Recently, I’ve been very emotional. I suspect hormones might be in play here, but I can’t talk about Cecil the lion, recount a moving passage from a book I read nearly a year ago, or watch certain commercials without getting verklempt. Well, more than verklempt, really; almost on the verge of ugly crying. I’m serious here.
I’ve always been a touch sentimental but it is getting worse (better? You be the judge.) There are two things, however, that I have never been able to talk about for long before the tears well up in my eyes and my throat constricts with a mass of grief struggling to get out or go deeper in; I’m never quite sure which: my brother’s suicide and the US AIDS years. Both of these have created deep canyons in my soul, brimming over with grief. For these two things, no matter how many tears I cry, I will never be able to empty out these canyons; there are vast untapped reservoirs waiting, still.
I tapped into one of these canyons last night, while my son, Sam, and I were watching the movie “RENT.” It’s one of our favorites; we know all of the songs and sing along, assigning ourselves different parts (you be Mark on this duet, and I’ll be Roger, and so on.)
Midway through, a song entitled Without You comes on. It focuses primarily on a broken relationship between two of the main characters—Mimi and Roger—but interspersed with their montage of heartache is a montage that brings me to tears just writing about it (see what I mean???) in which an AIDS support group is shown; nothing much-- just a small circle of people in folding chairs, only as the song goes on, the people disappear and you understand that they have died.
When the song came on last night, Sam said, very solemnly, “This is such a sad song.” I, of course, was making that strangled sound you make when you’re trying not to cry, while tears poured down my face. Sam looked at me with compassionate concern. I struggled to say, “It’s really sad to me, because I lived through those years. I lost 33 friends to AIDS and knew many more who died. And did memorial services for untold numbers.”
“Think of it,” I said. “It would be like you losing 33 Brandons or Sams (friends of his.)”
Suddenly I was struck by the realization that there are many of us survivors—mainly queer folks, but straight allies, too— for whom those first 15 years, 1980—1995, (the year Sam was born) when the protease inhibitors came on the scene and stopped the floodgates of death-- cut deep canyons of grief, with untapped reservoirs of tears, and now we have children who know nothing at all about how those years impacted us, impact us still. It’s like escaping from the pogroms or ethnic cleansing and then going on to have a family that knows nothing about it.
In some ways, though, it is like the entire country wants us to keep silent, to move on, and to let it go. Not just now, but then, too, during those dark days. As one ACT UP activist said, it was like fighting a war that only the combatants knew about. No one wanted us to talk about it then and no one wants us to remember—at least not so viscerally—now. Unfortunately, that is impossible. It is always with us. It moves through the rivers of blood in our veins, always very close to the surface. I realized that anew last night.
And it got me wondering: how has this history impacted my parenting? How has the grief shown through the cracks? How can I explain this to my son in a way that will make sense to him and not just be a dry history lesson? (Note: intentional pun; no way my eyes will be dry through that conversation.)
I don’t have any answers here, just a clear understanding that our children, our collective children, need to know about this era in a deeper way, they need to understand how it changed us, how we are marked, how we wrestled with the angel of death through that long, long night and now forever walk with a limp. They need to know, Sam needs to know, the source of these tears. These tears aren’t related to hormones at all.