For this blog entry, I’d like to go personal:
Sometimes life teaches you you’ve learned a lesson without actually having realized you’ve learned it. My turn came recently when I was re-reading Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir. This is a harrowing tale of time closing ominously around a gay male couple when one of them is drawing ever closer to the brink healthwise in the early days of the epidemic before the introduction of effective anti-HIV medicines in the mid-1990s.
On my first encounter with the book, I found myself enthralled from the opening page. This was not just a chronicle of an illness with all its ups and downs (including, eventually, death), but a great love story as Monette and his long-term lover Roger Horwitz contend day by day with Horwitz’s ongoing illness. On the medical side of their relationship, there is the obsessive interest in all things technical about the disease. As Monette notes early on in his account: “An offensive strategy began to emerge….Together Roger and I became postgraduate students of the condition. No explanation was too technical for me to follow.…Day by day the hard knowledge and raw data evolved into a language of discourse.”
On the personal front, as Horwitz’s illness became worse, and friends around them died, the bond between the two increased. “Whatever happened to Roger happened to me, and my numb strength was a crutch for all his frailty,” Monette writes. He continues: “In a way, I am only saying that I loved him—better than myself, no question of it—but increasingly every day that love became the only untouched shade in the dawning fireball.” Elsewhere in the book he describes Horwitz as his “heart’s deepest core” and his “life’s best reason.”
It should be noted that Monette also penned a companion book related to Horwitz’s death titled Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog. These are angry, defiant poems aimed at people and groups that too often failed to value the love between two men but instead saw AIDS as one more reason to unload homophobic hatred and vitriol in ways that condemned tens of thousands of gay men to terrible physical and mental anguish.
This was heady stuff for a younger me who was also in a long-term relationship with a much-beloved partner whose life seemed to be regularly threatened by his own severe health problems.
Let me be clear: Ted’s problems were not AIDS-related. Amazingly enough, just before the plague started—in the winter of 1978—we’d closed our relationship sexually, for reasons that had nothing to do with the as yet nonexistent threat of AIDS. But at least for the two of us, once AIDS was on the scene there was nothing like the possibility of catching a sexually transmitted disease whose prognosis in the early years of the epidemic was a quick but painful death to enforce that monogamy for many years.
When the first tests came out for HIV, Ted and I made our way to a public health clinic, and within two weeks were both told we were HIV-negative. But that didn’t stop many years of health problems for Ted, whose illness centered on heart disease.
Over the two decades starting in 1984, Ted underwent two triple-bypass operations, a heart-valve replacement, and the insertion of a pacemaker, not to speak of regular doctors’ appointments, cardiac rehabilitation classes, and cardiac exercises, along with many dietary restrictions and medicines that ultimately proved to be his undoing.
No wonder Borrowed Time and Love Alone spoke to me, both the loving me and the angry me. I wasn’t the sick one, but I felt threatened by the possible loss of Ted, and angry about several run-ins I had with homophobic doctors and hospital personnel. Monette became my mentor, so to speak, in the realm of how to cope with illness as the loving gay partner of someone who needed regular medical attention.
Then I came across Last Watch of the Night, a collection of Monette’s essays written in the early 1990s, in which I learned that he’d had not just one other partner after the death of Roger Horwitz in 1986, but two before his own death from AIDS in 1995.
My reaction? I remember my exact reaction: Two new partners? How dare he? How could Monette be so callous as to abandon Horwitz, his ”heart’s deepest core,” for new loves? With Ted still alive and my love for him in full force, I felt betrayed.
So much for inexperience with intensely personal death.
Ted died in 2006 after a collision between two of his medicines, one for his heart and the other for sleeping, which caused a breakdown in his capillary system leading to pneumonia and septic shock that his weakened heart couldn’t handle. Seven days in a hospital intensive care unit, placed in an induced coma, the ICU doctors working around the clock to fight the infection through massive doses of antibiotics, and he was dead.
Thirty years of my life came crashing down, and I do mean crashing. I’d thought the death of my mother ten years earlier and the deaths of friends from AIDS were overwhelming, but the feelings this loss caused were many times beyond that. The closest I could come to describing it was that I didn’t feel dead, but I didn’t feel alive either. For months I woke up each morning unable to concentrate on much of anything. Then the inevitable crying would begin, lasting for two or three hours before shutting down almost as if a spigot had been turned off (but not turned off by my conscious volition). A free-lance writer and editor, I forced myself to work, at least enough to pay the bills, then spent my evenings staring at TV because I couldn’t seem to read and didn’t want to socialize.
After a few months, a friend who had gone through much the same experience several years before got me involved in, of all things, gay square dancing. His words: “I know something that will take your mind off Ted for at least two hours a week.” And so it did. Slowly I began to come out of the fog of misery. Slowly I came alive again, and re-entered the world of other people.
Sometime around four years after Ted’s death, I realized I didn’t like living alone any more. I could run a household by myself all right. I had a nice home, and more space to myself than ever before in my life. I had it all my own way for the first time in a long while. But it wasn’t satisfying.
Then three months after becoming aware that I wanted a change, something wonderful happened: A new man entered my life. Dave and I already knew each other casually through square dancing, when one evening at a square dance event we found ourselves talking intimately as we had never talked before. And in short order, we fell in love.
Did I feel like I was betraying Ted’s and my love? The question didn’t come up. More at issue was what felt like untangling my brain from a thirty-four-year history of living with Ted or his memory so I didn’t mistake Dave’s behavior for what had been Ted’s behavior. On the other hand, I realized quite soon that I was carrying into this new relationship from the old the know-how of giving and receiving love, giving and receiving companionship, and appreciating the give and take of emotional intimacy. We dated a few years as I sorted all this out, then in March 2014 we married and moved in together.
Returning to Borrowed Time, I picked the book up a few weeks ago for research into an article I was thinking of writing. I remembered my negative reaction to learning of the relationships Monette had been in following the death of Roger Horwitz, but to my surprise found I no longer had the same feelings. On reflection, the reasons for this were clear enough, and offered me an insight into Monette’s life choices from his perspective. To put it simply but bluntly, life makes its own demands, which the dead cannot fulfill. Ted in death could no longer give me what I needed in life. I’d had a full-bodied relationship for thirty years, and to feel fully alive and happy again I needed another such relationship. Moreover, new love didn’t mean I’d abandoned Ted any more than my love for Ted meant I’d abandoned my mother or friends I’d been close to for many years. Indeed, new love enhanced the old, allowing me to appreciate what I had with Ted in ways I’d never fully understood before.
It’s not everyday you have the chance to look back and understand you’ve made a change that deserves a pat on the back. But in this instance I can truly say: Lesson learned.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor for A&U, with a twenty-year history of writing about HIV/AIDS among many other topics and issues.These short articles, mostly related to the disease, are reprinted from his blog blu sunne: Notes from a Pop-Up Life in the Arts. For more of his writing on a variety of topics, visit his blog at blusunne.com.