Dear Class of ’68

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Dear Class of ’68
Why I’m not attending my 50th reunion
by Lewis Nightingale

Dear Jim,

Thanks for asking why I’m not coming to our 50th Reunion this year. Several other people also wondered about my Facebook comment. Instead of just not showing up, I’d like to share with you the reasons for my absence.

Chatting with hundreds of sixty-eight-year-old former classmates for several days about their job accomplishments and their retirements and their travels and their children and their grandchildren doesn’t sound like fun to me. I would, however, like to see the plastic surgery.

Being gay is not a reason; everyone on our class Facebook group knows, and really, who cares? I have not been shy in public or private about having AIDS (I prefer “having AIDS” rather than “being HIV-positive” because it’s more accurate to my experience) and I’m somewhat of a spokesman, advocate and elder. I can see the potential value in being there as a long-term survivor, but I just don’t have the bandwidth to be an educator to our classmates.

I assumed I was positive from the beginning, living as an active young gay man in Manhattan in the seventies. Everything changed in 1981–82. Lots of people (i.e., young gay professional men like me) were suddenly dying, hideously and quickly. Of course I assumed that it would happen to me, too.

But I didn’t die. After several years of activism and memorial services, I left New York, using my now-unnecessary co-op savings to travel in Asia for nine months. My guilt at abandoning my comrades was overwhelmed by my need to escape the downward spiral which loomed below me. At the time, it seemed like taking care of myself. Now, I regret leaving, as I will always be a New Yorker. The few times I’ve visited have brought back painful memories as well as the sense of being at the center of the world. But I don’t look back very often. I’m not much for reunions.

I moved to Santa Fe in 1986 to leave the holocaust behind (only to endure another wave of loss in that HIV-expat community), then to San Francisco in 1997 to die, with a doctor’s letter giving a dire prognosis. My time had finally come and it was kind of a relief. I thought I had a year to live. So far it’s been twenty-one years.

I managed to adjust to “early retirement” and now that I’ve caught up to you all in age, I just call it “retirement” (a euphemism in my world, not in yours). Coming to the Reunion and talking a lot about this (because I would; I’m very outspoken and very social) and comparing my life to everyone else’s (which is not uncommon, I suppose) and seeing an alternate narrative if things had gone differently and feeling the loss of what might have been professionally and financially and resenting it and having to hear other people’s early death stories (no, it’s not the same thing!) and accepting their inevitable and well-meaning compassion and listening to their own health problems—it feels like so much work and I don’t have the energy. It also brings up too much emotion. I have learned to avoid certain situations, and this seems like one of them.

I keep in touch with a few classmates on Facebook, and I’m now friends with people I hardly knew in high school. These new relationships are lovely and unexpected, but the amount of small talk I’d succumb to at reunions and even on cruises has little appeal to me these days, even though new friendships might come of it.

Hope I answered your question about reunions. If you’re ever in San Francisco, let’s meet for a drink and not talk about old times.

—Lewis


Lewis Nightingale graduated from Scarsdale High School in 1968. He still lives in San Francisco, where he hasn’t yet gotten used to summer in the city.