It was the spring of 1986 and I was fifteen years old. My father's favorite brother and our favorite uncle, Gerry, had come over for what would turn out to be his final visit. I don't remember being told in advance how his illness would make him look. I don't think I remember being told how he'd become ill. 'His immune system is under attack; it's compromised.' Okay. So what did that mean? What that meant was that a previously healthy, tall, trim man of 43 years had been reduced to a frail and bent figure who was not at all the uncle who had previously been able to pick me up and carry me in his arms when I was still in single digits. He now walked with the aid of a cane. He came to the house wearing a knit cap and pea coat & it wasn't cold. He couldn't even eat the small slice of bread and cold cuts that was to be his lunch.
Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone had been murdered. The 70s were long gone. I was a teenager living in Pacifica, CA., not 20 miles south of San Francisco. It could have been miles and years away from what was happening with such ferocity to people I knew and loved living up in the City. Uncle Gerry was sick; 'Uncle' Ric was, somehow, not. Gerry and Ric had met in SF back in '67 while Gerry was still married. They had quietly begun a relationship. Eventually, Gerry's marriage broke-up and Ric and Gerry then lived together as an out, gay couple from that point on. Theirs was a great love that lasted until Gerry's death in '86. Ric drifted away from the family after that. My cousin and I would occasionally bump into Ric in the City throughout the 90s. We had asked him why he'd stayed away after Gerry's death. He said that he couldn't face the family because it hurt too much. I was always so glad to run into him. He didn't seem to want to remember and I didn't want to forget.
I know that Dad and my siblings went to the City to have a final visit with Gerry as his time became short. I don't know where I was or why I wasn't included in the visit. I wish I could have given him one more hug. Uncle Gerry died before the year was out. He opted not to go into hospital and instead stayed in the apartment he and Ric shared on Fulton Street, choosing to die at home with his partner by his side.
I have a vague memory of, perhaps, returning from having gone out to dinner with Dad. It was dark out and he'd opted to not turn the kitchen light on once we'd gotten inside the house. He needed to tell me something. We stood in the darkened kitchen and he told me that Gerry had died. Then Dad began to cry. It was a pinched, pained sobbing that made me feel both startled and sad. We stood there in the dark for what felt like a long time.
Last night I happened upon a documentary entitled, 'We Were Here' on BBC 4 chronicling the AIDS epidemic as it hit San Francisco in the early 80s experienced by five people who lived through it. They were the fighters, lovers, carers, healthcare professionals and friends of those who died. I'm so very grateful that director David Weissman decided to take on this project. His interview subjects were a window into what it was like to live through something so devastating. Their clear, thoughful, and, at times, emotional discussion of local life during the height of the crisis is both illuminating and invaluable to me. It's been thirty-one years since the epidemic began and and twenty-five years since Uncle Gerry horribly and painfully died of 'AIDS-related complications'. They were there and, thankfully, lived to tell about it.