Friday, July 27, 2018

We Were Here

It was the spring of 1986 and I was fifteen years old.  My father's favorite brother and my 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 man 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 a few cold cuts that was to be his lunch.

San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone had been murdered some eight years earlier.  The sort of permissive decade of the 1970s was over.  I was a teenager living in Pacifica, CA., not 20 miles south of San Francisco.  But 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.  Sadly, Ric drifted away from the family after that.  My cousin and I would occasionally bump into Ric in the Castro (SF's gay quarter) 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 and theirs friends 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. 

About five years ago, 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 over 30 years since the epidemic began and Uncle Gerry died a painful death due to 'AIDS-related complications'.  The documentary film subjects were there, too, and, thankfully, lived to tell about it.

The brothers--Uncle Gerry, far left.

10 comments:

  1. Heartbreaking wasn't it? And the fear and the prejudice were obscene.
    A friend who started his first gay relationship in the 90s discovered his partner was HIV positive. When Brian died the funeral director sealed the coffin and refused to let his family see him because 'he was diseased and I have to protect my staff'.

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    1. That must have been terrible for Brian's family & partner.

      My uncle was cremated & his ashes were spread at Land's End here in town by his brothers.

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  2. A heartbreaking story about your uncle and his partner. So awfully sad that gay people couldn't live their lives they actually wanted. In a lot of countries all over the world this still hasn't improved.
    To be quite honest, in the Netherlands - where the gay marriage was invented, where gay people could do whatever they wanted, live the way they preferred - there is less and less tolerance towards gay men and women, especially towards men. This is very frightening!
    On the other hand I know a lot of gay couples (e.g. many friends of our children, a nephew and his husband, our neighbours) who live very happy lives without having too many problems. Though I have to admit they are not the extravagant type of gays you see on the canal parades (formerly Gayprides), which may be the reason for them not being insulted, hooted after etc. by the narrow minded.

    One of our grandsons (the one in Amsterdam) is a child of a gay couple and the daughter of my husband. They share his upbringing. A really good solution for a woman without a partner (then, this has changed in the mean time) and a men-couple that want to become parents. Our grandson is living a very happy life.

    I thought the film about Harvey Milk was a terrific one, like 'Dallas Buyers Club', which was on Dutch tv last week.

    Fortunately there is good treatment for HIV-effected people nowadays. The opposite side of it is that young ones don't mind about protection when having sex because of this.

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    1. I was nodding my head as I read your response.

      Where I live in California, outward disrimination toward gay, bi, other-identifiying folk is rare. My cousin & his partner have two children (via egg donor & surrogate). Theirs is a lovely family with well-adjusted, happy children.

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  3. Replies
    1. Yes. The documentary, We Were Here, is really illuminating. If you've the inclination & a box of tissues nearby, then I recommend watching!

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  4. Sorry for your loss, Bea. A beautiful and touching tribute to your uncle and family. Got me a little misty-eyed at work.

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    1. Oooh, oopsie! It was a weird time back in the mid-eighties, as I'm sure you recall. Rock Hudson dying in front of our eyes, Reagan referring to AIDS initially as the 'gay disease', etc.

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  5. Very sad. I'm sorry for your loss. Who knew back then that AIDS and HIV wouldn't continue to be the death sentence it was then? I think people nowadays have no idea how scary it all was.

    On one of the other blogs I follow, they're just starting a bike ride to raise funds for an AIDS center of some sort. (Sorry, I'm sort of vague on the details.) They do this every year, and the blogger has been involved with the group for a long time. The Yarn Harlot. You might find what they're doing interesting.

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    1. Cool. I'll check out the blog!

      Yeah, I hear that the push for safe sex isn't what it was among younger men. The fear of death isn't looming like it once was, to be sure.

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