Cross-posted from lgbtSr.com
It’s fitting that I’m in Key West, making my first visit here, on the very day that marks the 20th anniversary of my late partner Jim’s death. He lived in Key West many years ago, before I met him, and he used to tell stories of his life here, working in a restaurant and trying to decide what to do when he grew up well into his 30s. I met him several years later in Los Angeles. He was sitting on the steps of a house and I asked him if he’d like to go to a movie. He said yes.
That was in 1983. AIDS was making itself known by then, though I don’t remember if it had been named AIDS yet, or was still GRID or gay cancer or whatever the frantic authorities were calling it that early on. I only know it was a shadow that was not receding; instead it spread like a stain across the landscape. We all hoped we would be the ones to outrun it, to stay just ahead of the darkness and survive. And when Jim and I became a couple after four years of being best friends, I thought we’d made it. I thought we’d rolled the dice, scooped up the winnings and walked away, having just averted catastrophe. I was wrong.
Jim was an actor who called himself Michael in the theater, but he was always Jim to me. Opinionated, intense, and devoted. A mix of the strong-headed and the tender. He became ill soon after we moved in together. He tested negative (the HIV test was new then), so his doctor kept trying to determine what was wrong. This went on for two years, until finally he walked out of the bathroom one morning and said he had fungus on his tongue. That settled that. It’s called thrush, and it leaves only one diagnosis.
For the next two years I watched my best friend, lover and partner try to stay alive. The endless, cruel cycle of hope and despair. We can beat this thing! Then another trip to the hospital and the realization that “thing this” was getting the upper hand. Then some sense of remission and that pesky hope again. Finally lymphoma, chemotherapy injected into the spine, horror, anguish, more horror. And, at last, a few quiet days spent in a hospice bed where his life ended. I’d been told he could live that way for several months. I told him (he was comatose by then) that I could not bring him home. I didn’t have the resources. I had to work, my life was not coming to its conclusion. Three days later he died. I think he knew he would never be in his own bed again, with his favorite cat sitting like a fierce sentinel on his pillow (she died three weeks after he did, refusing to go on without the man who had treated her like a spoiled, fat queen all her life).
Twenty years. Just like that. I’m with Frank now (five years in December). Life went on. I didn’t think it would, but it did. To lose a spouse at the age of 33, which I was, is unimaginable. My mother told me this in a card she sent. I wish I’d kept it. She’s gone, too. The circle may seem to enlarge, what with Facebook and all the connections and reconnections we make in this modern social media age. But really it gets smaller. Our parents are gone. Our friends – so many friends – died when we were still young. Smaller, tighter, ever more precious, and that is as it should be.
I determined to live well, to not fear being old, as a way of celebrating not just my own life but the lives of those I loved and cared for who never had the chance. I remember them every day, there in my memory box where I sometimes take them out and peer at their fading faces. Jim’s, however, has never faded. Happy anniversary, my friend. I’m here in Key West, and it’s as pleasant as you always said it was.