Friday, August 21, 2015

Cry Me a River

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.


Emma Gonzales said...

Very well said...I remember those day like it was only yesterday and my heart still hurts for those we said goodbye too. Even those I didn't know. I wish there were some magic words I could say to take away the pain in your soul of your brothers suicide, but I have none. I can only cry with you. I love you, Nori. I've always loved your sermons, I use to love to hear you speak on Sundays back in the day. You've always been someone I've admired and always will.

Unknown said...

Hugs, and thanks.

I want to remember, so please do tell the stories if you can bear it. When AIDS hit the mainstream news, I was about 14: old enough to be scared, but young enough and in a closeted enough world that I didn't know anyone, or didn't know I knew anyone, who was directly affected. I had one out gay male friend, who had an older boyfriend, and I worried about him; that was all. I didn't lose friend upon friend, and it was only years later, when I saw images from the NAMES quilt, that I even knew we'd lost famous people I cared about, such as the wonderful actor Denholm Elliot.

Michael Piazza helped evoke that time for me when I was in a workshop with him in February and he talked about being the pastor of a gay church in 1987. A funeral every few days. History recedes very fast if you weren't there yourself, so these stories help keep the memories alive.

Heather McNally said...

Very on target.... :)

Back in the 80's and 90's till protease inhibitors came on the scene.... you had to go out to the bars weekly, if you missed a week you might miss a chance to tell someone you loved them and cared about them.... because you'd go and find out they had passed that week.

Locally we formed AIDS Care teams.... to help ourselves and the people living with AIDS.... little did i know how much i'd need that info....

I had a few CLOSE friends die of AIDS during that time, and my BIL was diagnosed right at the beginning of the protease inhibitor phase.... thankfully i can say it was one of the best things that could have happened to him, and he is still with us some 18 yrs later.

It is pretty odd how this is no longer talked about....

Thanks for sharing, and keep on sharing....

John said...

Thanks Nori. You got it all right. Not only does the world want us to forget and move on, we've now spent a couple of decades trying to forget as well, hence the years of crystal meth and other addictions, sliding back into the unsafe behavior, and just not talking about it. Having lived through it like you, I find myself enraged at younger gay men at times seeming not to understand what we went through. But how could they? We don't communicate about it and when we do, we come across as angry old men screaming "get off my lawn!"

I am glad that some of us are finally able to break through that silence and feel our grief and maybe heal a bit from the trauma of so much suffering, death and loss. We'll never be "over it," but we can start to see the beauty of that time as well, when we took care of each other and fought for each other, loved one another as folks do in the trenches.

I miss every one of my friends who passed, and I would not go back to that time, but no longer do I wish that it never happened either. I have come to embrace it as my history.

Thanks again!

Thecheerfulnihilist on tumblr said...

I was just checking your blog for the first time and got hit in the gut with echoes of the same conversation I have in my head all the time. I decline to talk about my experiences when conversations lead to this decimation of life, of walking with so many patients at Harbor/UCLA Med Ctr to the end of their lives in the early nineties. All died within a year of diagnosis except two when I left after 3 years. Beautiful young men, unknowing wives, orphaned children, all precious. I hope that I remember them all. I promised that I would. They are the ghosts in my head who changed me immediately and irrevocably. Sometimes I talk with them but never about them. I'm afraid that I would do them a disservice with my inadequate representation of how alive and precious they were, the tragedy, loss, the eviserating powerlessness, the spewing hatred from the fear and ignorance of those others. It was a time that taught there is no God, that people choose to hate rather than to be kind, that grace is a myth and that we are, each one of us, ultimately alone, that life is suffering and pain. There is no redemption and life is a vapor gone in the atmosphere. Gone forever.