It was a sunny Friday morning in January 1991, when Tom died. I don’t remember everything, but I do remember watching from the kitchen as the home healthcare nurse and funeral director bundled his body into a zippered bag, rolling the stretcher onto the porch, lifting it down the stairs, and into the ambulance at the curb. There was a momentary pause as the world seemed to shift, and then Tom’s parents and brother hurried off to make arrangements for the hundreds of details brought about by a death in the family. I felt numb, going through the motions to execute a plan put together in introspective moments during Tom’s long illness. I called my Mom and my friends Vicki and Danny, extracting promises that they would arrive soon, and then shuffled through the empty, eerily quiet house to a chair in the living room, where I sat, shivering in the sunshine streaming through the window.
Tom was the kindest, most generous, most loving man I’ve ever known. He made me laugh. I think of him every day, and when I do, he still makes me laugh.
Death of the one you love more than any other is almost unbearable in its finality. The loss leaves an empty, aching yearning for what was. Everything feels wrong. It’s as if the very air you breathe no longer sustains you. Nothing is right. Nothing can ever be right again.
In so many ways it feels like yesterday. It’s not the time. In spite of what you’ve heard, time doesn’t heal the pain. No, the pain is still there. It’s more like the loss becomes part of you – like extra muscle from all those reps at the gym or the tissue covering a childhood scar. It was a very different time and AIDS was a different plague, but now as we fight through COVID, perhaps it’s enlightening to detail which bits are common. I find it’s mostly the sense of being surrounded, the uncertainty of what to do, the longing for a place to hide, the shunning of others, the fear. This time, so far, COVID has barely touched my circle of friends. Only a few are sick and just two have died. Back then I lost dozens of friends. In my life, if COVID is a Mac truck, AIDS was a freight train.
Is it odd that I still feel Tom’s presence? He’s with me in the touch of the sunshine and the inky void of the night. I hear his voice calling me, joking with me, haunting me. It’s a shadow of the past that lives inside me. It fills me with joy and hope. I am grateful.
Thirty years and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about love, loss, and the human condition, it’s this – life goes on, it tickles your desire and brings you pain, it demands your attention and ignores your confusion. And just when you think you’ve had enough, when you feel no joy and you’re asking yourself what’s the point, just then, a child laughs. Life goes on, and we must too.
We all have the capacity to succumb. We all have the capacity to overcome.
Life is running with the bulls, swimming with sharks, a walk along the cliff. We are dancing on the point of a needle, but oh, what a beautiful dance.