as a writer, and a lay person I have interviewed and followed a number of people with HIV, both in Sweden and in San Francisco, and I have also followed partners, family members, volunteers and staff at hospitals, and places like Coming Home Hospice, Names Project and SHANTI in San Francisco.
The title To be a witness comes from an interview I made with a volunteer in San Francisco, Gary Shepard. He said he was there to witness the suffering of his client, because if no one saw it, it was meaningless.
I had to add the word really, To really be a witness, to avoid songs and Christian links with testimonies of faith on the Internet, but I don´t mind; To really be a witness is good, to really see, to really hear.
This work started at a graveyard in Stockholm, in 1986, and I will write a bit about what happened in Sweden, but this blog is mainly about what I saw and heard in San Francisco, and Oakland, from 1987 until today.
You are welcome to follow me on my journey, as I look back.
So how did it all start?
In the summer of 1986 I worked in a graveyard in Stockholm, thinking outdoor work would do me good. But I was depressed after a good friends suicide in 1984. He was a young gay man, one of the most cheerful and happy men I had ever met, so his suicide was a shock. Much later did I wonder if it had something to do with HIV. He left no message.
I had different chores at the graveyard, one of them was to take care of boxes with ashes that undertakers brought to the graveyard, and take them to the chapel. There was no order in that chapel. The boxes stood everywhere, upside down, on chairs, on the floor, and on the hat rack. I thought it was unworthy and I complained about it to the ordinary staff, but they thought I was just oversensitive.
One day we had some visitors during our coffee break, and their favorite subject seemed to be to talk about gay men and AIDS, in graphic details – how they got the virus. I tried to stop them by telling them that I had known a man that had died of AIDS, and that his ashes were to be buried in this very graveyard. But that did not stop them, far from, so I left the room, almost dizzy of all I had heard.
That was the day I started thinking about writing about people with AIDS.
A month later one of the workers told me to pick up a box of ashes that he, for some reason, had placed on the hat rack in our dressing room. I reached up to get it, and I found to my amazement, that it was the man that had died of AIDS, Peter C.
I brought the ashes in to the boss and said that this man must not to be placed in the chapel among the other´s, and that we had to bury his ashes immediately, because I knew his partner was also sick. And early next morning, he was buried.
After that I started preparing for this work, having no idea where it would take me, nor that it would take so many years.
In 2018 I published a book called There are few who talk about them. It is a diary from 1985 until 2018, where I present notes and interviews with people with AIDS, family members, partners, and also people working with AIDS, nurses, a priest, and an undertaker. That is the Swedish part of the work.
What I will do here is something similar, but most of it has to do with the people I met in San Francisco and Oakland, in 1987.
It has been my hope to make a book, but I think it is wise to do it this way. It is really hard to get a book published, especially on this subject – and I don´t want us all to have worked in vain.