Once, When We Were Heroes
My brother Richard smiles a lot. He has an easy laugh. But there was a time when he begged his dying lover please, please don’t swallow this, I can’t bear for you to die yet. A time when Richard held the poisonous drink they had prepared together and wept.
It was his lover’s wish to die on his own terms if things became unbearable, a promise one to the other, but when that time arrived Richard wanted another moment, just a little more time to say “I love you, Emil,” over and over again before the drink would close Emil’s eyes and quietly kill him.
Emil took the drink from him, quickly, because the release it offered was something more rapturous than the appeals of his lover of thirteen years.
Richard has a charming store in my hometown today, where he sells collectibles and does theater in his free time. The drink was consumed twenty years ago.
There are people who displayed remarkable courage, then. People who lived and died by their promises and shared the intimacy of death, and then the grief subsided and lives moved on.
But make no mistake, there are heroes among us right now.
There is a shy, friendly man at my gym with silver hair and a handsome face. There was a time when his sick roommate deliberately overdosed after his father told him that people with unspeakable diseases will suffer in hell. My gym friend performed CPR for an hour before help arrived, but the body never heard a loving word again.
There is courage among us, astonishing courage, and we summoned it and survived. And then years passed and a new job happened and we changed gyms.
There was a time when old friends called to say goodbye, and by “goodbye” they meant forever. When all of us had a file folder marked “Memorial” that outlined how we wanted our service to be conducted. When people shot themselves and jumped off bridges when they got their test results.
There is profound, shocking sadness here, right here among us, but years went by and medicine got better and we found other lives to lead. Our sadness is a distant, dark dream.
My best friend Stephen just bought a new condo. He’s having a ball picking out furniture. But there was a time when he knew all the intensive care nurses by name. When a phone call late at night always meant someone had died. And just who, exactly, was anyone’s guess.
Stephen tested positive in the 1980s shortly after I did. Yet only a few months after the devastating news he agreed to facilitate a support group with me. We regularly saw men join the group, get sick and die, often within weeks.
Watching them disintegrate felt like previews of coming attractions. But Stephen was remarkable, a reassuring presence to everyone, and worked with the group for more than a year despite the emotional toll and the high body count.
There is bravery here, still, living all around us. But the bravest time was many years ago, and times change and the yard needs landscaping and there’s a brunch tomorrow.
There is compassion here, enough for all the Saints and deities acting in concert. Infinite compassion for men who lived in fear and checked every spot when they showered, and for disowned sons wasting away in the guest room of whoever had the space.
But we get older, and friends don’t ask us to hold their hand when they stop breathing, and the fear fades and I bought new leather loafers and the White Party is coming.
The truth is simply this. My most courageous self, the best man that I’ll ever be, lived two decades ago during the first years of a horrific plague.
He worked relentlessly alongside a million others who had no choice but to act. He secretly prayed to survive, even above the lives of others, and his horrible prayer was answered with the death of nearly everyone close to him.
To say I miss that brutal decade would only be partially true. I miss the man I was forced to become, when an entire community abandoned tea dances for town hall meetings, when I learned to offer help to those facing what terrified me most.
Today, the lives of those of us who witnessed the horror have become relatively normal again, perhaps mundane. We prefer it. We have new lives in a world that isn’t choking on disease.
But once, there was a time when we were heroes.
Mark King is a longtime activist and writer living in Fort Lauderdale. He can be reached at email@example.com