Twenty years ago, Stephen dreamed of becoming a successful actor. Like so many such dreamers, he moved to Los Angeles to see if he could make a go of it. He befriended others who were interested in the arts, joined several choirs, tried out for musical productions and even appeared as cast member in a television pilot for NBC. Unfortunately, the network passed on developing the pilot into a series. To pay the bills, he took jobs in catering and eventually started his own catering company.
Stephen lit up every time we talked about television or movies. He was appalled over how few of the oldies I’d seen. When I confessed that black and white footage lulled me to sleep, he was aghast. Still, he felt it was his role to educate me. He made me watch Stephen Sondheim’s INTO THE WOODS and helped me realize that Bernadette Peters actually had talent beyond being a lackluster occasional guest on “The Carol Burnett Show”.
We had tea together and enjoyed kosher chocolate macaroons (after I mistakenly picked up a dozen that weren’t kosher). Stephen regularly prodded me for information about my first love. He let me know I deserved to be in love. He listened as I unloaded my insecurities.
Stephen would be 49 years old now.
Nineteen years ago, I met Don. Don lived in a tiny bungalow in Venice with his life partner who had gone blind. Don liked having me over as a distraction from all the needs of his partner. We’d go out to Santa Monica restaurants. Knowing I was a vegetarian, he introduced me to a wonderful Buddhist Chinese restaurant where I later took my parents—I confess to delighting in seeing how awkward my father was in pretending to like eating mock duck but that could be the start of a completely different blog post. Don raised orchids. He talked of them like they were his children. I decided it best not to share that I preferred tulips.
On one evening, I picked up Don to go to our favorite Italian restaurant. I took a shortcut through a neighborhood and we came upon a crowd marching in the street. “Good for them,” I thought. Everyone in the crowd was black and they voiced their anger over the not guilty verdicts announced that day in the Rodney King beating trial. As we idled at a stop sign, a bullet pierced and shattered the backseat window. Had Don not been with me, I might have frozen in panic. I had to protect him. By then, he walked with a cane. If I didn’t get us out of there, if we were swarmed, how would he cope? Only when we pulled up beside the restaurant did my hands begin to shake uncontrollably. Only after I dropped Don off after dinner did I burst into tears to let out the pressure that had built up from the danger I had put us in.
Don probed me to find out how my first love crashed and burned. He offered encouragement, chipping away at the walls I was putting up. Even though I didn’t believe him when he said I was a catch, his words provided a healthy counterbalance as I frequently replayed in my mind all the mistakes I’d made in love. If I wallowed too long, Don would refocus me. “So…it seems soup now gives me diarrhea, too.” He’d put things in perspective.
Don would be 71 today.
Stephen died in 1992, Don the following year. They were my Buddies, PWAs (persons with AIDS) who requested a little extra emotional support from AIDS Project Los Angeles. Stephen the dreamer and Don the pragmatist were both very different from me. Still, we bonded. They empowered me, they helped me feel like I was doing something besides living in fear at a time when AIDS remained a death sentence, when I could walk the streets of West Hollywood and see the gaunt faces of the ones who had only months, perhaps weeks left to live. Most of my friends got quiet as we passed them. Conversation abruptly paused. They looked away. By getting to know Stephen and Don, I learned not to look away. I offered a warm smile and mentally passed on encouraging, albeit naive thoughts. Hang on. Take care of yourself. You are loved.
Being with Stephen and Don, I saw how one family gathered around while another refused to have any connection with their son. I watched as Stephen’s roommate coped with one-liners, while a Don’s lover lost all ability to care for himself much less Don. Don’s partner moved into a hospice in the worst part of Los Angeles, a place that reeked of urine and appeared more depressing than any hospital. Stephen talked as though AIDS was a temporary setback, a nagging condition a little more persistent than the flu. Don recited the names of all his friends who’d already died. He talked about his funeral and relatives who were not welcome.
As both Stephen and Don’s bodies shut down, their inner strength remained strong. While it is true that I only met each of them months after the initial diagnosis, neither one asked “Why me?” They lived in the moment, dealing with the present physical challenges while yearning for an outsider like me to share bits of normalcy.
I learned that a quiet moment holding someone’s hand while hooked up to a morphine drip lingers longer and comforts more than the cheery story I thought of on the drive over. Because of them, I became more compassionate. When my grandmother was ill, I removed myself from the family dinner and sat at her bedside, allowing her to whisper a few thoughts, letting her see my familiar smile. My grandmother, a lifelong worrier, relaxed. Her breathing became easier, her mood brightened a tad. “Where did you learn that?” my bewildered mother asked.
I think of Stephen and Don often, particularly Stephen. I think about the contributions to the lives of others that they made and the greater contributions they could have made. I honor Stephen on every bike ride, letting the water from in the Strait of Georgia lap over my front tire at the far end of my journey, much like we dipped the wheels of his wheelchair in the Pacific during a trip to Santa Barbara during the final month of his life. That little ritual keeps me connected.
I remember Stephen and Don. I miss them. I think of all the others who died from AIDS, gone too soon, missed by too many.