grew very fond of you. You can be sure you played an integral part in all of our lives. Please keep in touch."

And, of course, I didn't. Stephen's parents didn't know how to respond to me whenever they came up from San Diego to see their son. His dad was always a nervous bundle of energy, searching for something--anything!--to do to pass the awkward moments. He was a tinkerer, used to fixing things, but he could do nothing to fix his son. Stephen's mom, a schoolteacher who'd taken leave to attend to him, was initially cool to me, not understanding why Stephen needed a volunteer to do things she was well-equipped to handle. In time, however, she was able to use my visits as respite opportunities. We grew to respect each other for our unique roles in supporting Stephen and that respect deepened when we took Stephen on one last trip to Santa Barbara to celebrate his 29th birthday, only weeks before he died.

Sadly, after Stephen died there was a physical distance between those of us who remained as well as an relational awkwardness. All contact had revolved around Stephen and, after his passing, I didn't know what was left other than a painful sense of loss that I never shared with Stephen's loved ones. My role was as a supporter and I grieved alone after all the arrangements were finalized and the reception concluded.

There was more in that folder,...things about my second Buddy. I cannot look through anymore today. My head and my heart are with Stephen today. Had AIDS not taken this sweet, idealistic man, he'd be forty-seven.

I honor you, Stephen. Much love!

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