Carry Them Lightly
By: Robby Sherwin
A national conference on HIV and AIDS is an exhilarating, sobering, energizing, and humbling experience. At my very first one, right now, this week, I feel like a vestal virgin set for sacrifice amongst an army of warriors who work, tirelessly, for the cause that has inspired generations of activism, engagement, outreach, artwork, and so much more.
I was there at the beginning. San Francisco, 1982, GRID. Having already been in The City for years and, behaving like every other hormonally charged young gay man there in those heady days and nights, I feared yet assumed that I was already doomed. As the numbers of cases grew and the horrifying symptoms began to make their presence known in public, the fear became palpable. The dread and doom seemed to be a living entity and in many ways it was. As we began to twirl out of the discos and into a slow motion dance of death, we quickly learned to bear the weight of the world upon our backs along with the shame of the lesions that festered on faces and torsos.
The world felt leaden.
Suddenly, the afternoon gusts of wistful fog slipping over Twin Peaks and snuggling Sutro Tower like a bathhouse towel, took on an ominous, grey, sodden quality, infusing the minds and moods with dread and doom.
The Bay Area Reporter (B.A.R.) began to cover story after somber saga of the wildfire-advance of this new, what? Plague? That was the word. And it was not just us. It was turning up simultaneously in New York, Los Angeles, and any other metropolitan area that had attracted a quorum of queers seeking some sense of relief from the hatred and oppression that they, we, had been weaned on and warped with all of our youths.
It really, really, felt like it was directed, personal, evil. It appeared to be aimed at the very heart of our hearts….and bodies. How could we NOT think of conspiracies? With the likes of Anita Bryant and Pat Robertson and Strom Thurmond spouting vitriol and poison on every news cast it was not a far stretch for us to be tempted into thinking that someone, powerful and crafty and self-righteously sure, was brewing up a batch of ill simply to eliminate or at the very least silence our growing cries for equality and justice.
And then the dying began.
Where one day, the staggering days of the living dead were walkering up Castro suddenly, without a word or a goodbye….they were gone. Their obits began to populate the pages of the B.A.R. weekly. The shops and the businesses began to post the pages on their windows. It became wallpaper. The reports from across the country were equally as bad. The gloom grew. The fear seeped into our DNA and like a train wreck on the evening news, we could not look away, we dared not look away or we may be, would be, next. Every cough, sniffle, sneeze, ache and pain, was cause for an adrenaline shot of panic. Every shower became a jail-house intake inspection, frantically searching for lesions yet desperately hoping against hope that we would not find one and still, somehow knowing that someday, any day now, we would.
And then the funerals came.
Like a mudslide of mayhem they reigned down on everyone we knew. They were for everyone we knew. The sadness, the crushing despair, the stillness in our souls rioted with the fear and anger in our hearts until our chests would explode. We could not cry any harder, mourn any more, soothe any softer. We all died a thousand tiny deaths over and over and over again.
It changes you. Forever.
Quilts came, people continued to leave. The B.A.R. became as thick as the New York Times…all obits. We scanned every issue; dreading the inevitability of the pictures we would find and staggering back with the stunned shock when they would, always, appear. Those smiling faces of our loves, our lives, our futures…..gone.
And then my most personal horror unfolded. My very best friend, John, sickened before my eyes. I was powerless, profaned, and impotent in the face of this onslaught of unspeakability.
At the start of the horror, we had talked, often, of this inevitability; how we knew our time would come, how we would be there for each other, help each other not to suffer, to die with dignity, clean out each other’s porn stashes before our families could find them…the really practical bones of ending a life far too soon.
As he weakened, his lover passing first, his mother, my friend as well, came to live with him and care him through the end; a passage no mother nor any young man, should have to do. I flew into town from San Diego where I had been for several years now. I was stunned. His 6’4” frame, the same as mine, was now shrunk to 100 lbs. He was my worst nightmare, my mirror on myself. I carried him to the bathroom tending to him as I would my 4yo nephew. He was scarcely speaking. Doris, his mother, was 70 years old and exhausted. I sent her out to the hairdresser and shopping, a treat for her, but I was taking over for the day with a very specific mission in mind.
It was time.
As I sat gently with John, quietly talking about our lives and loves and inner-most longings, I moved the moment towards what I knew I had to do; I had to offer the ending that we had so often spoken about, promised to each other, swore we would be there for, an ultimate gift of grace.
As I gently broached the topic; “John, is it time? I feel as though I am here for a reason and you are suffering. We have always promised to be honest and present and I’m here, now, to help you if you think you’re ready, whatever you need from me, I’m here”
He mustered everything he had in him and swung his body away from me, angrily, purposefully, looking at something, anything, but me. Seething.
He never spoke to or looked at me again. He died while I was in the air on a business trip to Chicago 3 days later. I cry, still, as I write this. It was almost 30 years ago. The inimitable will to live…amazing.
An artist friend had me to dinner not long after. We leafed through bin after bin of his amazing Japanese style Haiku drawings and feasted on a carefully crafted Asian meal. After dinner, as I rose to help with the clearing up, he spoke instantly; “Your only responsibility for dinner is to go and choose any piece of work you have seen tonight that strikes you”
Without pause if quickly leafed back through the stacks and found a piece that had thunderstruck me earlier. It was a simple Haiku: ‘
John and I had so often spoken of past and future lives, our paths in this temporal world, our places in each other’s past lives. He was a scholar of religion at Berkeley and we sought out universal truths and ethereal questions. We had solemnly sworn that whoever left this plane first would come back with a sign , something, anything, to let the other know that we had arrived, safely and with joy, and were awaiting the reunion to come. It was exactly my question for him.
Who are you this time?
This piece has hung next to my bed these past 3 decades. I think about John every day. I ask him who he is…..this time.
Recently, I had my beloved tattoo artist, Sage, transfer this work onto my calf. It is lovingly brushed on in so light an ink style that everyone who sees it asks; “Is that done with a marker? Is it real? Is it temporary?”
At the USCA14 conference I met a wondrous soul, Tez Anderson. He has co-founded an terrific organization, Let’s Kick ASS, for long term AIDS survivors that works to combat the emotional and physical toll these past decades have wrung from us. What amazing work. As we spoke of life and loss and memory and forward motion Tez said something that changed me, forever. In speaking of those we had loved and lost he said:
“We must carry them lightly”
And now, forevermore as I move onward into the future I never thought I’d have, I know that as I do with my tattoo, I will carry the memories of those I have lost lightly, in honor and joy at the time we had together, and purposely lighten the weight I have imposed on myself in order to be fully present and alive, right now.