Had a moment last weekend that both surprised and shook me.
Our dear friends are on vacation right now, and they got word on Sunday that their dog, a handsome boxer named Prince, had run off. The gate had been left ajar, and the noise and fireworks from a neighboring party had frightened him. He is an old dog, half blind and half deaf, who is on regular medication. We love that dog, so we went to help look for him. Other friends and family members were already in the area, canvassing in a radius of a few miles from his home.
Mr. Stuck and I touched base with other searchers and then drove slowly around, up and down driveways and in and out of neighborhoods, calling for Prince. We had dog treats and water and flyers with his photo and some contact numbers. We spoke to several people, but nobody had seen him. There had been a sighting earlier that morning, but he was skittish and wouldn’t come when called. He was within mere feet of the caller, and he knew her — but he was scared and ran off.
As we drove around, our route doubled back upon itself, took us down unmarked roads, and would have gotten me lost had I been alone. Fortunately, though, Mr. Stuck has uncanny skills when it comes to navigation, and he knew precisely where we were at all times. In fact, as we drove down yet another dirt road, he pointed out a driveway and said, “That’s where Jon lived.”
“Jon?” I said. “Jon who?”
“Jon! You know, your friend, Jon?”
I was puzzled at first, and then I realized what he was saying to me; I realized where I was. ‘Jon’ was my late friend Jon, who died in 1994 at the tender age of 32. We had just passed the driveway where my friend Jon’s parents had lived, the house I had visited so often, in happy times and sad. It was a big house for a big family; like me, Jon was the youngest of seven children. The house sat up on a bluff and looked down over the water; it was a very lovely home, and I enjoyed visiting whenever I could.
I had Mr. Stuck drive past again, because it looked so different. I couldn’t see the house from the end of the driveway, but I knew he was right. He said, “It’s all overgrown now — it’s been 20 years since you’ve been there, I’m sure.” He was right, but the address was there on the sign, and I knew that address — I had written so many letters to Jon when I was in college, how could I have forgotten?
The search for Prince was pushed out of my mind for a moment while I digested what I had seen and tried to steady myself amidst the onrush of memories. How could I have forgotten, indeed. I had driven past the main road from which the driveway branched numerous times on my way to our friends’ home, only a mile or two beyond, and yet I had never ventured down the old road to the old house. Maybe it was a subconscious effort to protect myself, to save my heart from remembering that painful loss. I decided it was an unforgivable travesty of our friendship that I did not even remember where he had lived, and I have been beating myself up ever since.
Recently, I had begun allowing some of those memories back out of cold storage after reading a post in Boles Blogs about Kaposi’s Sarcoma. It brought back so much of the times in the 80’s and early 90’s where many of my friends and acquaintances became infected with HIV (called HTLV at the beginning) and subsequently succumbed to full-blown AIDS. I don’t like remembering that time; it was harsh and ugly and heartbreaking. Whispers mentioned friends from college and from my social circle who were ill or who had died. There was a lot of fear and a lot of unknowns back then.
I remember the phone call. It was a gorgeous, sunny day, and my apartment looked out over the water. I was happy to hear from Jon, but immediately noticed something different in his voice. “What’s wrong?” I asked. Jon told me that he and his partner, Carl, had recently been tested, and they both came up positive for the HTLV antibody. “That only means we’ve been exposed to the virus, not that we’re sick,” Jon hastened to explain. “We have no symptoms, and we’re fine. Don’t worry about us.” My heart was leaden with the news. Nobody really knew about this ‘gay cancer’ that had recently been making the news. All anybody knew was that it was taking gay men down with frightening speed, and it was not a nice way to die. It was a disease associated with suppression of the immune system, which meant that any and all opportunistic infections could swoop in on someone who couldn’t fight them, and that person would die.
I was scared for my friends. I read as much as I could about AIDS and its treatments, its victims, its politics. People were (rightly) terrified to get this disease — a death sentence — which was thought to be passed along on dirty needles or via exchange of bodily fluids, but nobody knew for certain. Families turned their sons away, friends no longer hugged, and a deep suspicion fell on gay men. Blood banks clamped down and denied donations from anyone suspected to have been exposed. Dentists and health workers began donning masks and gloves to deal with people for fear of exposure.
It wasn’t long after the phone call that Jon’s partner, Carl, became sick. He could no longer lift his arms; he lost a lot of weight; he became very weak; and developed lesions. He also developed thrush in his mouth. It was horrible to see him wasting away, frail, miserable, and terrified of dying. He had constant diarrhea and pneumonia, and seemed to contract any infection that came around. His parents came from Ohio to Washington State to bring their son home to die. They put a few of his things in a bag (just a few — they didn’t want to touch anything for fear they’d get sick, too), carried him to the car, and drove away. They didn’t even let Jon and Carl say goodbye.
All letters were returned, unopened. At some point, one came back stamped, “DECEASED.”
Jon eventually developed AIDS, although that is not what ended his life. He lived a very long time in final stage AIDS, which was pretty rare back then. It is difficult for me to reconcile my memories of my lively, wickedly smart and funny friend with his sad, final years.
Mr. Stuck and I spent about four hours looking for Prince, calling for him down many dirt roads. On one of those roads, I found something I hadn’t been looking for — a hard little knot of memories buried deep inside. Prince was found several hours after we drove home, safe but tired and hungry.
I will write more about Jon, because his friendship was a stalwart place in my life, and because he deserves to be remembered better. He taught me many lessons through his living and his dying, and I am forever grateful to him.