December 1st, 2006

On This World AIDS Day

In the summer of 2005, I lost three family members in the space of a few weeks. Sadder still, this was not the first (or even second) time this has happened. My cousin Lynn died after a life-long, excruciating battle with hemophilia and a valiant 10 year fight against AIDS. My cousin Robb died when the car he was driving was run over and subsequently crushed by a tractor trailer at 70 MPH on a highway, killing him instantly or so they say. From the look of the car, I cannot imagine how he could have lived longer than that after the impact. Their deaths, as well as that of my oldest Aunt, were all within the space of a month and a half. My cousin Terri called me Tuesday to inform me that her grandmother (my aunt, whom we've only ever referred to as Nanny) died.

I've been thinking a lot about all of them lately, and this year in addition to the usual melancholiness that comes around the holidays I am also feeling a lot of bitterness and anger. Mostly because I feel cheated and ripped off, and with other person things going on within my family of friends we are not the collective group we always have been. They should all be here, they should all be here to know and love D and support him as much as they supported me. They should be here for when I'm going through something and go through it with me. We should all be spending Sunday dinner together and sharing bottles of good red wine, we should be watching the kids all playing together and experiencing them being like we used to be. We should have had more time together.

I can handle grief, I've been (seemingly) surrounded by it for most of my life. Today being World AIDS Day, I want to post about my cousin Lynn and remember all of the friends I've lost to HIV/AIDS over the years. There have been far too many.

Lynn was a few years younger than I was, as well as our other cousin Robb. Every summer after returning from the beach, my time was usually divided between their houses and collective time shared together doing any number of things - fishing, swimming, building forts in the woods, evening bonfires, you name it. My favorite story about Lynn also involves my beloved Papa Jack. A little backstory on him first, so you'll know where this is going. My Papa Jack was one of the sweetest, most loving and insanely funny people I've ever known. He spoke in a deep, gravelly baritone voice and called everyone "Baby". He was also a raging alcoholic, and from his drunkeness many stories have evolved. One of Papa Jack's favorite pastimes was to absolutely torment Lynn, only because it would always yank Lynn's chain and cause a series of colorful expletives, always loud and always more vile than the last to spew from him like venom. Bear in mind that Lynn was a hemophiliac, and his parents couldn't spank him for inappropriate behavior and no amount of reasoning with him as a means of discipline ever worked, so he pretty much said whatever he wanted to say from a very early age and by the time we were 10 or so he'd adapted a wide repertoire of swear words and insults.

One afternoon when we were busy doing nothing, Papa Jack called from his house at the bottom of the hill for us to come down and have something to eat. He had spent the previous few days finishing up all of the vegetable canning from his garden, and as was customary he would take last year's leftovers from his pantry and swap them out with new. My personal favorite was the home made bread and butter pickles he put up in gleaming mason jars and gumbo mix (stewed tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, celery, and okra). I'd eat half the jar with brine soaked fingers before you even knew what happened. Papa Jack turned me on to a version of a Cuban favorite called Bocadito, which was a thick sandwich spread made from ham, cream cheese, and pickles. To him, it was just ham salad. He'd made some and we were making sandwiches with it on toasted wheat bread. I made four of them, two for Lynn and two for me. Lynn asked if we could get something to drink, to which Papa Jack simply replied "I want my Daddy's records." I knew what was happening immediately, and started to grin. Lynn got up and walked to the fridge and Papa Jack looked over to me grinning and winking. He asked "How's that sandwich there, baby? Want some chips of something to go with it?" Lynn returned with two 12 oz. glass bottles of Coca Cola (which, in Papa Jack's frequent drunk-speak was called "Kyo Kyoler") and answered for me with another question, inquiring if he had any BBQ chips. Papa Jack again looked straight at him and simply said "I want my Daddy's records." Lynn got increasingly frustrated and the swearing began in earnest with "YOU GO TO HELL JACK STANSELL, YOU JUST GO STRAIGHT TO HELL!" He rose from the table grabbing his remaining sandwich and was handed a paper towel from Papa Jack to wrap it in and again told "I want my Daddy's records." That was it, Lynn exploded and Papa Jack never waivered. It was hilarious, as always.

They went back and forth a couple more times, and we finally started our trek back up the hill. Halfway up the hill, I called back to Papa Jack who was sitting in his front porch swing. I yelled to him that I loved him and thanked him for the two huge mason jars of b&b pickles he'd sent me home with, and in that Wolfman Jack voice of his yelled back "I love you too, baby. And as for YOU (pointed reference to Lynn) "I WANT MY DADDY'S RECOOOORRRDDSSSS!!!!" For his part, Lynn retorted with a stinging "Bye, you old whore!!" All of us, including Papa Jack, laughed our monkey asses off. It is one of my favorite memories of them both. I lost my Papa Jack several years ago to cancer.

I had not seen Lynn in years, not since he discovered that he had contracted HIV through one of his countless blood transfusions and put himself in seclusion, making every excuse in the world so people wouldn't know. Within months he was full blown and fighting infections left, right, and center. He stayed sick and wasting away to nothing for 10 years before it finally claimed him.

I can vividly recall every point in my life where I've stood there and literally felt my heart break, go blubbery inside my chest, and all of my will and strength pool at my feet. I felt that loathesome sensation when I saw my cousin Linda (Lynn's mother) at my cousin Robb's funeral. She explained to me that she wasn't sure that she could take anymore, having just buried both her mother and son in the space of one month just before losing Robb. I held her as she cried and told me about Lynn. I explained to her that I wasn't told of his death until after the fact, and she expressed gratitude for that. "First Mama, and then Lynn. It was the most awful death I've ever seen, you cannot imagine it. Everthing was shutting down and he just wouldn't let go. It was just awful. He wasted down to only 65 pounds. And now this." In retrospect, I am also grateful in ways that I never him like that, and guilty that I didn't see him at all.

In the Spring of last year, Lynn wanted annuals planted in front of his house. By this time he was so sick he couldn't stand and could barely sit up for very long periods of time. He knew that his time was coming and he'd never see another Spring, but he wanted to leave a sense of rebirth that was exclusively his own during this seasonal time of rebirth and rejuvenation. Everyone offered to plant the flowers, but he insisted on doing it himself. He made them put sleeping bags on the ground outside of the house, and he spent days crawling around on them planting his flowers until it was finished exactly as he wanted it. And that's who he was, and who he will always be to me. It's that part of our blood that cannot be told anything otherwise once we set out on something.
  • Current Music
    Peter Gabriel - I Grieve