These days I still only started to think about trying to get a meal in my stomach once an almost painful hunger came upon me, seemingly out of nowhere, on this occasion at about three in the afternoon.
I had just been to Sunnybrook Hospital where I was part of a clinical trial combining AZT and ddI. (What these letters stand for has never been of much use to me.) The ddI came in packets something like instant oatmeal but was a fine powder which had to be dissolved in water. (Bits of the powder invariably found pockets of my mouth to hide in until the next drink.)
Even after being on AZT for three years, my appetite was often in competition with my fear of “accidents”. I had almost died from a serious bacterial infection a year-and-a-half or so earlier and was, therefore, cautious to the point of negligent when it came to eating. However the hunger won out on this day, even if my choice of meals might have given pause to a dietician.
I was close by a well-loved Canadian chicken and ribs restaurant chain with the unlikely name of Swiss Chalet. (Chocolate and watches, maybe, but chicken and ribs?) Oh well, it had long been a favourite for fast, tasty food with an almost cookie-cutter like predictability. Just the way my not-too-adventurous palate liked it. Besides ‘twas the season for the “Festive Special” when my customary quarter chicken with fries and a roll was supplemented with dressing, cranberry sauce and – the take-away gift – a delicious Toblerone bar.
The attendant at the door seated me in one of those two-person booths across from a foursome of violet-haired women who had thrown their ski jackets and rain coats in a booth of the same size next to them.
It was the sixth observance of World AIDS Day – December 1, 1993 and I was glum. I had been visiting my dear friend Jim who was in deteriorating health (he would die six weeks later) and, while fear of his death was top-of-mind, I wanted to do something to commemorate the loss of so many friends already so I was taking on some calories to go for a walk to a very special park not too far from my apartment.
I took the women friends to be altos, judging by the sub-woofer-quality pitch of their voices. I already knew they belonged to a choir because of their clucking about the sopranos.
“Does it really help to hit such a high note by shouting it?” one asked rhetorically to gales of laughter.
As someone who is equally enthused listening to the conversations of others as I am being engrossed in one of my own, I found myself making mental notes for the great play or novel, semi-autobiographical were I to be asked, rattling around in my cerebral database.
The women gathered themselves up, sharing a laugh over someone I presumed was the choir director, and rustled past me towards the front door. I wasn’t too far behind, such is the efficiency of dining alone in a place where the meats are at all stages of readiness from about 11 to 11 daily. The women scattered at the College subway station, two heading underground, the others going north to College Street itself.
When it came to the next, and most important, errand of the afternoon I couldn’t afford too grand a gesture so, on the way to the AIDS Memorial at the 519 Church Street Community Centre (“the 519”), I bought a large bouquet of wild-flowers which I picked out of a curbside bucket in front of a corner store. A miserable rain-snow mix put a glisten on the cellophane wrapping as I continued up the street.
Walking up the sidewalk, along the side of the 519, and into Cawthra Park, the first few pillars of the memorial loomed into view. I could feel butterflies as I anticipated, and perhaps feared, the feelings that were rising within me.
AIDS had already cut such a wide swath through the gay community and, being as involved as I was with peer support (not directly related to HIV/AIDS), I felt as if I was already ranking the impact of people’s deaths by placing them on an imaginary diagram of inner and outer circles. Yet there were always situations where those rings were intertwined. It was just so pervasive.
I stopped at a pillar to read Michael Lynch’s beautiful poem, noticing for the first time that I was here by myself. The words seemed so familiar, not because I had memorized them, but because I felt as if I had lived them. I tucked a few flowers behind the steel plate on which the poem was engraved and continued up the path. The first names I recognized, friends, came into view. I pulled out several more stems and leaned against the pillar, tears of the day, of years, beginning to flow.
Then I realized that I was no longer alone. What looked like the light of a miner’s helmet was bobbing up the pathway towards me, two voices speaking quietly. As they reached me I recognized them as a TV crew, the familiar CBC logo on a tattered decal stuck on the man’s camera.
The woman I recognized as the reporter, seen both on local and national newscasts.
“I hope we’re not disturbing you,” she said softly, “but we were wondering if we could take some shots of you and then talk for a few moments after.”
“Sure, I guess,” I said, feeling the least telegenic that I ever had.
I continued up the path to the next pillar, again scanning the names until I saw a few more that I knew, placing flowers behind the silver-blue engravings. My reporter friends stayed back several steps, getting a variety of shots I presumed, so I kept to my task – the finding of a name sometimes feeling like a forgotten memory being jacked open, leading me to more names I knew I would locate on the same year’s plate.
The tears, and accompanying sniffles, were fairly steady now as dusk was falling, an unkind wind reminding me of the fast-approaching winter. The reporter and her cameraman were moving closer, the camera on his shoulder, light on.
“Show time,” I thought.
I placed my last flower but knew I had not seen the last name that I wanted to pay homage to, and I began to cry more noticeably.
The video clip of me quivering that made it to air that evening, between the reporter’s voice-over and the filler camera shots, was, “I’ve run out of flowers. I don’t have enough flowers. There are too many names!”
“You’ve lost a lot of people,” the reporter said, “Do you know how many?”
“I stopped counting at thirty,” I replied, sniffling, “and I haven’t tried to count again.”
“And you’ve run out of flowers,” she said, rather mournfully as fresh tears filled my eyes.
I don’t remember much else. It was pitch black by the time I walked home, wondering what would end up on the air. I called my mother, telling her that she might see me, if not over the supper hour, on the late national news. My voice did not betray the exhaustion I was feeling from having done quite a lot of crying.
Following a report on international observations of the day, which I remember included the unrolling of the giant likeness of a condom, by AIDS activists, down the Eiffel Tower then-local CBC news anchor Bill Cameron introduced the report which included me. Despite my uneasiness with my raw emotions I was quite satisfied with the report.
What remains with me to this day, particularly nice since I came to know Bill only vicariously through his sister as he was dying of cancer, was his reaction coming back on camera from the video item. A fist cupping his chin, he leaned back in his chair, and paused, the silence saying (to me anyway), “Wow”. Since it was me projecting that onto him I took it as a good “Wow”.
Understandably wound up, I would say, I watched the rest of the newscast and then decided to change direction a little by putting put a few Christmas decorations. Slapping a holiday music cassette into the stereo until I was satisfied with the dressing up of the plants in my living room window, I decided to sit down and begin writing a year-end letter to friends and family. Most of all, though, it was a letter for Jim because I wasn’t sure he would be here the next year.
That letter, and those from the next several years, eventually became the first entries to this blog. It began:
It’s dusk. My indoor garden is laced with tiny Christmas lights, some climbing and some right on the floor. Candles are lit here and there, mostly there, while I peck away at this tabletop word processor. Tiger and Blue are snuggling in my mother’s doll-crib, one of The Bay’s loose-eyed 1993 “Charity Bears” is holding a picture of yours truly at the AIDS Memorial, from the Globe & Mail’s front page last summer, and Barbra Streisand’s Christmas album – which I like to call “Babs Does Bethlehem” – is playing in the background. Life is good in this moment.