My friend John LoCoco

Sometimes something unexpected happens.

In the middle of November 2022 I was contacted by one of John´s relatives, Bill Dunbar.  He wrote:

”Hello, Ms. Garde!

I am one of John’s nephews. He was a father figure to my sisters and me… and all of my cousins! No uncle was ever loved more than Uncle Johnny. He was SO silly… and caring and loving and affectionate and generous and honest. We all miss him terribly and talk about him constantly — even 34 years after he died. His absence is particularly difficult for my mother who could not have been closer to him. They were six years apart and she describes how throughout childhood and into adulthood Johnny would take her hand whenever they walked together… even in a grocery store. I’ve attached a photo from 1965 … you’ll note  they’re holding hands!

Uncle Johnny helped so many young men with AIDS whose families had abandoned them, and he introduced them to ours. It was a tragic but very important time in our lives, particularly since my dad had died suddenly and mom moved in with Johnny. They did everything together… until AIDS struck.

Uncle John touched so many people throughout his life, so it’s no surprise that he made an impression on you. We’re grateful you spent time with him… he was a character!!

I know my mom, my sisters, my cousins, and I would love to see your interview with him… is it available somewhere?

Thank you for your time. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.

I try to do my work in a chronological order, from when I came to San Francisco in August 1987, but decided to write about John now, because his family contacted me. But it took a while, because I suddenly got pneumonia. Meanwhile we made friends on Facebook.

Suddenly Bill wrote on FB that his mother, Josephine ” Jo”, Dunbar Snow, had passed away,  at 96 years old.

 

When I came to San Francisco in August of 1987, HIV/AIDS had been going on for years, and I met John LoCoco at a workshop for hospital staff and volunteers, ”Care for Caregivers”, where I was allowed to be an observer.  It was lead by Drama therapist Raymond Jacobs from New York.

It was a moving and interesting workshop, mostly about grief.

Some caregivers were stuck in grief, and could not cry – they had seen so many patients and friends die. Some of the participants were HIV-positive them selves, and could clearly see what was to come. Some knew so many in the AIDS Ward they were working in, that they did not know which room to go to first.

I was allowed to take part in some of the exercises, and it was during one of them that I noticed John.

We were sitting in a circle and we were asked to talk about our shoes; what they said about us. I don´t remember what I said, but I remember what John said; he did not know if he would walk in them so much longer, as he was sick.

We also talked about ”five years ahead”, and John said he didn´t know if he would be around in five years. During one of the breaks I asked if we could talk, and he said yes.

John was going to meet Pope John Paul II, the very next day, as the Pope was visiting San Francisco. John had been invited to meet the Pop together with a number of people, and he was invited as a Catholic person with AIDS.

We met a week later at the Pacific Presbyterian Medical Center where John had been a patient, and where he was now active as a volunteer. He showed me around the hospital, and took me to the Planetree unit, where he had been treated, and then we sat down in a small room to talk.

When I met John he had survived 3 bouts of Pneumocystis, Tuberculosis and Kaposi´s sarcoma in the lymph nodes. (John did not mention which pneumonia he had had.)

One of the episodes with Pneumocystis was specifically serious, it happened in March 1987.

  • I was at the hospital for almost 6 weeks and I was not supposed to pull through. My family came and said goodbye. I was down to maybe two or three days to live, and something in my system was shutting down. And then something happened.

John had showed me the room he had been in at the Planetree unit.

  • This Planetree is quite unusual. It´s holistic, and they believe in vitamins and hugging, and you know, with all that care they pulled me through.

John thought that if he pulled through this time, he was going to do more for others, so he got involved in the volunteer program and went through the training.

  • So, that´s what I´m doing. I´m volunteering working with patients that are newly diagnosed.

When John showed me around the unit, he handed out a paper to the patients.  It was a restaurant that offered free gourmet lunches to the patients; sandwiches, hamburgers, pasta. And Chocolate Mousse.

  • What you saw this morning was primarily getting the meal thing out, but then we go back again, and we sit down, if they want to sit and chat – see what we can do in regards to family, or… anything they need, letter writing or wills, or, anything that they need… It´s very rewarding.

John also did similar work with Most Holy Redeemer, the Catholic parish he associated with in San Francisco, that had an outreach program for People with AIDS at home, with emotional and physical support.

  • And… We have drop-in-sessions for parents who need help. I find that the most… rewarding. Not only working with the patients, but when they are lucky enough to have a parent that´s interested in them, in their well being, working with that parent… We have quite a few of the young people here, their parents reject them, they don´t want to be part of their suffering, and it´s embarrassing to them, and so… They just leave the child or they ship them to San Francisco, and they want no part of it, and that´s not uncommon. We are lucky in San Francisco to be the prototype.

John had worked with the media during the last two weeks, because of his upcoming meeting with the Pope, and he found that people were very impressed with the work that was going on in San Francisco, and people came to San Francisco from other places in the US to get help.

  • We have people from New York. I visited two last week who came from New York to San Francisco for their care and their support, cause they felt it was more sensitive here… So we´re lucky. I´m very proud of the city

John had worked in real estate, and before that he was a counselor for about 12 years.

  • I counseled young people with emotional problems, young married couples, people who were heavy in (to) narcotics, their families. I worked through the Arch Dioceses in Orange County, which is between Los Angeles and San Diego.

John had never had any problems with him being gay in the Catholic church. The Arch bishop, later Cardinal Timothy Manning, knew his partner, and it wasn´t a problem. He had appointed John as one of the first lay people to distribute communion, about 15 years ago.

  • You know working with young people, some were gay, others were´nt, and that wasn´t important. The main thing was what we did for the young people, so I´ve never had any difficulty. I never worded out  I´m gay, and I´m working with young teenagers, or whatever, I never entered in to that picture.
  • They didn´t bother you about it, anyway?
  • No, very supportive. And the interesting thing now that they know that I have AIDS… and I´m back in San Francisco, the communications have just been wonderful.

Some of the young people that were 16 and 18 when he met them were now in their thirties, and would come to visit, and Cardinal Manning had written to John a couple of times.

John had had a partner for 22 years, but that changed when he suddenly came down with AIDS. He had thought the relationship was monogamous, but…

  • I really fought the fact that I had it, cause there was no way I could have gotten AIDS, cause I was only with one individual for that many years, and my blood test had come out negative, not positive. Then they said I had pneumocystis, and I still couldn´t understand it.

Four months into his diagnosis he had reason to look into his partners dresser to get something, and there he found a ID card for Club Baths, a chain of gay bathhouses in the US and Canada.  He confronted his partner about it.

  • And he, through business he had to go out of town a lot, and he said it was just when he was out of town, and it was no big deal. Well to me it was, because… I ended up with AIDS, and found out he was a carrier. He has AIDS now himself, but he was a carrier

They broke up for a year and a half, because John was very bitter.

  • When I was dying… I was still very bitter regarding him, and when I got well, this girl I know said that God didn´t want me, because I was dying with this hatred, and that was foreign to my system.

Here John joked about it – a friend of his had said: ”Don´t change! Keep on hating him, cause then God won´t take you!” John laughed.

  • But after I got out of the hospital, and all the Planetree nurses talked to me about it, you know the once you met today (here he mentioned two, Carol and Becky) you know, if God is forgiving, why should I not be… more understanding,

John rented a little cabin and went and did his own retreat for about a week, analysing the whole thing, and when he came back he called his partner and he moved back in.

  • And is it ok now?
  • I still have a little… I don´t talk to him about it, but I still have a little… 10 %… you know a little resentment, but he´s having a difficult time… His AIDS has affected the back of his brain, so he.. will become incoherent, he´ll need custodial care, pretty soon.
  • Does he have dementia?
  • A little bit, yeah. He has different days, some days are really good, and then – it´s affected his lower extremities, sometimes he can´t walk too well, but he´s …

We agreed on that it was good that they could be together, considering that they knew each other so well.

  • So how was it to start working with other patients?
  • Sometimes… it´s very rewarding, sometimes it´s very rough – you know you get attached to some of the young people here.

One who was really young, 25, was Eric… He had KS and quite a few lesions on his face, and it´s gotten to his eyes. And when you´d first go in, he would sort of turn the other way, not to look at you. We became very good friends, and from then on when I´d go in to his room, he´d just brighten up in a big big smile.

He had checked out of the hospital to go home, and I saw him at Short-stay on Friday when I was having a transfusion, and the following Monday he is dead.  And… it really gets to you. And there´s maybe four or five in the last… month, that we´ve lost… that´s hard. It´s not that you´re just going through it your self, but it´s going to happen to you too, it´s just that…

John compared it to a battlefield, to be fighting a war, and you´d hear about people dying, and that the man next to you, on the left or right hand died, and that it was going on, constantly.

  • It´s nothing else but a war, and this particular enemy doesn´t take any prisoners, you know, so you have to fight, you have to keep your weapons… ready to fight. And that´s what we do here, is trying to… give that … support to people, not to give up, cause people can die from a cold if you just give in to it, but they need constant support.

When you greet the patients, they are very receptive, they are very reaching out to you, more so than if you were an orderly or an intern or even a nurse, because you are going through it with them and they can relate to you when you are there, running around the hospital and they see you there, and that gives them a good… feeling, you know. If this guy went through it, and here he is trying to help us – so that´s a good feeling. There has to be more volunteers, within our own ranks.

I asked John about the five years we had been talking about at Care for Caregivers. He had said he didn´t know if he would be around.

  • Do you plan for not being around, I mean how do you…
  • I don´t really feel I´ll be here five years from now, unless something… really a miracle happens… I really do live from day to day, and you know people can say they do, but I really do. I catch my self from planning things six months from now, like I used to. I was the kind that would sit down and write things out for the next eighteen months, I don´t do that, no…

John had two nieces that had been pregnant, and around Christmas he had thought to him self that he hoped he would be there ” I wish I´m here when the babies are born”, and he was, they were both born.

  • I don´t know… and I´m not being dramatic, is that none of us know when you go in to a war zone what´s gonna happen. I… I thought… You know they said you are going to last between six and eighteen months. Well, I´ve passed my eighteenth month… I don´t know, I really don´t know. I hope like the rest of us we´ll be here for a long time, but I don´t see how. I´m sort of wearing down, you know, my self, physically. I have like more night sweats, I have to go for a MRI, which is a brain scan.

Many things had happened to John and he had often thought ”Well, this is it!”, and then it wasn´t.

  • So my luggage has been packed a few times, but the porter didn´t show up, you know, so… I feel that each week, by the end of the week if I know that I was able to touch somebody´s life… if I can do that each week…

Those parents, you know, that we met today… (it was a couple who talked to John briefly) who are just… reaching out, without saying it, but just saying: ”Help me, help me, I knew my son was gay, but I didn´t even know he was sick!” And here is this kid that´s had ARC for… it looks like he has full blown AIDS now, and if you can just… They might not know who you are, you know six month´s from now, but at the time, when they are so… vulnerable and they need help, if you can just touch them, I think it´s worth it. And that´s why I´m here a lot…

I have a loveaffair with half of the nurses around here, because I know what they give. They are such an intricate part of a patient´s pulling through, you know, not treating them like cattle. The nurses here are outstanding.

 

We talked about the worry that AIDS would be turned into big business, and here he mentioned SHANTI as an example, (where there had been problems), and as I write that I remember that there were demonstrations about this – but I don´t remember what year – ”Take back AIDS” from the people that used AIDS to make money, and careers.

We also talked about compassion, that it must be constant, even though there were now so many that were sick.

  • Yeah, there is… two years ago… when I almost, when I was diagnosed, it was: ”OH! He has AIDS!” And now we have to watch when there have been thousands of others, when you hear of a new person getting AIDS, on September 24, 1987, you get ”Oh, there´s another one! That´s too bad… ” You have to show the same compassion.

John talked about the thrill when a child is born.

  • You never get tired of new babies coming on earth… that same compassion has to be there when a person is diagnosed and he´s dying, or that he has AIDS or whatever… Sometimes we come here like today, Thank God there were´nt many, but two weeks ago there were 18 patients, and two or three volunteers. We all said, ”Well there´s 18, so we´re gonna work a little harder, everyone needs our attention”, you know… It´s just… it has to be consistent and constant, because any person going through this, it´s a shock when you find out, you know, here in the US or in Sweden or in Italy or where ever, it´s a shock, and that person needs a lot of understanding.

I wondered about John´s family.

  • My father passed away, my mom is alive, and she´s quite elderly, but I have my brother´s and sister´s who I´m very close to, and they are going along with all this with me. And my nieces and nephews, who are in their late twenties or early thirties now… are so much a part of my life, every single one of them, from Seattle down to Southern California.

When I was ill last, they were all here. They were hugging and saying ” You are not going, uncle John, don’t go, we need you! ”

And they follow up, and even with their children now… I have become like their patriarch, and they are very understanding about all this, and very supportive and very loving.  So I´m lucky…

So I hear of kids that don´t have that, I really have empathy for them, you know, I really… You know when your loved ones turn you down… So that´s why I´m given so much love, that I have to get rid of it, cause I don´t have room for more. So, I´m giving it to the strangers… and that´s been very rewarding.

We had come to the Pope, John Paul II.  John had been asked to see him by one of the priests in Most Holy Redeemer church, Father/Reverend McGuire.

  • I didn´t want to do it, cause I don´t really politically go along with what´s coming out of the Pope, out of Rome. And… my pastor said: ”You know John… you might help ONE person with all this, because of the exposure. And I thought about it, and I did it, and… It came to pass right away. I was interviewed at CNN., which is a cable national network, you know it´s a quite a lengthy interview, and about four days later they called and asked if I would accept a call from a lady in New York, and I said yes.

She called to let me know her son was dying of AIDS in a hospital in New York, and he had refused to see a priest, and then he saw my little segment and told his mother to call a priest.  And then, a week later she called to say that he had died, and the day before he died he told her to get back to me, to let me know that the church had embraced him, so that was worth it… You know, that was worth it.

John said he was extremely thrilled, knowing that he represented gay men and women throughout the world.

  • And then also those of us who have AIDS. So that was the pride, the thrill…

John gave 33 interviews during this time, also together with others.

  • So I thought we were able to express ourselves… People realise that there are different facets of heterosexual life… There are extreme people, there are quiet people, there are working people, politicians, whatever, you know married people, and all different how they lead their lives, different type.

But the average person thinks of homosexuality as one lump, we don´t have different facets, we are all extreme homosexuals.

So what this did was to allow us to show the public that we are… your doctors and your nurses, and your teachers and nuns and your missionaries, and your politicians and judges and your grocery clerk, and whatever, AND by the way, they happen to be gay.

They know that in San Francisco, and they know that in New York, but they don´t know that in Idaho or Georgia. And all this Pope-attention allowed it.

John had certain things he wanted to tell the Pope, about things he had learned in school, as he grew up in San Francisco.

  • I was not taught to fear Christ, I was taught to love Christ and to follow him, because he fed the hungry, he took care of the sick, he clothed the naked, his best friends were prostitutes, he embraced the lepers, and he attended the dying – and that´s being Christlike.

So when I was able to talk to the Pope, I told him that I prayed that he would be more Christlike… and he lifted his hand and touched my cheek, that he would pray for me too.

There were things that John was disappointed with, for example that the Pope´s speeches were written back in Rome, before he came to San Francisco.

  • But I feel that he had to see… what love and compassion is here, and then when he gets back home, he´ll have to register and digest some of it, and I think he will. It´s done an awful lot of good for the church within the United States, because of what we were able to show him.
  • You said it was very moving.
  • Mm, it really was… He has a lot of charisma, he really does… He reminds me of a stirring parent, well, like my father was from the old country, Italy. My mother and father are from Italy, from Sicily, and they had rules: This was it!  He had all the love, he would kiss me every night and tuck me in bed, even when I was 20 years old – still tuck me in bed.

But he had his rules, so there could be some things that I knew he wouldn´t like, so I wouldn´t tell him, and I´d use my own thought.

John lead his own life, without letting his father know that he was breaking the rules, his father´s rules.

  • Well, the Pope is that way. He has some of his old world rules, but he hasn´t caught up with 1987, you know with birth control and women´s rights, and women being a part of the clergy, you now, he hasn´t caught up with that yet, so… I found him to be rigid, but compassionate, you know.

John talked about that the Pope came from Poland, and that he was very conservative, and he then referred to a previous Pope.

  • I think if we had a Pope John XXIII now, things would be different, there´d be more compassion and more… love coming out.

When the Pope was in the church, and had met the AIDS-patients, among them a five year old boy that he held, they wanted him to go to Coming Home Hospice, and the Pope wanted to go, but the police and the security said no.

I wondered what John would say to people who were working with AIDS.

  • You have a lot of love and compassion… to be doing that kind of work… and you might get burnt out, so you´d get away from it when you have to, recharge your batteries and go back.

But if you have the ability to embrace and to love more people, it´s such a rewarding… and giving life, cause that´s what you are doing – you are constantly embracing those who are suffering. It´s almost as if you were – you don´t have to be super religious, but if you were… a nun, or a monk or a brother or something, that you are dedicating your self to this.

It´s not normal, it´s not a normal life, you know, you walk away from it, but it´s still on your mind when you go home and go to bed, wondering about that person.

John wanted to put all the people he knew who were helping people with AIDS, in to a xerox machine, so they could get more and more of them. Not only young people, but older men and women.

  • I met five or six mothers who´ve lost their sons with AIDS, and they´re out volunteering, helping others, and even if… it´s not a mother who lost a child, I think there´s a great need for older women to volunteer, to be that mother image for these kids, to hug them and embrace them. I just think it… you know, it can´t just be young people or super sharp guys or whatever, it´s gotta be all kind. But when you see an older man and an older woman volunteering, who are heterosexual, that really grabs me, I just think that´s marvelous. You know they… bake cakes and write letters and hug, you know all that good, but… you know it´s rough.

John talked about reactions from partners who are not involved and who don´t understand that you  give so much attention to strangers, and not to them.

  • So I think there´s a lot of hardships that are involved. We need, more seminars, we need getting together, we need more conferences to share… But if you are a volunteer and it becomes routine… then you should get out of it.

We had come to the end of the interview, and I wondered about Unfinished business.  Had he taken care of things? And John had, indeed! Everything was arranged.

  • I took care of that sort of in the beginning, so I wouldn´t have to worry about it anymore.

John had already paid for his funeral arrangements.

  • What are you going to do? Will you be cremated?
  • I´m having a Memorial mass at Most Holy Redeemer, and … I have the program already done… I had it printed. My niece has it.
  • Where will your ashes go?
  • San Francisco Bay, near the Golden Gate Bridge.

John said he had a whole bunch of nieces, but it was one of them who was going to spread his ashes. He said she was very loving, unpretentious, always there, he didn´t give me her name, but she was his buddy.

John was going on a visit. He had a nephew who had named a child after him, so there was now a new John LoCoco, three weeks old.

  • And that´s quite a thrill.

I said to John that he was blessed, and he agreed.

  • I am, I really am.

I wondered if there was anything else he wanted to say, and he said that it was wonderful that I was there, absorbing all of this.

  • Love and emotion… and knowing that we´re trying to share it with you, and then you´re gonna bring that back home to your people. I think that´s very rewarding.

Before I left for Sweden, I found out that John was ill and back in the hospital, so I went for a short visit, and right then his partner Don was there, and we said hello.

I wrote to John, but I did not hear from him. Eventually I called him, on June 21st, 1988, and found out that his letter to me had been returned.

I have been stalked by a mentally sick person, and I had told the post office that my address was not to be revealed, should anyone ask. That message was understood to mean that no mail was to be delivered to my address, and it was through John I found that out.

When I spoke to John he sounded very sad. He had had his sixth pneumonia.

  • I don´t know why God wants me to go through this.

John did not live with his partner any longer.

John said that he was taken care of by Most Holy Redeemer and by his loving family; nieces and nephews, that would come to him.

  • You are a loving friend to call. God bless you.

Those were actually the last words spoken to me by John.

I never knew the full name of John´s partner, until now through Bill, and I found his obituary among the Bay Area Reporter´s obituaries. He passed away August 8th, 1988.

 

I returned to San Francisco in October 1988, and immediately started to contact people.

I follow my notes here, from October 17th, that turned out to be a very important and dramatic day.

There is a short note: ”John LoCoco, where are you? No one knows. ”

”I looked for John LoCoco in vain, and found out through Most Holy Redeemer that he was back in the hospital, and that they did not think he would make it this time. ”

I was staying with Jan Baer again, in Bernal Heights, and did not know how to make it really fast down to town, finding a bus, trying to explain where I wanted to go, it was hopeless – so I stopped a car, explained the situation and asked the driver, who happened to be a neighbour, if he would take me to the hospital, and he said yes. I was so upset, that he told me I had to calm down if I wanted him to take me there. I did, and he actually drove me to entrance of the Presbytarian, and I thanked him so much!

”I cried in the elevator, scared I had come too late, and I almost ran passed the rooms, but I couldn´t find John. However when I asked about him, I was shown in to one of the rooms I had passed by, and I did not recognize him.  He was half his size, on oxygen, and he looked totally different.

His family was there, nieces and nephews, talking to uncle John that he has meant everything to them. They said that he has been like a father to them, more than anyone else, that he has been so helpful to everyone, and traveled to them if there had been problems; he has always been there for the family. ”

The family left the room for a while, but he had a sister there, and it took me some time to realise that she was not his sister, but a nun, Sister Cleta Herold dressed in private clothes. It was Sister Cleta that made John aware of that I was there. He was lying on his left side, and I sat in front of him. His eyes were almost closed.

”She said that he such a strong heart that does not want to give up. She told me that he has ordered his Memorial service to be on Saturday, and has arranged everything, as if he knows he´ll be dead by then.

John had a volunteer. ( Or maybe he was one of the volunteers at the hospital who took care of many patients, like John had done.) He seemed to be in a hurry and said to me that John had been given a lot of Morphine and Valium, but that he hears what one says, so I could talk to him. Then he leaned over and talked to John and said that he was going for lunch, and then he said: ”Let go, just let go… Go to the Light John! Go to the Light!”, and vanished.

I talked to John, I said I was glad to be there, and I gave him a picture of the Madonna that I use to carry around in my wallet, that sister Cleta put up on the wall. She said: ”Pia has brought a picture of our Blessed Mother”. She wanted to raise up his bed, and she said: ”You are flying now, right into the arms of Jesus, that´s what you are doing now John, you are flying right into the arms of Jesus.”

I had an interview to do, so I had to leave. I ate something downstairs and then went up to John´s room again to say goodbye. We were alone in the room then.

I held his hand, and leaned on the side to look in to his eyes, but I could only see one, as he was laying on the side. He seemed to look straight at me, and he looked very sad.

I patted him and did not know what to say. I did not want to repeat the words ”Go to the Light!”, so I said ” If we don´t see each other again here, we´ll see each other Saturday. ”

I was told that John just wanted to die now, he had done all he could. He did not want any life-sustaining treatment, he just really wanted to die. All he got was some water.

I made the interview with one of the volunteers from SHANTI, and went home to Jan Baer, who I was staying with. I was very very nervous, and did not understand why.

”I called the hospital to ask how John was doing, and the woman who answered sounded really surprised at my question, and after a few moments of silence, she said that John had died five minutes ago. Then she said: ´Less then that, three minutes ago. It just happened.´

The family had been with him, so I asked her to send them a greeting. Maybe someone could call me?”

”Amy, one of John´s nieces called. She said John´s death had been easy, he just stopped breathing. He did not have to gasp for breath or anything like that, he just stopped breathing. And they were all there with him. ”

She invited me to the Memorial Mass at Most Holy Redeemer.

I was just stunned, that it had all happened in a few hours.

Had I not called Most Holy Redeemer…

 

The Memorial Mass took place the following Saturday, and it was very moving. Many of John´s relatives took part, among them Bill Dunbar, who contacted me recently.

The Celebrant was Rev. Anthony McGuire, and I think he was the man who talked first about John. ( I recorded the service, but did not comment.)

He had been new to the congregation, and he had had a sense of darkness coming over the Parish – he did not specify what it was all about, maybe it had to do with HIV/AIDS –  but he did not know what to do.

One day he saw a note on the board about an event with Gay Italian Alliance. There were all sorts of Catholic groups, but what was this?! He decided to go there, and he was nervous, stepping in to the dark, he thought.

”And who met me at the door, but John. Big apron on, and he welcomed me and thanked me for coming, and he introduced me to everyone there. He showed me what was going on in the pots and  pans, and he told me how happy he was that I was there, and how happy he was to be (hard to hear) Founder of the Gay Italian Alliance and a member of the Roman Catholic Church.

When I left that evening I felt like light had come in to my life, and I felt that I had been given a much clearer direction, as how to deal with the people in my Parish – was the way that John had dealt with me. With great respect, great friendliness, great hospitality and… with an insistence that as a gay man he was also Italian, also Catholic and proud of all of those. ´There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him´.”

He continued to tell stories about John, and one of them was how he had held two banquets at a hotel, one for family and friends, and one for the staff at the Planetree unit at the Presbyterian Hospital, for doctors, nurses, hospital workers, ”who were astoundly wonderful to him”. ”

”A beautiful example of a person celebrating life, as life, as physical life diminished, the life of the spirit expanded and grew and drew us all in to the celebration.”

 

After the Memorial Mass, John invited us all to a pasta brunch, arranged by GIA, Gay Italian Alliance.  A joyous occasion.

My contact with John LoCoco became very personal, and I could feel his ”presence”, especially in church, for a long time, and especially around Christmas, when one could hear the words: ”There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.”

 

For a long time I wondered where John was buried, until a suddenly remembered he had said he wanted his ashes to be in the Bay, near Golden Gate Bridge, so when I returned to San Francisco in 2014, I threw white roses in to the water, not far away from the bridge.

Here is John´s Panel in the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, where you also see the photo of John and Pope John Paul II.

 

I also became friends with Sister Cleta Herold, and followed her as far as I could. She was the one who sent me the photo of John and the Pope.

Sister Cleta stayed in an apartment at Most Holy Redeemer, as she had been a Pastor Associate there, much involved in the AIDS epidemic. I visited her there many years later. She gave me this photo.

She was becoming forgetful, she said, and was planning her funeral. She belonged to Sisters of the Presentation, and she eventually moved back to the Motherhouse in San Francisco, and I visited her there in 2014, when she was quite forgetful.

Sister Cleta Herold PBVM (religious name Sister Mary Cletus) passed away on September 26, 2016.

 

There was a man called John… a second time.

I have written about this before, but here is a reminder.

In 2014 I visited Most Holy Redeemer Catholic church in San Francisco, and ordered a tile for their Commemorative Wall. It says :

John LoCoco and everyone I met here i San Francisco who died of AIDS.

We met in 1987 just a day before he was going to meet Pope John Paul II.  As a person with HIV he had been chosen to meet the Pope, and here they are!

John told me what he had said to the Pope:

He had asked him to be more Christ like.

I will write about John now.

Charles and the young scientist…

I have written about Charles before, and here is what I wrote on Facebook, on the AIDS Memorial Page on December 10th, 2022.

Dear Friends!
Remember Charles, and Svante Pääbo?
Charles had AIDS, and I lost contact  with him when I returned to Sweden.
I had met Svante Pääbo in Oakland, where they both lived, and I asked him for help. And yes, he got in touch with Charles.
They became friends, and Svante eventually informed me that Charles had died.
He also became friends with Charles’s mother, and I have yet to inform him that she passed away in COVID some years ago.
But,
here is the young scientist, many years later!
Svante Pääbo has just received the Nobel Prize in Medicine. December 10,  2022.
Here are some pictures from the event, when he receives the prize from our King, Carl XVI Gustaf, and applause from the audience, and his fellow Nobel Prize laureates.

Jay and Keith

Keith was the man I had met at San Francisco General Hospital during the press conference for the AIDS Commission.
We met for lunch at a Swedish restaurant.

Keith talked politics with me, local politics that I was not familiar with. He was a bit frightening with his sarcastic and bitter sense of humor.

  • We vote them out of office!

Keith took me to his home, to meet his partner Jay. They lived in a small house, overlooking San Francisco.

Jay spent most of his time at bed, but he got up when I came. He was wearing a pyjamas and a dressing gown, and sat in the sofa during the interview. Beside him was a photo from before HIV. A really good looking athletic man.
He was rather thin, his skin had a yellow tone and his eyes were dim/faint.

Talking was difficult for him, he was panting and spoke almost like in stacccato, with small ah:s in between, like small stations of pain.  Sometimes he forgot a word in a sentence.

Jay was an accountant, 36 years old.  He came from Mount Vernon, Washington, and had moved to San Francisco ten years ago.

  • How come San Francisco?
  • It was the most… beautiful place I´ve ever been to, and I loved it. I really wanted to live in LA. When I saw Los Angeles … ah… I came hurrying back to San Francisco. So… I just happened to come here, found a lover… and that was it.
  • Did you come out at home?
  • Ah… I… came out… ah, away from home… but… since then… my parents have been aware… that I´m gay, and… they accept it totally.
  • Do they know you are sick?
  • Oh yeah! … ah… My mother… has come out… twice, ah…and ah… I´ve gone back there… three times… and, my whole family, ah, accept it totally…and will do anything for me, and are not scared of the disease, will kiss me or hug me.

One of Jay´s brothers has two children, and he did not mind if Jay touched them and hugged them.

  • So that´s what… type of family I´ve got… I´m very proud of them, and they accept… Keith as my… lover… ah, have no… ah qualms about that either, so that´s … quite… ah… ah… Quite proud of them.

When HIV came they were pretty sure that it would not affect them. They had been together for 3 years, and Jay didn´t think he would get it.

  • I pretty much assumed I wasn´t gonna get it… cause… I certainly… wasn´t… ah, you know… going out or anything, so… I felt we were pretty safe.

This was when it was announced that the actor Rock Hudson had AIDS, July 25th, 1985.

  • The very next week that Rock… Hudson got it, I got it… ah, and it came as a… shock, and… ah…ah… And the doctor who diagnosed me, said I had six to nine months to live. And he told me that over the phone, and I thought ah… This is it. (Jay laughed a little.)

I asked about the doctor and Jay said it was his temporary doctor. He had originally gone to see the doctor for other medical problems, like having problems with climbing up stairs, and he wondered what was happening.

  • And I… I… ah, and I also had problem… going up the hill in the Castro, and I didn´t know what was going on, and…

When the doctor heard about the problems, Jay was immediately sent to a hospital and they took x-rays, and Jay was told he had pneumonia. A few days later a bronchoscopy was made, and it was confirmed he had Pneumocystis Pneumonia (PCP).

  • Next thing I knew I was on drugs… ah … very toxic and hard to take, but I… weathered it out here… at home… ah… I was sick for two weeks, and another two weeks tired.

Jay actually went back to work, for a whole year.

I wondered how he felt when he got the diagnosis.

  • Oh well, I took it pretty good, I took it like ah… ah… Well it happened! You know… ah… it was all around, and ah… ah… I just figured Oh Boy! That´s bad luck… ah… ah… I took it pretty good… actually… ah… ah… I wasn´t angry, I wasn´t hostile, ah… I just accepted it… I thought I wasn´t gonna live very long… ah… I got it, so there´s nothing I can do about it.

For a while Jay went in to seclution, he didn´t want to see anybody, and stayed at home. He didn´t have a large group of friends to begin with, because he worked a lot and his free time he wanted to spend with Keith. He had recently started to reach out though.

I wondered if he had lost friends because he has Aids, or had they come closer?

  • Ah… actually… I would say, everybody has come closer… ah… I´ve been shocked at the support of the people. (He laughed a little.) Ah… everybody… my lover, my family, my best friend… all these people I came in contact with.

After Jay stopped working he got in to politics, and became an AIDS-activist.

  • I haven´t encountered too much… AIDS-phobia, at all. Nobody I know is afraid to touch me or hug me or kiss me… of the people I come in contact with… friends, so… It´s (a) pretty strong group of friends I have… and they do a lot for me.

And here I turned to Keith, what was his reaction to all of this?

  • To Jay´s diagnosis?… I was exceptionally angry, and… still am. I guess anger is the one word that could express my reaction… And I see Jay´s illness as… a representative of… of what´s happening to a whole generation of gay men. They´re being killed off by a… form of genocide, and it makes me very angry, and it certainly heightened my anger, when the most important person in the world to me… was diagnosed.

We talked about the HIV-virus, how it was spread during an incubation period of up to ten years, while people were going about their daily life, not realizing that the virus was slowly but surely spreading through their community.

We talked about churches, especially the Catholic Church saying that gay people are ”Intrinsically Evil”, or ”Intrinsically Disordered”, and making a difference between innocent and guilty victims, where children carrying the virus are innocent and gay people are guilty.

  • They are saying that someone like Jay is guilty of something, and therefore he deserves this sentence placed upon him, by this virus. And I think there is an awful lot of people, in a lot of positions of power in this world, who have that view, who feels this is some kind of punishment that gay people deserve. And I think it has definitely colored the respons… that we´ve gotten from society and from government, and from people in general, and … that definitely includes the church.

Keith talked about fundamentalist religious groups that would advocate stoning and death to Gay people.

  • If you believe those kinds of thoughts, and if you also believe that illness comes from some great power named God, you would obviously logically put it together and say that this God has decided to bring his wrath on specific people for their behavior. That´s bull! (Keith laughed a short bitter laugh.)

Jay was brought up as Catholic, but it was agony to go every Sunday, so when he was given the opportunity to leave, he did, when he was about 11 years old.

  • Oh, religion is pretty far removed from… my… mind… I rarely think of it… except when the Catholic Church, the Pope comes out with statements (hard to hear) homosexuality is Intrinsically evil, then… I start to think that this Roman Catholic Church… doesn´ t have its act together yet, and… That´s the extent… ah… ah…

Jay thought religion was good for meditating, and as long as it did some good for people, it was fine, but…

  • If it… spreads… bigotry or guilt trips and all that kind of stuff… then it´s wrong, so… I´m not too proud of … the religions in America, ah…

I wondered about the doctor that gave Jay his diagnosis over the phone.

  • Is that the way they usually treat people here? They just give you a sentence, and that´s it, and then just leave you?
  • Ah… ah… as it happened, this doctor… he had AIDS at the time, and died of AIDS a year ago… I didn´t know that… ah… I found out later.

Keith came with a vitamine drink for Jay. It was 260 calories. He did not have an appetite, and needed to drink it to regain his weight.  He was down at 125 now, about 56 kilos.

  • I´ve gone through a rather difficult period right now… and I hope I can get back on the AZT and… go zooming off again.

Jay suddenly started talking very loud.

  • Oh! I used to be able to walk around and… ah… you know… ah, walking, going out and protest, and… Now I have a very hard time even walking from here to the bedroom.

Keith took over.

  • Jay and I have done an awful lot since his diagnosis… and his energy level has definitely decreased. I mean he and I have traveled an awful lot since his diagnosis. We´ve been arrested together at demonstrations, we´ve gone on trial, we´ve done an awful lot.

Keith and Jay had been demonstrating since, and wanted to continue doing it.

  • Both Jay and I have been radicalized politically by this epidemic. We´ve both seen how the American government is more or less not caring of people. It´s mean spirited… it humiliates you, it does not want to take care of its own. It rather creates bombs to kill people, then to take care of the sick, and… We´ve both learned on a very personal basis how offensive our government is to us, and how negligent it has been with this epidemic, and it´s taken us and molded us in to two, what many people would identify as radicals. (Keith laughed.)
  • What was your life like before then?
  • Oh, I would say we were pretty quiet, complacent, apathetic people.
  • We lived ah… ah very comfortable like.

Jay had worked a lot, and was often away from home, so he really treasured the time he and Keith had together. They had lead a very comfortable life, ”not a care in the world”. There had been problems in the relationship, but when he got AIDS it just solidified the relationship.

  • I was in love with Keith, but… nowhere near the kind of love I am (feeling) now. It´s much deeper, and I think it goes along with jeopardy. The longer you´re with somebody that you… love, the deeper it becomes. I think that´s true with any relationship.

Then I turned to Keith, wondering what it was like for him – to be HIV-positive.

  • Well… it´s such a part of your life, this epidemic, it´s such a part of my life, that I don´t look upon it as unusual anymore, to be 28 years old and feel that I probably wont live to be 30 or 35… But there´s always that possibility that  I am not gonna be one of those people who comes down with AIDS… and so I have not given up that possibility by any means.

But… because of Jay´s illness I have learned to appreciate life and relationships and friendships much more than… I would have ever probably been able to say I did, as a 28 year old, and I live and love with a gusto now, with great earnest appreciation… I very much appreciate… the gift of life, and relationships I have with other people, and there´s just no time for – pardon the word – bullshit. There´s just no time.

There´s too many things, too many people are hurting, and… there´s too much suffering… to waste time.

Keith talked about love.

  • I would definitely say, that the love I feel for Jay is something that I… never, would have even imagined… two people could have. Any two people. I just didn´t know those types of feelings existed… and that has been… a real reward, to be able to find that with him… It´s unfortunate that it had to come with this kind of prize.

I turned to Jay.

  • So… what is the best for you?
  • I would say… I am happiest ah… when I, in bed, with my arms around Keith, or Keith´s arms around me, I think that´s… when I´m happiest of all, and… I think that´s… one of my greatest… ah, pleasures in life.

Jay and Keith had lived a very good life prior to HIV, they had traveled, gone on Caribbean cruises, been to Europe, going to Tahoe to sunbathe.

  • We were living like, you know, ”We´ll live forever”. And I owned this house and things were… going well, and we were happy you know ah… and that´s ah… ah, my life, and then, ah… It wasn´t like I was poor or anything… ah… I had no bills when I got AIDS, cause I had always paid everything off. But slowly… the money went, you know, on drugs… illegal drugs that the U.S. wouldn´t license, and… it´s all gone now…

At this time Jay lived on Social security that paid 742 dollars a month.

This lead to a discussion about medical costs, for example AZT was 1000 dollars a month at the time, but there were also other medical expenses, costs for tests and all.  Jay paid 200 dollars in medical care, and Medical, a Welfare Program he said, picked up the rest.

  • AIDS really does ah… make you poverty stricken, ah… This government ah… and the Reagan administration in general, is probably the worst in… this century. He is a very uncaring president, probably one of the most least knowledgeable about human conditions, that I´ve ever seen… and … It´s a real pride in this country that we are so rich and can spend so much on military ah… when we don´t have national health. It´s… ah national shame ah… that this country doesn´t offer national health… Most of Europe does, and so… ah, it´s one of the things that have to change.

When I was visiting San Francisco in 1987, there was talk about that people with AIDS would be put in Concentration Camps. (In Sweden, where I come from, there was a doctor who suggested that HIV-positive people should be tattooed, visibly, so that people could watch out for them. She also suggested that HIV-positive people should live in certain restricted areas, and that the staff taking care of them, should be their relatives.)

Keith did not trust the AIDS-Commission at all. Nor the President. He was convinced that the President would not be interested in the AIDS-Commissions report.

  • About two years ago, one of the first things Reagan ever did around AIDS, was to ask his Surgeon General – who is the highest level doctor in this country – to issue a report on AIDS. And Surgeon General Koop issued a report on the Presidents request, and the report was exemplary. It did not call for these harsh reactionary measures that will violate people´s civil rights, it called for compassion and education, and it called for some major changes in the structure of this government. So the president did not get from his Surgeon General what it was he wanted…

Keith also mentioned the National Academy of Science that had put together, what he remembered was a 400 pages document, that urged the Federal Government to spend 2 billion dollars a year on AIDS, but the president did not accept that either, ”because it´s not his agenda”, said Keith.

  • His agenda is to violate people´s civil rights, not to take care of people.

Keith said the President had created the AIDS Commission so that he could appoint certain people that would agree with him.

  • The reason I object to San Francisco General Hospital… participating in helping this Commission gather information, is because I don´t think this Commission intends to use the information, that a legitimate concerned organisation like SFGH, will give it. I am concerned that the City and County is being used by the Commission, to legitimize it, to add credibility.

People come here from all over the world to see how the City and County is coping with the epidemic, because San Francisco rightfully deserves to be a model… for the rest of the world on how to handle this epidemic.  And by allowing the Commission to be seen at the same table with some of the most responsible people in this epidemic, you are making it look like we are condoning their actions…

When Keith and I had lunch , he said that he felt  like a Jew, and  he also mentioned a War Zone.

  • I said… that I can understand, I think… what it must have felt like to be a Jew living in Poland or Germany, in the twenties or thirties. I feel increasingly like… we are heading in that direction of a very similar fascistic society, where certain people are going to decide that large groups of people will need to be eliminated.

People with tremendous power in this country – and they have a great deal of respect – are calling for quarantine, and eventually when the numbers of cases begin popping up increasingly in the heterosexual population, then…  I´m quite sure that the call for quarantine will become a much more legitimate call for a lot of people… they will see it as the appropriate measure to take, and… What will happen is that they will set up Concentration Camps – they won´t call it (that), but that´s exactly what will happen, and… That´s already started happening, in California…

Prisoners, if they are antibody positive, or if they have AIDS, are put into an isolation ward, where they can´t do anything. They can´t go visit their family, they can´t go to the library, they see a doctor maybe once a week, they get no access to any drugs… That is a Concentration Camp. (He laughed his bitter laugh.)

At least people are being violated… That is just an example of what is yet to come, I´m afraid, so yes… I don´t feel like a Jew, but I feel like I can understand what it must have felt like, to be… Jewish living in Germany or Poland at the time.

We changed subject, and talked about their daily life.

Keith was still working – but the tried to be at home as much as possible, when he was not at political meetings. There had been many. Resistance and preparation for what was to come; quarantining for example, or massive violation of civil rights.

  • When that comes, when that day comes, we´re not gonna walk silently to our death´s.

I wondered if he had always been like this. Was he an angry young man?

  • Well, I think you can definitely say that I have become, as a result of this epidemic, a very angry person… I feel betrayed, I feel bitter… I feel all those feelings for… my family. I feel them towards my country.

Keith and Jay had opinions about Keith´s family.

  • Their love seems very conditional, and… they… barely could handle my being gay, but Jay having AIDS, has made it unbearable for them.

Keith did not want to speak about his biological family, he rather spoke about his chosen family.

  • I have a wonderful family in San Francisco. They are not my blood family, but they are better to me than my own family, and that family is some people in the gay community who are supposedly unfeeling and uncaring… and that´s not true! I´m a witness to that!

We talked a bit about the future. Where Keith would live if Jay passed away for example.

  • What about that trip to Paris!
  • Ha! That´s true… Jay and I have made a deal that he´s gonna get better. I´ve never been to Paris and it´s his favorite city, so… and he´s gonna show me Paris, and that´s our big plan.
  • You know motorized wheel chair.

The plan was to travel in the winter, and especially to the Opera. They both loved opera, so it would be in season.

  • Will you go to Versailles?
  • Oh! Definitely! I´ve been there (Paris) four times, and… never made it to Versailles, but I´m going to make it this time if I go. I´m getting better already, just thinking about it!

We laughed.

Keith had talked to me about the Catholic Church, that does not allow the use of condoms for example. Pope John Paul II was coming to San Francisco, and a big demonstration was being planned.

  • The Catholic Church is not dealing with reality, they deal with dogma, and their dogma is endangering the lives of a lot of people. I find it extraordinary hypocritical for the Catholic Church to talk about compassion, and… I´m really incensed that the Pope is coming to San Francisco next week and meet a handful of picked, well picked… people who have AIDS. He´s gonna meet with these people and somehow send the message to the rest of the world that the Catholic Church is compassionate and caring for these people.

But the real message is: The Catholic Church will take care of you when    you´re dying, but they won´t do anything to help you not die… and that is so hypocritical.

Keith continued to talk about the Catholic Church historically, and the bitterness he felt against the church.

  • They are guilty of murder by refusing to allow the education of people about safe sex. They are just as guilty of murder as anyone who is intentionally spreading the disease, by practicing unsafe sex.

We talked about the upcoming demonstration. Keith did not think it would be hostile as in other cities, like in Amsterdam, but he anticipated some civil disobedience.

  • What are you planning to do?
  • What am I planning to do? I am planning to go, and I´m planning to let my voice be heard, and maybe… take a few condoms and pass them out. ( He laughed.)

I returned to them, to Jay and Keith.

  • I asked Jay before about what is the best for him, and now I ask you: What is good in the situation?
  • The good times for me, are those moments when Jay´s health seems to be not as big a problem, and he seems to be happy. I rarely see him smile or laugh anymore, and when I see that, that´s the best moments for me, because it seems like a real… rare moment.

Jay smiled, and started talking.

  • Lately, today, I´ve been in a good mood, but ah… lately, I mean emotionally, I focus on every little problem I have.

Here Jay talked so low that I can´t make out all he said, but it had to do with meditation.

  • To take my mind off… all the ills of AIDS, ah, that wears me down mentally. But I´m forcing my self to… ah, not think about these problems, and just get on with life, so… that´s what it´s taught me about… ah… I focus too much on this ear ache or this eye problem or ah… this disease, that disease… I got to learn to, ah, throw it out of my mind, and just ah… be glad for what I´ve got, not for… ah, what I don´t have.

Keith was not satisfied with that attitude, he wanted Jay to be not satisfied, Jay needed to figure out a way to make the quality of his life, the best quality it could be, as other terminally ill patients did.

  • For me it´s been very frustrating, because… I see you living in sheer agony and pain, and I don´t see any reason for you to live the way you´ve been living, and that´s why when I see you laugh, or when I see you smile I think maybe somethings changing and you´re getting back that… desire to improve your quality of life. And I know that if you get back that, you won´t be leaving me, and that´s the bottom line…

And here Keith started crying, and for a while I could not make out what he was saying. But after a while he spoke to me.

  • Some day Jay is gonna leave, and I´m gonna be left alone, and… I would like to extend our time together as long as possible, and I´m gonna be very selfish about that.  I´m not at all gonna be politically correct and say: ”If you chose to die, you can die. I´ll be supportive”. I´m not gonna do that at all.        I´m  gonna be very selfish. (Keith laughed.) I´m gonna say: ”Jay! I don´t want you to die! I can´t make it without you! Please get better!”

Keith had talked about his fear about being left alone.

  • Well, its certainly a big concern of mine… If I were to be diagnosed with AIDS in the future, who´s gonna… do for me, what I hope Jay thinks I´ve done for him.

Who´s gonna be able to help me… get through this emotionally? Who´s gonna… hold me at night, and who´s gonna take me to the doctor… I have some really good friends, but none of them… are in any way remotely close to me, the way Jay is, and so… I don´t know how to deal with it, and that´s the one thing that frightens me more than anything else – is that I´m gonna be diagnosed with AIDS, and Jay´s not gonna be here to help me.

Jay seemed to have faith in the drugs that were being tested, that would halt the virus, and that Keith would not be coming down with AIDS.

  • The longer he… doesn´t have ah AIDS, the more likely he´ll ah… survive. I myself ah… worry tremendously if he should ever become sick, because I personally ah… don´t want to see the memory of our relationship ah… lost, and as long as Keith is alive, and in good health, I will live forever in him… so… ah… That´s ah, why you´ve got to be healthy and ah… I… don´t ever want this ah… love to ever be forgotten… to be a little dramatic… (Jay laughed) … which I can be… quite often.

They laughed.

They showed me around the house, and then we went out on the balcony, so I could take some pictures, and then I said goodbye to Jay.  We decided to stay in touch.

Keith gave me a list with names. It was people I could contact, and out of them all two answered my call; a feminist and AIDS- activist called Eileen Hansen, ”a good source for (a) lesbian perspective of the epidemic” as he wrote, and a SHANTI grief counselor called Brad C.

He then drove me to Artemis, a café. Keith talked about touch, that Jay experienced it as a miracle that someone touched him; ”He touched me!” She touched me!”, to be treated like a human being.

 

I met Keith at a ”A Time to Shine”- meeting, and at the demonstration against the Pope. I was also in touch with Jay on the phone, he was then on AZT.

During the coming weeks I continued making interviews, with Brad C. for example, and I went to the Speakers Training at The AIDS-Project of the East Bay during the weekends.

I did not have money to stay in hotels, so I slept on sofas and actually on a floor at one time, at friends of friends places – I just needed a roof over my head, and to feel safe.

About three weeks after the interview I called Brad, and he told me that Jay wasn´t doing very well. When I came home to the woman I was staying with, there was a shocking note saying that Jay´s Memorial was to take place that same evening, in their house. I don´t know how I made it, but I got there in time.

One of the things that was said during the Memorial was that Jay wanted his ashes to be thrown at the White House. And Keith wanted the White House to stand in a cloud of ashes from dead men, that had died of AIDS.

I found a note I wrote in connection with the Memorial, today January 14th 2023. 

It talks about how Jay had gone to all demonstrations because Keith was there, and that there was one for Medical Justice where they were arrested.  Jay felt cheated and he was very disappointed with the President. Keith would fight for him and revenge him, with the ashes.

It also talks about the Panel they had made for Jay, in advance, for the Names Project.

Keith said that many people had been lighting candles for Jay that night.

He had experienced so many fine moments with Jay in the hospital. When they hugged they called it snuggle, instead of cuddle.

Jay had held on to life, while waiting for his mother to come from Massachusetts, 3 000 miles away.

Jay asked Keith to climb in to his bed, and he did, and they spoke for an hour, and then Jay´s mother took over so that Keith could get a chance to sleep a little, but while he slept, Jay died.

He will be burned to day or tomorrow.

On a private note:

I was about to leave San Francisco, and I remember writing a card from the airport and trying to call Keith, telling him that it was a fantastic idea, but that he should be aware of which direction the wind was blowing.
In the end it did not happen. Jay´s parents wanted to share the ashes, and Keith kept a little to him self.

I stayed in touch with Keith, and he kept me informed about Brad C. But then he left San Francisco,  and I lost contact with him.

Keith had moved to another state, and when I finally found him, it was through a cruising site for men, that he had created.

If Keith had had an ordinary mail, I am sure we would have stayed friends until he passed away, but he didn´t, and that is what changed everything. If I wanted to get in touch with him, it had to be through that site, where there were a lot of sexual activities.

It didn´t bother me, until 9/11, when it really upset me that I could only get in touch with him through that site. Most of the world was upset about what had happened, but it was business as usual on that site. Keith could be very sarcastic, but he never forgave me for being sarcastic about that. I tried to reconnect with him several times through the years, but no.

However, he did not block me from visiting the site, and I went in now and then to see if he was still active, meaning if he was still alive.

To my surprise there was a short film with him talking to people visiting the site. He spoke like a friendly uncle, about being careful, and giving advice about how to live. I so wish I could quote him correctly.

Then one day I just Googled his name, and found out that he had passed away, in September 2012.
There was a text written about him, and in that text was a woman´s name. I managed to get in touch with her and found out that they had been very good friends, and that he had lived a good life. He died of cancer.

Keith had previously lived in New Orleans, and he had one wish and that was to have his ashes spread in the Mississippi River in New Orleans, during Mardi Gras.

So, she took him there, dressed as a fairy with a wand, and she marched behind the musicians with his ashes in her backpack, and eventually spread the ashes in the river.  She wrote: It was his last wish.

I have wondered about what I should do with Jay and Keith, should I write or should I not. And Jay has given me the answer; he didn´t want their love for each other to be forgotten.

I have not written more about Keith, and I think and hope he would agree to that I write about him and Jay.

  • I… don´t ever want this ah… love to ever be forgotten… to be a little dramatic… which I can be… quite often.

 

Keith and Gery… the first couple I met.

It was a man at SHANTI, Paul Stern, who sent me to Keith and Gery.

I actually found my way to them, even though I was new to San Francisco, and they welcomed me in to their very cozy home that they shared with 3 or 4 dogs and two cats – they called them their children.

Keith, the younger man was small and thin, with punk hair and a mustache, and Gery was more heavy built, with a beard and large brown eyes. It was hard to tell that they were sick, both of them.

We sat down in their kitchen, and they offered me coffee and a coke.

I was ten minutes late and apologized, but that was no problem. They were used to it. As public spokes persons for SHANTI they had been interviewed a lot.

There had been journalists who said they would come at five, but turned up exhausted at nine, asking them what it felt like to be dying. And then they would disappear out of their lives, and Keith and Gery would never receive articles or anything.

However there had been journalists that had stayed in touch and sent articles. They specifically mentioned Wall Street Journal, one of their journalists had interviewed Keith, and sent flowers on the day the article about him was published.

They really wanted to quit giving interviews, but they kept on doing it because they wanted to help others, by speaking out.

As I talked to Keith, I realized that there were no barriers! I landed straight in to his medical story, and the information just flowed from him.

  • I was in the hospital with meningitis… and I mean! They told Gery that I was not gonna make it, cause I wasn´t reponding to nothing. I was a veggie, you know.
  • Are you on AZT?
  • My case is too severe. There is too many things going on with me, and they don´t want to put AZT inside me. I tried three times to get it.

Gery added that Keith had been on Interferon therapy for about 7 months, but they had to quit because he couldn´t take it anymore. It had made him violently ill.

  • Like vomiting?
  • That´s all I did! That´s all I do, is sleep, throw up and hallucinate.

During one period he took a lot of Valium, until he almost overdosed, trying to stay doped. He was in a lot of pain.

It was Gery who gave him the injections – I think Keith was referring to the Interferon here – and after three hours Keith would get a lot of headache.

  • There were times when I´d wake up crying, or couldn´t move, because my head would be so sore. And you know I still suffer severe headaches. The headaches are back to the point where they almost make me cry a lot of times, like they used to. I get headaches every day. I wake up with headaches, and I go to bed with headaches, every day.

It was so bad that he could not talk to Gery. He couldn´t even stand being touched by him, because of the pain. And he hated being on drugs. The couple had been on IV drugs before, but had quit four years ago.

And here starts Keith´story.

Keith was 29 years old when we met. He was from Dallas, Texas, and had lived in San Francisco for 9 years.

He came out as gay when he was 17 years old.

  • In Dallas?
  • I came out pretty much in my junior years in high school, and kind of just took my life from then on, because my father passed away when I was sixteen.

Both his parents had been alcoholics, but Keith´s father had stopped drinking after having had a heart attack. Keith was closer to his father than to his mother, and when his father died, he just freaked out.

  • He died right in front of me… I couldn´t believe it, cause my dad had stopped drinking for four years, and never… We had the best relationship. And then one day I handed him a glass of orange juice, and his eyes rolled back in his head, and he held his chest, and that was that.

Keith had already started doing drugs at that time, amphetamines, and had been up for three days when it happened. When they were brought this father´s watch and were told he did not make it, Keith said he freaked out, and from that day on he was his own boss, and he eventually left home with two other friends.

He made his way to San Francisco, because of the gay life there, and he made a lot of money, and he was very popular.

  • I lived a pretty active life from the time I got here, until I met Gery. You know it was bars every night, IV druguse, heavy duty druguse, heroin, crystals, cocaine, Demorol – any narcotics we could find, we would do it. It was never abnormal for 20 of us to be in a room and one syringe, and we cleaned it out – what we thought was cleaning it out, we thought a little bit of clean water would take it out, and pass it on.

In the end Keith and Gery had to make a decision, either keep doing drugs and split up, or stop doing drugs and stay together. They chose the latter.

  • So we locked our self up in a room for about four days, almost killed each other. (Keith laughed a little.) But it was coming down off all the drugs. We didn´t go through any professional rehabilitation, we felt that if we want to do it bad enough, we can do it on our own, and we did. We did.

Even so, they separated for a while, but then Keith went back to Gery and all was well for about a year and a half, until Keith got sick.

  • I started just feeling bad, fatigued and everything. Then I came down with Hepatitis B from IV drug use, and just got really sick.

Keith described a lot of symptoms he had that would today be associated with HIV/AIDS, but at the time no one knew what was going on. The term ARC was used then; AIDS-related complex.

  • And they were just: God! What is going on! What is wrong with you? So they removed a lymph node out of my neck, and I wouldn´t heal. Then I woke up one morning and I had all these purple spots all over me, and what had started happening was that all my blood vessels had started hemorrhaging – I had nothing clotting my blood. I was the eleventh gay man in the US to have been diagnosed with this disease called ITP (Immune Thrombocy Purpura). Anyway, so they had to remove my spleen in order for my blood to clod.
  • Was AIDS known then?
  • It was just coming out, this was in 1982, and the first case had been seen in 79 or 80, and then in 1981 they defined it as Acquired Immune Deficiency Symptom. But I was ARC for a long time, 1982-85.

Keith showed me incredibly large lymph nodes behind his ears. He had continued to be diagnosed with cancer, and went on chemotherapy for 9 months. He had a number of other problems, like shingles/Herpes Zoster. But it was lymphoma that gave him the AIDS diagnosis.

Many things happened to Keith during the chemotherapy, one of his lungs collapsed but then they took tests, and everything looked fine, so they wanted to close his case.

  • Forty eight hours later I was so sick that I didn´t know where I was at. I had Spinal Meningitis and for days I didn´t know nothing. I had 104 temperature for four days, so they called Gery to start getting everything in order, because they didn´t think I was going to make it.

Gery joined us and said that Keith did not start responding to treatment until the eleventh day.

  • So for the whole ten days they didn´t know if he would live or die. I had to go and see a shrink.
  • Gery lost 30 pounds in a matter of 8 weeks, over just the stress.

Keith couldn´t believe he had AIDS, although, as he said, he had done everything imaginable in what they considered high risk to get it, but still, he could not believe it.

The first encounter with HIV/AIDS that the couple had was with a friend who was very sick, Richard,

  • We moved a friend in. Nobody else would take care of him. The support systems were just starting to build up here in the city, and the day he told me had AIDS, was the day… He more or less died that day, he did not want to live.

Keith said they had all this will power and they tried to make him eat.

  • He had Cryptococcal meningitis, it attacks the brain immediately, and the drug they use is so bad for the system, it eats up your kidney and your liver.

Gery was the only that could touch Richard, especially since Keith had been diagnosed with ARC at the time.  As an old drug addict, Gery could handle injections.

Richard didn´t want any outside help, like a counselor, and he did not want to apply for Social Security. Keith and Gery were totally concentrating on him, and not on them selves.

But Richard was changing. He wrote to his mother that he was locked in, and starved by Keith and Gery. And they were shocked, because they did everything for him, and felt they had to prove that they had not starved him, nor locked him in, to the people that believed what Richard had said.

  • But his brain was out, wasn´t it?
  • His brain was gone, and we didn´t realize that the meningitis was eating his brain the way it was.

Richard eventually moved in with a priest he had fallen in love with, and he died three months later, blind and with Tuberculosis.

  • He didn´t even know who he was, or where he was. He was so sick!

They actually didn´t know Richard very well, but his best friends never helped.  They had offered, but none of them came when asked. Even Keith and Gery´s friends quit coming over.

  • After Richard left there was a lot of stress gone, which was good, but just the stress of me having ARC and everything.

It seemed like Keith was doing well when we met, but he could not get AZT, and it made him angry.

  • My doctor thinks I´m benefiting real well from the chemotherapy and the Interferon that I went under, and he´s real angry because they wont use it any more. The Interferon is supposed to build up your immune system, and that´s what he thinks he´s done with mine. But there´s just so many different things going on with me… that they don´t want to. It´s really hard to sit back and accept that these men on this panel at this pharmaceutical company sit there and play God and say: ”He should get AZT, and he shouldn´t!” What makes me angry, is that they don´t even know me. They don´t know what I deal with every day, or how I feel.

Gery´s health had been good until 6 months before, when the started feeling bad. And he was put on AZT. Keith was upset why he didn´t get it as well.  Gery called from another room: ”So was I!”

  • I´m sorry.
  • Thank´s.

I was wondering about work.  Keith had been working until August 1986.

  • I worked a couple of months under chemotherapy, but the chemotherapy got SO bad that I couldn´t function. I would be up all night throwing up, and I tried to get up and go to work the next morning, and it just… when it got to the point where I couldn´t run a copy machine, I thought… (Keith laughed a little.)

Going to work was very important to Keith, because for so long he had not worked – he´d been up all night doing drugs – so this stable part of his life, getting up every morning and go to work was important. But he lost it, and he now had 580 dollars a month to live on.

  • If I didn´t have my lover, I would have to go in to a residence program, I would have to go to a food bank, I´d have to go to a clothing deposit. Gery makes good money, and he makes sure that we always got food, and he takes me out…

Keith had worked with a law firm, with ”a little bit of everything”. He never got a specific education, but he went to a school and got himself a General Education Diploma, and then he was on his way to San Francisco.

I wondered how he supported him self while on drugs, and he said he was afraid I was going to ask about that, and I said he didn´t have to answer that, but he said it was ok.

  • I was a… I hustled, I worked the streets for about two and half years.
  • Drugs and sex, that´s very common.
  • Oh yeah, definitely.

Keith talked about a special drug that they were hooked on, one that makes you very sexual.

  • No matter what is going on in your life, the drugs make you very promiscuous. Especially the drug that we were doing, I mean that makes you wanna go out all night long and have sex with anything on two legs. That´s how powerful that drug was.

But a lot was changed because of HIV/AIDS.

  • Five years ago you could walk down Castro Street at 5 am, and there would be a lot of men looking for other men, but now you could walk down Castro at 8 pm and it is dead.

There used to be so many bathhouses in the city. They are all closed. They closed the last one about a year ago, and it was because they were practicing unsafe sex there, you know.

But the drugs do pacify a lot of times, when you´re a homosexual, and then, you know, so many kid´s parents were alcoholics and stuff like that.

Keith said that he never turned to alcohol because he turned to drugs.

  • There was nothing better to me than staying up for five och six days at the time without any sleep, and I thought: This is Heaven. This is it!

I wondered if he thought drugs helped people maybe coming from a religious background, to block that out.

  • I think it helps you open up. You can be more forward or more aggressive with people a lot of times, when you are on drugs and stuff. There is an awfully high rate of alcoholism and drug abuse in the gay community, but you got to think about this – we have no children, we pretty much support ourselves individually, a lot of gay´s make a lot of good money, you know. It was just something to do (and here I think Keith referred to pre-hiv-times), and there wasn´t a lot of things going on with diseases and stuff that were affecting the community.
  • Do you think you would have done the same, would have had the same sexual activity if you had not been on drugs?
  • I would probably have been very promiscuous anyway, cause I was experimenting, and for a long time dated girls during the day, and went with guys at night.

For a while Keith and his sister would date the same guy. When she dumped someone, Keith would pick him up. I wondered if she had been tested, but no, she was heterosexual, she didn´t think HIV/AIDS had anything to with her. Keith had once sent her information about HIV and condoms, but was really told off by their mother: He should never do that again! Did she rather see her daughter DIE? wondered Keith.

Keith´s mother was an alcoholic, and had come to them on a terrible visit, but the second time she came, she was OK, and also informed about HIV/AIDS, and very supportive.

  • We were like just in shock!

She didn´t think she could handle it if Keith got sick, but if Gery was ill, she would come and take care of him. Gery´s family did not speak to him, because he was gay, but Keith´s mother loved him. Had adopted him, said Keith.

  • She means more to him than his own mother.

I was wondering how people reacted when AIDS came.

  • Did people believe it, that it was actually happening, that it was dangerous?
  • No, we didn´t think it was that dangerous. We thought some people were just having bad luck, and that they had just worn themselves down so much that they had no immune system. We made up a lot of excuses.

When Keith and Gery took care of Richard they had visited the AIDS Ward 5 B at San Francisco General Hospital.

  • Well, four years ago, when we went there it was just like… There were so many young people dying and on respirators, and we wanted to collapse because it was… It tore our hearts out of our chests, it just grabbed a hold of  us, and we saw all these young kids that couldn´t breath… being shunned from families. And I just thought: My God. This is serious. This is really serious. 

Keith talked about how he tried to talk to people about Safe sex, about how to protect one self and the other person.

Then he suddenly started talking about what had happened when he and Gery decided to change their lives, and stop doing drugs. They ran a small hotel in the Tenderloin, and prostitutes would bring in their customers, sometimes 10-15 per night, and they paid 10 dollars for each customer, or trick, as he said.

  • We were making bucks! – and they always used condoms, always used condoms.

Keith and Gery were still using while they had the hotel, and they had just been shooting up when a man was murdered by one of the women´s pimps. They tried to save him, but the towels Keith used were just soaked in blood – he had been slashed 21 times and died the next day. While this was going on, Keith said it was unreal.

  • I was just like… This is not happening! This is NOT happening! I mean these are things you read about, these are things you see in the movies, you know, and it was right under our nose, you know.

Something else happened. Gery had told Keith that a man would come in with a pistol, a 38. Keith was not to touch it but to hold out a towel for him to put it in, and he did that and Keith put it in under the counter. Two hours later that man was shot in the face in a bar next door.

When all that had happened they felt they had to change.

  • Right there we said, if we didn´t stop, this was gonna happen to us. We were dealing with whores, we were dealing with pimps, we were dealing with guns.

They found an apartment, still in Tenderloin, but it took some turns before they moved together, and they had been together since then. It was not easy with all that was going on in their lives, but the most important thing was to be together. When I asked how it was possible for them to stay together in these surroundings, they both answered love.

  • A real strong love, said Gery.

They did get high at times, but it was nothing but trouble, said Keith. He described what happened to them.

  • When we would get high, Gery and I were completely incomplete. Everything was in the opposite. I mean, I wanted to go out, as soon as I did a hit, a go, all I wanted to do was to have sex.  Gery was content in the hotel. Like when we stayed in our room, Gery would be at one end of the room, and I would be at the other, with our backs turned at each other. We had nothing in common when we´d get high, and that just lead to trouble. But it´s gotten much better, we smoke our pot, that´s the only thing we do.

A lot of people consider it a drug, and it is a drug, but considering what we used to… You know I feel have the… I love to smoke marijuana, and that´s just one of my rights that I exercise. People say it it tears your immune system down. What immune system?! I don´t have an immune system. What the hell are you talking about!

Gery added that if they did not smoke marijuana they would probably never eat, because they had both lost their appetite.

So what did it feel like, to be sick, now that they had finished doing drugs?

Keith : I look back at the things that we´ve done that were real stupid, but they were really justifiable at the time. There´s nothing I can do about the past.

Gery: We never sat down and try to put the blame… on why we got the disease. It could have been the IV drug use, it could have been just the wrong person we went to bed with… We´re really happy about our lives now, other than the fact that we are both sick. As far as saying, you know… we went through all this, that shit, only to end up sick – we don´t do that.

Gery looked away on one of the dogs when he said that. But Keith didn´t agree with him.

Keith: I mean we DID sit back and say; Well, it´s not fair. Look we stopped doing drugs 3-4 years ago, at the time when all this started to happen, and look where it has gotten us!

Gery: Nowhere! But that´s just something I think you deal with, you do. We don´t deal with what we have done in our lives.

Keith: We had a good time when we were high and did drugs. That´s over with now. Gery and I are just about as married as any other heterosexual couple could be married. Heterosexual, homosexual, look around you.

Keith gestured towards their home.

Keith: I mean, it is so typical, everything we got, for a married couple, you know.

Gery: And we don´t drink, we don´t go to bars.

Pia: You don´t date outside of the marriage?

Both: No no no!

Gery; It´s come home every night, eat supper and watch TV, and take care of the children.

Here the couple talked about Gery´s SHANTI volunteer, Sarah, about all the good things she had done.

Keith: She´s been with Gery for two years, which is real unusual, cause the burn-out-rate is so high.

Keith was on his third. One had gone off to school, the second one was a lesbian woman, that he had totally opened up to – Emotional support volunteers are mainly there to listen – but she never came back, and he was really disappointed.

  • And I just thought: That´s it! I´ll never open my self up to anyone again. I don´t need anybody´s help. I don´t need SHANTI.

Keith said he really hated SHANTI at the time, although he knew it was not SHANTI´s fault, but because the Emotional support counselors/volunteers were there to listen, not to judge.

  • They are so non-judgemental, which is so important, because you don´t have to be afraid of what you can say, or what you can do, and tell them.

Here we were interrupted by Sarah who came to visit.

We all said hello, and she went with Keith to the kitchen, while Gery and I went in to speak in another room.

Here starts Gery´s story.

Gery was 37 years old at the time.

He was originally from Iowa, but had moved to Houston, before he came to San Francisco.

He used to be a bartender, but was now an accountant.

  • I work for the Opera.
  • That´s nice.
  • Yeah, it is, it´s real interesting.

When we spoke he had been diagnosed as having ARC, and been put on AZT.

  • At first it was just a weight loss, and then I started getting the night sweats and fatigue, then I got trush, a bad case of trush.

There were also problems with his blood and the doctor decided he would try to get Gery on the AZT-program.

  • I´ve been on AZT almost a month now.
  • What does it do to you?
  • Nothing yet, except for nausea all the time. But it takes a long time for it´s effects to begin. AZT is supposed to suppress the AIDS-virus from doing any more harm then it has already done.

Gery´s father had died in January that year, and he didn´t know Gery was sick, but his mother knew but had not responded at all.

  • But HIS mother is wonderful! She´s kind of adopted me, I´m also her son. So when ever she calls, we talk too.

Gery´s contact with his mother was not at all like that. When he told her she was sick, she asked him to send some information, and so he did, but he had not heard from her since.

She was also supposed to see his sister who worked in San Francisco at the time, and he asked if they could meet for lunch or something, since she would be in town for a week, but he never heard from her. He did not understand why she acted that way.

  • Is that painful for you?
  • … It causes a lot of anger. I guess I am angry because she is that kind of person, that she can´t accept it and be loving, cause I´ve always assumed that a mother accepts anything. And if it were cancer, I´m sure it would be different for her, or if it was Tuberculosis or something that I was dying from. If I´d been in a car accident it would be different for her, but… she just can´t accept it, and I don´t know why. I have a lot of anger about it, but I just try not to think about that much, that´s all.

As mentioned before, Gery had a SHANTI-counselor, and I wondered what it was like for him.

  • It´s wonderful… I started seeing Sarah two years ago, when we were taking care of Richard here in the house. She saw me through all that anger we had over that.

After the Richard-experience Gery only wanted to close him self to anything that had to do with AIDS.

  • Didn´t want to hear anymore about it, I didn´t want to help anybody, I just didn´t. That was it!
  • Because of the way he treated you?
  • Because of the bad experience we had – him telling people that we were starving him and freezing him to death. It was just real bitter.

Sarah also helped him when Keith was diagnosed, in what Gery called a nightmare; fighting with doctor´s, illnesses, hospitalizations and his own fears… of being able to deal with AIDS in the future.

  • Without Sarah there, I don´t know if I´d be here right now. There was a time when I was going through some real suicidal tendencies, right when my father died and Keith was real sick, and I just couldn´t understand why I had to keep giving up things, knowing that in the end it was just going to be for nothing.

Gery was going to lose what was most important to him, and that was Keith, so why go through all this torment.

But Sarah helped him, through anger and depression and periods of grief. She came to the hospital every day, and she would bring them little ”care packages”, as Gery called them, with food.

Gery could talk to her about things he could not share with Keith, it could be guilt; like why Keith and not him, and fear for the future.

  • I had a fear of being left behind, and if Keith´s gonna die, I wanna die too. Why do I want to stay here?

Gery felt he could not talk with Keith about that, he had to be strong for him.

  • So I use Sarah for all my weaknesses, (he laughed a little) and my tears, my anger and rage. And… it made an immense difference.

Gery talked about life being a roller coaster, and that the highs and lows were really high when it came to AIDS – that you never knew, from one minute to the next, what was going to happen. A lot was going on with Keith, he had recently seen a neurologist because he was shaking constantly, and he was disoriented and forgetful, and the doctor said he had anxiety attacks, which was sort of a relief, because they could cope with that. But now Keith´s lymph nodes were swelling, and was that dangerous? He could share the thoughts with Sarah.

Everything seemed to be in remission because of the Interferon-treatment, and he doctor´s thought Keith would be OK for the next three years because of the Interferon. But they wanted him to go back on chemo therapy, but he refused

  • What does that mean, when he refuses?
  • It mean that… he´d rather die than… to have to go back through that suffering.
  • Does that mean less than the three years?
  • No, it probably doesn´t, unless… Who knows? They don´t know. Everything is a guessing game. He´ll probably be… somewhat healthy for the next three years.

Gery said that Keith had been ”a little tower if strength through the whole thing”.

  • I don´t think I could have fought as hard as he´s fought, if I get sick, which I hope I don´t.

At the Opera, and they knew the situation, and they were very supportive. Several employees had died of AIDS, and they had had seminars, ”AIDS in the workplace- seminars.”

We talked about money, about medical bills. They both had insurances through their workplaces, but it did not cover everything.

  • You are very lucky that you have one another.
  • Yes we are very happy with each other, and that we have each other.

I wondered if they had discussed what would happen if one of them would die. And they had, it was everything from funeral arrangements to who would take care of the animals. The only thing they had not done yet was writing their wills, which they would do very soon.

  • Yeah, we have discussed in such depths and finality that we don´t think about dying anymore. We concentrate on living now, and try to do things that we enjoy doing.

Doctor Elisabeth Kübler-Ross talked about 5 stages of grief:  Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance, and I wondered where they were at.

  • Keith´s gone through the classic rounds, you know; denial, anger, the whole thing. I don´t know, I think I´m still in denial.

Gery did not only have HIV, he also had Pulmonary Fibrosis. Some of the dope he had been shooting up had been mixed with Talcum powder, and it ended up in his lungs.

  • The Talcum powder crystalizes, and over the years it is constantly lacerating the walls of my lungs, and it heals up with scar tissue. So my lungs are slowly filling up with scar tissue.

The doctor´s had said he would have to have an oxygen tank in a few years, in order to breath, because the capacity of his lungs would be so small that he could not do it himself.

  • So you know, (he laughed), one or the other is gonna get me. It´s kind of a game: Let´s see which!

Gery was angry at what the disease did to people, and what it did to Keith. He had seen him and other´s suffer,

  • Have you lost a lot of friends?
  • Yeah, we have lost a lot of friends, a lot of acquaintances, a lot of people that we know through other people… Yeah, it has really taken a toll on this community, and it is not slowing down at all. Not at all. 119 diagnosed cases last month, you know.

For a while Gery went to a SHANTI support group, and found it very beneficial. But after 6 months, he started to feel the effects of the virus, and it became harder and harder to go to the group meetings. He rather stayed at home.

  • Did it make you more, painfully aware of your sickness.
  • It´s real funny, because there could be nights when I´d walk out of the group meeting, and just go: ”I can´t take it anymore, I don´t want to hear another word about it!” But there were other nights when it would be just so fulfilling, and so relieving to realize that you weren´t the only one feeling these feelings. And this anger, this rage, that it was everywhere, that it kind of made you feel better about it. ”Oh well, I guess I am reacting the same way everybody else is.” So you didn´t feel so isolated, so it just depended…

But there were times when Gery didn´t want to hear about it, nor read about it, he just wanted to escape from it.

  • But you can´t, you know. There´s no escaping it. We could move to to the furthest spot, the most isolated spot in the world, and we ´d still have it, right there with us. Cause we´ve got it, we´re living it. There is no escaping it for us.

When Keith and Gery took the test, they didn´t think they were in danger, they denied the fact that they could have been exposed. They had cleaned up their act, and they thought they had caught them selves in time.

  • But little did we know, that the incubation period could be 8 years… Who could have guessed.

Keith and Gery had had a lot of friends, but some they had weeded out, as they found them to be Fair Weather-friends. They now had about 12 friends, that would be there for them, ”at any given time”, as Gery said, and help them, if Keith got sick, or it was something with the cats and dogs.

  • We have a lot of really good friends that are very supportive of us… I consider that very lucky, that we have that.

I asked again about Gery´s mother. He really would have liked to see her when she was in San Francisco. Didn´t she understand that they had to talk? Couldn´t he make her understand? But Gery did not think she understood.

  • That´s what I asked her, cause I said, ”You may not get a chance to spend anymore afternoons with me. THIS may be our last chance to sit down and share something with each other…” But I guess that´s too hard for her to face.

Gery felt very angry about it, and he wanted to confront her, but he had just resigned him self to the fact that she had so many problems with him being gay, and that he was sick, that she would not be able to overcome them,

  • Nothing I can say will make her change her mind. So, that´s the way it is, and that´s the way it´s gonna be. You know, I imagine she´ll have a lot of guilt once I´m gone, because she didn´t respond to me, but that´s something she´s gonna have to live with, not me.

So what were their plans now?

  • Just to live everyday to its fullest, and get as much happiness out of it as we can, that´s our only plan… That´s our only plan. Each day is important, just to be happy.
  • Has your life become more concentrated since this happened to you?
  • Yeah, we no longer do things for people that we don´t feel we have to. We don´t waste our times on things we don´t enjoy, that we don´t both fully enjoy.

They had done a lot of things to make their daily life much more easy to bear, and they concentrated on the quality of their lives much more now, than they had done before.

Gery wanted to continue work full time, as long as he could, but there were times when he was so tired when he woke up, that he could easily have stayed in bed, but he did not want to get to that point, so that motivated him, and they needed the money. Keith was not working but was taking care of their home, and Gery said it worked out great.

  • Yeah, Keith is at home, and he´s become a very good house keeper, very good cook. I love having him at home.

Keith came in, and I wondered what he would say to someone that had AIDS in Sweden He immediately started talking about setting up support services, because it would be so important for People with AIDS, to have someone to talk to, like a volunteer, someone non-judgemental who would just listen. It could save them, he said, because they are so shunned.

  • If one person can give a person with AIDS an hour, two, three hours a week of their time, they´ll realize them selves how important that is. That´s why I think so many people here are living with the disease, because of the support we have.

A lot of people with HIV/AIDS moved to San Francisco because of the support services, they had nowhere else to go. It could save them, Keith said, because they were so shunned.

  • Two or three hours a week is all that is required by most people.
  • In caring?
  • In caring, just showing a little bit of caring and hope and love. Emotional support is very important. I think that´s the first program that people should focus in on, that have no programs, because that´s what they need.  A lot of families will turn you away, and when your family turns you away… A lot of times there´s nothing left. But when that person comes in to your life for you to talk to, they can be the most important thing in your life. So support, I think, is most important.

Keith then told me about anxiety attacks he got, things that he thought he had suppressed, combined with all the mostly negative information out there. He had a counselor that he spoke to every week and that helped him a lot, because it just overwhelmed him.

  • That´s my way of cleansing my self, to tell her what is bothering me, or what I see out there that is hurting me.

Out of everything that was going on, I wondered what was most scary to him.

  • Is it your disease, or your death, maybe…?
  • My worst fear is being left alone…

Here Keith became very moved.

  • It scares me to death, and I… sometimes have a real strong sense of that I may lose him first, I mean… Cause he´s everything to me, everything, and…  I´ve had dreams, lots of dreams that I never tell him about… You know, I see the things that he´s going through now, that I went through four years ago, with ARC, and all the side effects from medicines and stuff. I´ve just seen too many people like him, as strong as he, you know… go, and just: That´s it!

But my worst fear is being left alone. He supports me a lot, emotionally and physically, every way, but losing him, is my worst fear.

  • What would you do?
  • I don´t know what I´d do, I really don´t.
  • His worst fear is losing you.
  • Really?

Keith looked really surprised and laughed a little.

Keith had planned everything that had to do with his death, he was to be cremated and he wanted to talk at the end, at the Memorial. He also had cassette tapes ready to be sent out, and some letters.

  • I am a member of the Hemlock Society.
  • What´s that?
  • They believe in self deliverance, euthanasia, suicide, and I just don´t want to ever be put on any machines, and when I feel there´s nothing else that can be done, that´s when I will… do what I have to do, in order to pass on, you know..

Keith again talked about his fear of loosing Gery. He had seen so many, as strong as Gery, suddenly get sick and die.

  • And I´ve seen a lot of people that are real weak, like I am, go through so much and hold on, and… I couldn´t imagine… being with anyone else. I mean… He´s really good, physically, mentally, sexually. We have… it´s kind of a healing process I think for both of us when we feel overwhelmed… with all the bad news, and there´s a lot of times when we just hold each other, you know, and cry together.
  • It is a unique situation. What you have together is rare.
  • It is very rare, we don´t hardly know anyone… that has stayed together and gone through what we´ve gone through, so our relationship is very valuable.

I asked a little about his religious background, and he was brought up in a Catholic family, but not practicing Catholics.

Keith had tried a little bit of everything when it came to religion.

  • I chanted for a while. I got in to Buddhism for a while, and I got tired of them telling me that if you chanted 3 – 4 hours a day you´d get rid of AIDS.

I, Pia-Kristina, had met a friend in New York  who was really involved with chanting and helping other´s, to the point where she lost her own self.

  • I used to have ten-twelve people here sometimes at night.

Keith showed how they all chanted in front of his Gohanza, while Gery was in the next room and almost ”died”, while it that was going on with incense and all.

Keith was told to chant morning and night, and said he was on ”such a guilt trip” when he wouldn´t do it at six o´clock in the morning, before he went to work.

  • But then, after I got to the hospital it was ok to chant once a day. I thought: ”Leave me alone.” I didn´t believe in this anymore.
  • You still have your Gohanza?
  • Yeah, I still have my Gohanza and scroll. (He whispered: It´s in the closet!) I tried a few things. I believe in crystals, healing crystals, like I carry crystals around with me, and that´s enough for me.
  • And you believe in Gery.
  • Oh!

As we left the room Keith thanked me for making him feel ”so comfortable”. He told me that most of the people that came to interview them were very demanding, they wanted tears and close-ups on grief, so that both Keith and Gery felt tired and used afterwards. So what he said felt good.

And then I got to meet Sarah Finnegan, Gery´s counselor.

  • He was my first client. We were matched together in July of – 85. I met Keith the second or third time Gery and I were together, and right away there was just a real… We had just the right chemistry the three of us.

Ordinarily a volunteer spend a few hours with the client each week, but this relationship turned in to something else, much more personal. Sarah was allowed to talk to me about Gery and Keith.

  • We spend a lot of time together, not just SHANTI-counselor time, but social time. We like to sit around and eat, watch television, go for walks. They come over for dinner, they know my children, and we´re all family together. And so … we´ve gotten to know each other pretty well. It´s a pretty intimate relationship, that Gery and I have.
  • He said some very good things about it.
  • It´s a very close relationship, sometimes it´s a bit complicated because  there´s the work I do as SHANTI-counselor, and I try to be very clear that I wanna be there for him in an unconditional way, in an un-judgemental way, and just… be there as a witness.  And then there is also the part of me that is his friend, that kids around with him, and we joke and laugh and tease each other, and sometimes I have to remember that I am his counselor, when I am with him, and other times I´m just his friend.

We talked some more about Gery, what it would be like to lose him. And she said that she did not want to think about it. It was like a wall that came down for her. But she wanted what was right for him.

  • I love Gery, and I want what is right for him, and so… If he chooses to end his own life, which is something he and Keith have talked about… I kind of feel… I went through this once with someone, and it was very painful, but that´s what that person chose, and that´s what that person needed to do. Whatever they do, however it ends…

She would not have had Gery and Keith in her life, had she not volunteered, and she talked about their relationship as a treasure. She would grieve, that they could not be together anymore.

  • But for Gery I won´t grieve, because he will be in a place that will feel good for him. I think we talked about it – for Gery death is a release. It´s a way of going on, it´s a way of going beyond what´s here…

Sarah tried to focus on what was going on that day for Gery, and whatever it was that was real for him.

  • He has this tremendous sadness in his eyes.
  • He is in a lot of pain, he has had this enormous pain in his life, but you see the other side of it is that he loves someone, and he is loved by someone, and when you have that in your life… I mean, I think that for him, that´s just real important, and real special to be able to love someone completely, and know that the other person loves you back….It´s kind of one of those things that make life complete. And we talked about that, and I think that there are also some great pleasures for him; taking care of the plants and loving the dogs, have their babies, and we have dinner together and we´re silly, I mean, that´s life!

Sarah talked about the ”SHANTI-experience”, that it is really special, and she referred to a man who had talked about it being a privilige, and that was how she looked upon it too.

  • I mean, I do feel that you couldn´t pay me enough money to do this work, I mean no matter how much you paid me, it would seem like it was a privilege to do it, and so to do it for free, and to be able to kind of do it from the heart.

There was suddenly a beep, and Sarah called out to Gery – It was time for him to take his AZT.

I was late for my next interview with Irene Smith, so we said goodbye, and Sarah drove me there.

I asked how come she had gotten involved with SHANTI, and it had started while she was going through a long grieving process. She told me I could interview her, and she would ask her other client, Larry, if I could talk to him.

This is the end of the Keith, Gery and Sarah-part, for now. We stayed in touch and I will return to them.

We met again in 1988, and there were letters and  mails exchanged.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I´m sitting here with Irene…

I am spending my New Years Eve 2021, with Irene Smith.

In the post called ”I have lived on signs… and impulses…”,  I mention that I sent a message to my friend Alison, about a man who died in 1989, but was not laid to rest until his mother died in 2020.

She answered that she could not write at the moment, she was with a friend who had just died,  ”I´m sitting here with Irene…”.

I thought it couldn´t be Irene Smith, because I had seen her on Facebook not long ago, so it must be someone else. But it wasn´t, it WAS the Irene Smith we both knew, and she had just died, surrounded by friends, in her home in San Francisco, where I had once interviewed her.

It was an American friend who showed me an article about Irene Smith, in 1987.

I have found a (blurry) photo from that time.

She had been a drug addict who had turned her life around, and was one of the few people that touched people with AIDS.  She volunteered at San Francisco General Hospital and at Hospice of San Francisco, as a Massage therapist.

Her story was so interesting that I sent a letter to the SFGH, asking if they could help me get in touch with her.  She eventually wrote and told me to contact her when I came to San Francisco.

My mother had died suddenly in June that year. I had before that written to Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, just trying to get in touch with her, and now I wrote again ”Furthermore, my mother just died”, and told her about my plans to go to San Francisco, to visit SHANTI and see Irene Smith. She never received my first letter, but answered to the second:

”All I know is that your mother died suddenly and that you are welcome and have made the arrangements to see Irene Smith and the SHANTI people in San Francisco and those were probably the most important news anyway.” (-)
”My SHANTI friends, especially my best friend, Irene, will take good care of you and will show you what you need to see.
I wish you a good journey and make sure that when you are with Irene that you give me  call. She has my number.
My love and blessings,
Elisabeth.”

I met Irene Smith in her  apartment, and she brought me out on her balcony and offered me a glass of water. There was however too much noise, so we moved inside.

She was dressed in white, and everything around her was white. Irene was very beautiful, and she seemed cleansed from everything. The only words I can think about are serene… serenity.

I knew she had been an actress, but had turned to drugs, and worked as a dancer and a prostitute to support her habit.  But she had somehow stopped, and was now doing AIDS work.

It was interesting to interview Irene. And a bit scary.

She would sit silent and just look at me, until I looked away. And when asked a question, she became like a computer that is stuck. She looked down on the floor, as if sorting things out in her head, and then she delivered an answer, somehow relieved.

So how  come AIDS work?

  • When do you want me to start?
  • Wherever you want to start.
  • Ok. I was lead to the workshops of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, and in these workshops Elisabeth talked a lot about the Hospice movement. She talked about dying patients.

Irene had had a Massage license since 1972, but she had never worked with it due to her drug use and alcoholism, but after three workshops with Elisabeth she called San Francisco General Hospital and asked if she could become a volunteer massage therapist at the hospital. They had never heard of that, but she was welcome to come and talk to them.

  • So I went and talked with them, and in April of 1982 I started as their first Massage volunteer.

In the summer of 1982, she was asked to see her first AIDS patient. She was not sure what that meant, but was shown how to protect her self, and then she started.

  • After the first… couple of visits with this man, I realized that not only did the touch work ease a lot of his physical pain, but it also seemed to ease a lot of pain of fear and isolation that was experienced with his friends and lovers, and whole support network.

Irene said that fear and isolation in the country in 1982 was so great, so that even if you had a network of friends, you were not touched, and friends did not stay close, because they did not feel safe.

  • So the simple fact that I was massaging him, I was touching and communicating, made things easier. So I decided that that´s where I needed to put my time and energy.

The word spread, and more and more people wanted to take part, because they were not touched, nor loved and nurtured, Irene said.

  • In 1983 when the 5 A unit in San Francisco opened, I asked them if I could go room to room in the 13 bed unit, and offer the service once a week, and they said; ”Well let´s try it.” So I started working up there, it was a Friday night, and I´d go in about 4 in the afternoon, and I´d stay until 11 or 12 o clock at night.  And the therapy was beautifully received, not only by the patients, but also by the Medical  staff, so by the middle of 1984 I was seeing patients at Hospice, I was seeing patients in my home, I was seeing patients in their homes, and I visiting the 5 A unit once a week, seeing patients.

Irene worked 7 days a week on a voluntary basis, and she was eventually given money by the AIDS Emergency fund, SHANTI and the Hospice she was volunteering at, so she could stay in the field, as she said. It was 700 dollars a month.

She was asked to train other volunteers, and it grew and grew, and eventually she created a program called Service Through Touch. Irene was asked to teach and do workshops both in the US  and Canada, and in Europe. I had hoped to go to a training in Copenhagen in 1990, but I was pregnant at the time and also sick and could not go.

I want to move on to the later part of the interview, when she spoke in a more private way about her life. Today I find some of my questions insensitive, but she answered, and I am grateful for that.

Irene was extremely busy when I met her, she was doing  workshops, had emotional support groups for volunteers both at Hospice and at the AIDS Ward. She also gave massages her self, to make a living.

And here I started asking questions about Irene, and later wrote on the side: ”The big silence. The interview with the long pauses.”

I wondered about her time as an actress, how long had she been active?

  • I don´t  really look at years of being an actress. I was a drug user and an alcoholic for 15 years, and a prostitute for 9 years, and in the… I really lose track of time there…Oh, probably not more than two  years.

I wondered if she had memory blocks from those years, and she repeated my question and sort of froze, and her eyes penetrated some memory,and then she continued:

  • I don´t necessarily have memory blocks. I´m very lucky to be alive! I was extremely stoned, I was extremely drunk, and the Los Angeles years are very very vague to me, which is, you know, ok…

Irene talked about the theater – and film business, about being young and vulnerable and beautiful, and people not necessarily being interested in her ability on stage.

  • How do live apart from giving massages?
  • What do you mean, how do I live?
  • It´s a private question. How do you live? Do you live alone?
  • … Yeah I  live alone with my cats… when I´m not working or doing a workshop, or… I prefer to spend my time alone…and for me a social life is taking a very long walk in the park, going to look at nature… or taking a long hot bath, or doing the sweat-treatment, or…sitting in the sun… those things which connect me back to nature, so that´s how I live. I live very simple.

Here started my insensitive questions, where I asked if she had a lover, and asked a Why, when she said no.  Some part of my brain did not connect with the fact that she had spent 9 years as a prostitute, and had probably seen the worst side of humanity in many shapes, and been used and abused.

Irene told me that she chose to not have a lover. She could not see how a lover would fit in to her lifestyle, nor where she would  put one on her schedule.

  • There are times when I feel that I could certainly use to be held, or… loved and nurtured in some way…but I seem to… have those moments very rarely, maybe once every couple of years… Yeah, that´s it.

And then there was silence.

  • I get as silent as you do between questions…But, if you give a lot, do you get as much back as you give?
  • Yes…I think this life, for me, is about… learning to love and accept my self… and it is about… raising my self esteem… and those points are fulfilled in my work… I don´t really have a division between personal life and work… Am I answering your question?
  • Yes!

Here I started laughing because she was so peculiar, every word seemed to be so incredibly measured and weighed and a sentence was not delivered until it was really ready.

I said that her work with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross must have changed her life. Irene talked about her life with abuse and prostitution.

  • When I went to  working with Hospice, I really didn´t come from a standpoint of ”I want to do service for these people” – I wasn’t coming from that concept. I was coming from the point of having been very opened in several workshops over a period of a year with Elisabeth, and reached a point where I was very confused.

The lifestyle I was living did not fit the personality that was coming up in me. It did not fit the vulnerable child that I seemed to be, at that period…and I didn´t know any other way to support my self, plus I really didn´t know how to go out and be part of the society.

I didn´t know anything but drugs and alcohol and prostitution, so… Elisabeth had talked about dying people being… very loving, very accepting, very open, and not concerned with cars, clothes, the latest theatrical presentation, or the most modern of conveniences. They were on a different path, and so I thought: That is the group of people I need to socialize with,  it´s dying people.

So Irene started working, silently touching the sick and the dying.

  • So what I did the first years of being with dying people, was reinstate… my…sense of…I came back to life with dying people. Ok?

Irene said it was a perfect setting for her, she could  be her self, she didn´t have to talk about things she didn´t know about, because, as she said, she had always been in the whore house on drugs. And she laughed a little.

  • As a matter of fact, the first two years of my volunteer work, I continued to support my self through prostitution. I´d do my volunteer work, you know,  in the day time, and late in the afternoon I´d go work in the House.

Here Irene laughed a bit, and I laughed a bit, not at her, but at the absurdity of the situation.

  • Hey! I continued to support my self that way until the community gave me funding, and then I was able to quit, because I knew I was on the right path.

Irene continued, saying that she had NOT supported her self through prostitution since the latter part of  1983, but there had also been other changes, because she had gone through another transition.

  • It took me from 1983 and til 1985 to get comfortable with living people. And starting about… the middle of 1985 I started being comfortable enough to NOT fill my days with being in the rooms of the dying, but have been able to orient my self more in to being with groups of living people that have an interest in the work. And it´s still very scary for me… but that´s the way I´ve reoriented myself back in to society.

Irene talked about how her work has changed. When I met her in 1987, she was working more with newly diagnosed people or people that were doing well on alternative therapies, she said, it was more helping them live with a quality to their lives, rather than helping them accept death.

  • See, when I first started I literary went from room to room of dying people, not just advanced stages-people, not just sick people, but last few months-people, or last few days-people, and after a few years of that… It used to be, if you didn´t have AIDS, and if you were not dying, I couldn´t possibly see you. Because… dying grabs our heart, you know, somebody dying sort of rips our hearts open, and I really needed… something that GOT my attention, and that really RIPPED my heart…                                                            The bird drinking water out of the fountain – if you really sit there and watch it, it will very much open your heart, and sometimes to the point of tears, because of its gentleness. But is has taken many years of extreme conditions of life, before I´ve been able to see the gentleness and openness in a bird, if that makes sense to you.. Yeah, so the work is changing. She laughed a little.
  • Will you be able to be only with people who are not sick and dying?
  • That´s a very broad question, because we are all sick and dying.
  • Ok.
  • I am finally being able to see, thank God, I am finally being able to see pain, without it being… pain of someone covered with lesions, gasping for their last breath.

Here Irene stopped her self, but said that she would continue her work with people with AIDS.

We moved over to the massage, and I will not write so much about this here, only a few things.

  • We give massage, primarily for  relaxation and pleasure. The patient may be under a high level of stress, due to fear, pain and  anxiety on physical and spiritual levels. Slow, gentle, loving touch, is used in order to offer the patient a time of peace and quiet.

Irene talked about being able to feel compassion and love for our selves, then we can communicate that to another person, by touching them, stroking them.

  • With loving them with our hands, if you will…

Irene mentioned different situations, just touching someone with a slow caring attitude.

  • Just the way that someone walks in to a patients room and says: Hello, and maybe that person connects with that persons eyes, and really looks at them, and  maybe the person is coming to the room, stops and takes a breath and breathes with that person – that´s a massage, that can be the most beautiful part of someones day.

For me, touch is not just a hand, touch is the eyes, touch is the breath, touch is the voice, touch is the body movements, and last, but not least, touch is the hand. But touch incorporates everything about our presence.

Here Irene talked about our own pain, how we need to address it, and work with it, if we are to help other people.

  • And that is whats needed with people with life threatening illnesses. It´s the eyes, it´s the breath, it´s the voice, it´s the rhythm – none of which we can connect  with, or use to connect with another human being, if we are all blocked up with our pain. The only thing you can do is heal your self to the point that your presence is healing to be in. You can only heal your own pain, to the point that you can sit with someone else who is in pain, and its bearable for you to be there.

Later we called Elisabeth Kübler Ross, and I was invited to come to a workshop on Death &  Dying, in New England.

I took some photos of Irene. It was too dark, but she is there, with a little scratch on the film:

I stayed in touch with Irene Smith, for a while, but we unfortunately never met again.

But to my joy I found that she was in the film about the AIDS Ward at San Francisco General Hospital, ”5B.”

There is so much more to read on her own page.

http://www.everflowing.org/irenesmithbio.html

Here is an obituary, Irene Smith passed away on April 4th, 2021.

https://www.ebar.com/news/news//304349

I posted this, and then it was 2022.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Death of a Young Man…

The Silent Suicides… The Secret Suicides…

I am really grateful to The AIDS Memorial, because it shows that it is not too late to write. I mean now, often after many years, people write about the death of their loved ones; partners, children, parents, friends – it is like the NAMES Project, not with Panels, but with photos and words.

I recently realized that I have written about the sudden death of my mother many times on Facebook – as if my relatives and friends have never heard about it before. It was quite embarrassing, but I know I did it because her death affected me so much.

But I don´t think I have written about a friend´s suicide, quite as often, although it was something that also affected me strongly. It happened in 1984.

Here is Per-Erik.

When someone very happy and positive suddenly commits suicide, it is very upsetting, because there is no warning. If people are depressed a lot, at least one can understand, but…

At the time of my friend´s death I connected his suicide with grief. He had suddenly lost his mother a few years before he died.

She went upstairs to have a rest after Christmas dinner, while the other family members took a walk with the dog, and they found her dead when they returned home. I don´t think my friend ever recovered from that shock. He was very close to his mother.

He was a young man from the countryside, and in 1984 he had just graduated from a Theater school in Stockholm, he had been hired at a Theater, and had landed a role on Swedish television. Everything was wonderful, and when I met him the last time he was almost glowing. We hugged and said goodbye.

I think one can postpone disaster.

If I understand it right, he kept him self very busy after the death of his mother. He rented a room in the home of an older actress, he studied, he kept him self very busy in the evenings, and was never really alone.

He went home that summer, and came out as gay to his father. According to one of his sisters it was met with silence. Coming out as gay during the first years of HIV/AIDS, can not have been easy.

The family eventually helped him move to the new city, and for a short while he shared the apartment with another actor, until that actor found his own place – and then my friend was alone for the first time in several years – and that is when he died.

He had hung him self in a closet. His former flatmate found him, after he had failed to come to rehearsals.

He had left some small messages on a table, but no suicide letter.

 

After my friend´s funeral, I happened to meet a man that was working in the church, in the parking lot, and we started talking.

He told me that my friend was the fourth or fifth young man, from that area, that had committed suicide around the same time.

And that was really … Was it a suicide pact? One can assume that they knew each other as they were from this little city, so did they trigger each other for some reason?

At that time I did not connect any of this to HIV/AIDS.

 

Many years went by, and after my retirement I moved to a city not far away from where my friend was raised.

I had hoped to finally meet my friend´s father, we had been in contact, but he was very sick, and passed away not long after I had tried to get in touch with him.

And I started to think about the other young men, it left me no peace.

I started to ask around. Did people know about these young men? Was my friend the last one, or did others follow him?

I eventually found out that several of the young men were homosexual, maybe all of them. And it made me wonder if they killed them self to spare their families, protect them against the shame in that little city – if they were all homosexual, maybe they were also affected by this new disease that struck homosexuals? Or the suspicion about it. Maybe it had nothing at all to do with that. But nevertheless several young men had died in that city.

I was thinking about their parents, their siblings. Had they known about the other suicides, or was it kept a secret.

I interviewed a nurse that I have mentioned before, Leif Larsson, who worked with HIV/AIDS-patients for many years, and he talked about ”the Silent Suicides”, where people just killed them selves, they didn´t say anything, they did not leave a letter, they just removed them self from this earth. I think one can add my friends suicide to that group.

I went to the church in that city and suggested that it should be addressed. Maybe it would help the surviving family members, if there was a church service about suicide – then it could come up naturally.

There was a service, but it did not take place in the big church as I had hoped, but in a very small church, outside the city. And not much was advertised about it.

I was supposed to speak, but just before the service began the priest asked me to speak after the service when coffee was served, but I refused – my friend´s family members had arrived, and I wanted to acknowledge him, and the other young men, in the service, in the church.

I talked about them, while the priest stood very very near me – she seemed to be worried that I would say something inappropriate.

At the coffee there was a woman who talked on behalf of Suicide Zero about the death of her son – and all that was well – but it had little to do with what had happened in and around 1984, in that area.

I am quite sure I know the reasons why it all became so strange – it had to do with protecting the man that had once spoken to me in the parking lot. He had not mentioned any names, but he had talked about the young men, and I think it is called that he broke protocol.

But it must also have had to do with guarding the memory of the young men.  And their families. So it was impossible, it really couldn´t be addressed. But they were at least mentioned in that service, to a handful of people.

I know there were many suicides in connection with HIV/AIDS in the US, I have read articles about that, and I have become aware of several suicides that can never be talked about. Silent, secret suicides.

However, I did write about a suicide last year, or actually a suicide-to-be, in a piece in this blog about Robert Locke, called: ”What can I say, I´m BOB. ” Please scroll down.

The death of my friend… He died before there was a real HIV- tests. I have found out that he was worried, because he had had a few relationships, but who knows… I just think it was too hard for him. He had said to a former partner that he thought it was hard to find love. Sex yes, but not love.

I want to finish this piece with a story that the former partner told me about him. The way he was.

He had decided to kill him self by jumping down from a very high place in Stockholm, and he started climbing over, but a man that was passing by caught him and saved him from falling. But that man was so upset about what had just happened, that my friend comforted him, instead of dying.

He is now resting with his parents in a little graveyard, surrounded by fields.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You either lose it completely…

In 1941 a book called ”Escape from Paris” was published in Sweden.

It was written by Lo Håkansson, a Swedish journalist.

For some time I have wanted to quote a piece in her book, about something she experienced during World War II, it was the bombing of a train station in Tours, France, with many casualties.

”When it was all over, I sat down at the same place where I had been standing all the time.

I was terrified over my self. How could one become so apathetic so one could calmly look at the shambles, calmly look at how the dead and wounded were carried away.

I did not understand my self any longer. I thought I knew my self rather well, and although I was sort of prepared for experiences, such as the ones I had just lived through, I had expected that some kind of reaction would appear.

That there didn´t seem to be any reaction at all, I assumed depended on a lack of feelings and compassion.

It wasn´t until much later that it dawned on me, that this was the way I reacted. You either lose it completely in sight of all these insane war experiences, or you become like a stone.”

I had a similar reaction, when it came to HIV/AIDS.

So many people died. It was funeral after funeral. And after a while I didn´t feel anything. It was time for me to go.

And still the experiences I had were limited in comparison to what the hospital staff and volunteers experienced in San Francisco, with so many people dying.

I was allowed to be an observer at a Care for Caregivers workshop in San Francisco in 1987, and saw people there that were stuck in grief, overwhelmed by all the death, unable to cry.

In the end, after my son was born in 1990 – having interviewed and followed sick and dying people all through my pregnancy – I decided to not get to know any new people with HIV/AIDS, just keep on following the people I already knew.

Eventually I started to feel again, remembering certain things that moved me, like…

Ron making a final grand gesture, because ”It can´t be over!”, booking tickets to New York on the cruise ship Queen Elizabeth.

Torgny having decided to make it home by him self, hardly being able to lift his foot on to the pavement.

Carl asking me to read a poem at his partners funeral… ”If you have time”.

And Lars, whose self portrait covers my Swedish book, I can picture him sitting down, trying to dry him self after a shower, a little area at the time, having no strength.

Lars trying to strike up a conversation with an old neighbor over the fence, but the woman continues to walk…

Lars talking in the night, not understanding he is dying, not understanding his lungs are filling up, talking and talking, worried about someone else… until his partner realizes that he has died.

Memories, lines, reaching my heart.

I took these photos of Lars in Greece, 1980, about a year before his journey to New York, where he thought he got infected with the virus.

I have lived on signs… and impulses…

Many years ago, in 1998/1999 I wrote a book about a group of artists, living in a block of old buildings in Stockholm, Sweden.

They were mostly painters and musicians, born between 1907 – 1930, and they lived there because they wanted to be with like-minded people that they could share company with, and they all wanted to continue working.

They practiced on their pianos, they went to their ateliers if they had one, or stayed at home and painted and painted. They had one thing in common as they grew older, and that was that they had very little understanding for their bodies, when it let them down.

I am there now, as I have turned 70. I have a very strong desire to write, but everything goes slower and slower. The Pandemic, and not being able to travel and meet like-minded people, has not helped at all.

One can say that I have lived on and been inspired by signs and impulses, sometimes from posts in the AIDS Memorial, and from sudden messages.

Some of you, who have read things I have written here before, may remember a piece called  ”Ashes”.

One of the people I wrote about in ”Ashes” was Charles, a public spokesperson that I met at The AIDS Project of the East Bay in Oakland in 1987.

After his death, in 1989, I got in touch with his mother, and when I asked where he is buried, she told me he wasn´t buried, that she saved his ashes, so they could be buried together.

I recently found out that she has passed away, so I tried to contact the family through the Funeral Home to send my condolences, and ask if they are now buried together, after all these years. But I received no answer, and thought that I may never know what happened.

But, suddenly, I received an e-mail from a brother of Charles.

As he was going through his mother´s papers, he found one of my letters. We had lost contact, but I kept on writing, and was in the process of sending her a new letter, when I found out that she had passed away.  It seems like the family had not seen the condolences I had sent through the Funeral Home.

He told me that she passed away in 2020, at 93 years of age, from Covid-19.

I sent him the piece I had written about ”Ashes”, where this photo of Charles is shown. He wrote back and told me that it was taken in 1987 when Charles was visiting, and that their mother always kept that photo displayed in her dining room until she passed away.

And, he could tell me that Charles is now buried beside his mother and father. It feels peaceful, and I am most grateful for the message.

Let me add something!

When the brother of Charles, contacted me, I was very excited and I contacted a friend in San Francisco, Alison. We had been communicating about Charles and the ashes, and the fact that I may never know.

But now I knew, so I was very pleased and wrote to her. But she wrote back that she couldn´t answer, because she was sitting with a friend of hers that had died.

  • I´m sitting here with Irene…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The little girl on the cover of Newsweek

I remember this cover from September 1987 so well, and I have always wondered what happened to the little girl.

Now, through The AIDS Memorial page, I have  found out.

The girls name was Boobie, and she passed away a few months after the cover was published.

She became a representative for all the children that were affected, either by being infected them selves and/or becoming orphans. 

Boobie´s mother gave birth to six children, while using drugs.  They lived with their grandmother. Bobbie had a younger brother, Lil Eddie, who also passed away.

The woman who tells the story is one of their cousins, who also lived with the family. She said that Boobie and Lil Eddie were treated like Angels because they were so sick.

They both died at home, and the extended family stayed with other family members or friends during that ordeal.

The children are buried together, but not with their parents.

I eventually made contact with the family, and was told that the parents did not have money for the burial, so it was given to them by Social services or something similar – and here is what drugs do to people  – the parents used the money to drugs.

In the end, a woman who had lost her son in an accident, offered the family space for the children in that grave.