Reprise: A human wreck at ‘Wreck Beach’

It was my first visit to the west coast, that summer of 1996, and – given my fragile health – I was determined to make it the trip of a lifetime. I would fly to Vancouver and then take the train across Canada to return home.

My purpose in being out there was to attend the XI International Conference on AIDS. As a “scholarship” recipient, with registration and basic expenses covered, I stayed with others on similarly limited budgets in the residences at the University of British Columbia. A more beautiful university campus I have not seen, built on a large, elevated point of land overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the city’s west end.

Campus maps clearly showed several beaches nearby. They did not, however, indicate changes in elevation. So it was that I set out to find Wreck Beach, a place of some considerable legend, in Canada anyway, that I knew to be “clothing optional”. I left my room, at the Gage Residence and Conference Centre, in the early morning of my first full day there, skipping breakfast – as was my habit back then – even though it was already close to noon by my jet-lagged body clock.

I took my time, walking around the campus to establish some landmarks in my mind, being admittedly wasteful of physical energy which was at a premium. I continued to recover from a serious AIDS-related illness, cryptosporidiosis, a parasite which gives understated meaning to the expression “feeling shitty”.

Crossing NW Marine Drive, loosely wrapping its way around the tip of the campus, I found myself in  which, for what I mistook to be a more urban park, did not seem to have a lot of signs. Looking for a path to the ocean, which I could unmistakably hear through the sky-high Douglas fir trees, I came upon a trail I would only later discover had been created by nothing more than rain run-off. It seemed like a path to me. I could forgive the Parks Department for such a primitive trail, given the unspoiled nature evident everywhere the eye could see.

I began my hike downward, stepping over fallen branches, carefully walking around patches of mud, all the while trying to absorb the sheer beauty of the lush plant-life; the unfamiliar songs of the coastal birds. The terrain was becoming progressively steeper and this path I had found did not zigzag across the hillside the way I would have expected. It soon became necessary to grab hold of trees just to keep my footing. I was glad to be wearing comfortable sneakers, although hiking boots would not have been an overly cautious choice to have made. As the grade of the slope increased – calculating such things has never been my strong suit – I began to let myself slide from tree to tree, grabbing on for dear life. Then I fell – still upright, such was the steepness – and began a precipitous plunge. As alarmed as I was, and I cannot overstate my initial sense of panic, I kept my wits about me and watched for obstacles that might injure me. I don’t recall how long this took but I don’t think twenty or thirty seconds would be an exaggeration. Finally I felt my back brush lightly over a patch of rock and I landed in a thicket of ferns, small twigs, coming to a stop with sand kicking up between my legs and spraying my face. I lay there quickly doing a mental checklist of any injuries and, finding none, I stood up only to realize that – somewhere between standing upright and falling upright – I had let go of more than a few trees. To my horror my pants were, uh, soiled.

After quickly forgiving myself, given my health and the excitement of the last few moments, it seemed quite fitting that I should need to wash my clothes on this clothing optional beach even if my very first walk in to the Pacific was to do laundry! I cleaned myself up, using the clothes as I peeled them off, and then tip-toed in to the pounding surf, scrubbing as I went. Now, completely naked and with no dry clothes to wear, I claimed an isolated part of the beach and draped my jeans and shirt across a couple of large rocks. It would be a few more minutes before the sun would come from back behind the trees I had just fallen through. It would be some time more before my clothes were dry. That’s how I got one of the worst sunburns of my life, on parts of me which had not seen the sun for an extended period of time, and how I learned – later from another delegate to the conference (who did not get the whole story of my first day at Wreck Beach) – that vinegar works wonders on taking the sting out of a sunburn!

Much more could be written on the time travel-esque atmosphere created by some of the Wreck Beach regulars. 



Singing self-acceptance

This was a therapy day so, as the subject of self-love came up, I did a search for Jai Michael Josephs’ song “I Love Myself the Way I Am”, which was included on an early Louise Hay tape I bought in the late 1980s. I’ll paste the lyrics below the YouTube recording by Steve Stay:

I Love Myself the Way I Am

by Jai Michael Josephs from Carry The Love

I love myself the way I am,
there’s nothing I need to change
I’ll always be the perfect me
there’s nothing to rearrange
I’m beautiful and capable
of being the best me I can
And I love myself just the way I am

I love you just the way you are
there’s nothing you need to do
When I feel the love inside myself
it’s easy to love you
Behind your fears, your rage and tears
I see your shining star
And I love you just the way you are

I love the world the way it is,
’cause I can clearly see
That all the things I judge are done
by people just like me
So ’til the birth of peace on earth
that only love can bring
I’ll help it grow by loving everything

I love myself the way I am
and still I want to grow.
But change outside can only come
when deep inside I know
I’m beautiful and capable,
of being the best me I can,
And I love myself just the way I am
I love myself just the way I am

We used to sing this song in a healing circle held back in the early 1990s each Sunday evening at the AIDS Committee of Toronto offices (on Yonge Street at that time).

It was an emotional way to close after checking in with each other as we navigated the waters of caring for people living with AIDS, caregivers and those of us infected alike.

I used to say that while I may never be cured I can always be healed.

I wondered today whether I will ever internalize the positive feedback I get about my life and silence the doubting, self-critical, haunted guy who brings me down so much, at which point this poem was brought out for me.

When Death Comes
Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

from New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver
(Beacon Press, 25 Beacon St, Boston, MA 02108-2892, ISBN 0 870 6819 5).

Raging like our lives depend on it – because sometimes they do!

The vote, 52-1, was not even close but Manhattan New York State Senator Tom Duane took no chances after rival Republicans killed two of his bills earlier in the day.

He unleashed this impassioned speech, with long pauses and end-of-phrase shouts – in the state legislature in Albany, speaking in favour of capping subsidized housing rents at 30 percent of income for people living with HIV/AIDS.

More information here.

And poz coverage here.

And another good article here.

When elected in 1998, Duane became the first openly-gay, openly HIV positive member of the State Senate (and that’s in the first paragraph of his web page bio!)

I must say I was initially disarmed by the anger in his voice – but that’s my shit. Anger is not easy for me to take in, let alone express.

Back in the days when I was just getting used to my changed surroundings – first a year or so in an uncomfortable, not-all-diversity-and-light, Toronto Housing apartment (for which most folks wait years!) and then, mercifully, in Bleecker Street Housing Co-Operative where I’ve been since 1992 – I used to share in the lives of many guys who were close to dying and one or two, like me, who it turns out only thought we were.

When it came to anger we learned about safe ways to process emotions – not just anger, although that’s the one which seems most relevant here.

I have torn up phone books until my forearms stung with pain.

My favourite activity, shared enthusiastically with Jim either at the health club we used to go to or in Lake Simcoe together with other friends, was screaming underwater. Like I said it wasn’t always angry. Sometimes Jim and I would go feet first and then after a good scream we’d yank the other’s trunks off or lunge a foot at the other’s chest. There was definitely a safe release of pent up energy.

I saw that anger in Sen. Duane’s speech as appropriate because, HIV-positive himself after all, he lives in a city which like Toronto knows some of the worst despair of AIDS in North America and knows there ought be no pecking order when it comes to ensuring individual dignity. It’s personal!

Bravo Sen. Duane!

For Kim’s son

I met her at a meeting probably eleven or twelve years ago. We instantly connected because of our shared status as HIV-positive people in recovery. I adopted the runt of a litter of kittens. Emma is with me to this day.

During a subsequent relapse Kim became pregnant but quickly came back to our fold determined to give birth to a healthy child. Many of us experienced the anticipation of new life as the months rolled along. Kim shared of her gratitude to be carrying a baby, clean and sober.

She knew the best option, to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV, was a caesarean section. All was made ready at Women’s College Hospital and the time soon came for the big event.

Pictures in my mind have Kim and her partner at the top of the bed holding their little boy with godparents, grandmothers and friends all around awaiting their turn to hold him.

Fast forward several years. Kim, using again, gave up custody of her son to her now ex-partner. I saw her, I’m not sure how long ago, walking up Church Street with telltale saucer-shaped eyes. “Hey buddy”, she said looking into my eyes – knowing that I knew how she was. She didn’t stop to talk.

This past Friday night I arrived home to an email from a friend of Kim’s, her son’s godmother in fact. Kim had died of an overdose.

Can any of us say we are shocked? No. Angry at Kim? Sure. Yet we could see it coming. How sad that her own need to get high came before anything else – knowing, however difficult, that there was proven help available. (That’s a lament that is heard time and again, knowing that different circumstances might have had similar outcomes for us.)

My most vivid memories are of a Kim who was courageous in speaking out about her story of life on the streets, agitating for more research on how HIV impacts women differently, and of her effusive joy as a young expectant mother who was so grateful for her baby’s safe arrival. Those are the memories I would want to share with her beautiful ten-year old son. He’s experiencing enough darkness, probably more internally than otherwise, as Tuesday’s farewell approaches.

It’s been twenty years

Because I do not know the exact date in May this seems as good a time as any to mark the twentieth anniversary of my HIV-positive diagnosis.

It was March of 1990 when I received definitive word at which time suspicious blood samples from the previous May were tested for HIV specifically and they were also positive. It seemed in hindsight, to my doctor, that I might have been sero-converting in May when I had unbearable shakes, chills, fever and other flu-like symptoms.

I remember spending most of the night in hospital where emergency room personnel hemmed and hawed over blood test results, double-checked to make sure I was practicing safer sex (so their suspicions were not lost on me entirely) and sent me on my way by daybreak. The day was particularly miserable because the apartment building I lived in at that time was being renovated when I might otherwise have been sleeping so I rather pitifully took blankets and a pillow and wrapped myself into a bundle on the lawn behind the 519 Church Street Community Centre. Ironic, isn’t it, given that about four years later the AIDS Memorial would open on those very grounds (pictured below in autumn).

When it came time for me to leave work in late 1990 my doctor at the time suggested that I look upon the forthcoming ten years, that was the figure he used, as my retirement, saying that many 65-year old retirees do well to survive ten years.  In other words I’d do well to see 40.

While there have been times when I thought I should have been, even wished I could have been, dead – before the ten years was up and since – it is amazing to look back and see all the things I would have missed had that happened. Sort of a reverse bucket list.  I’ll leave out the obvious bad news of the world and list, in no particular order lest it be seen as a ranking of favourites, the blessings I have enjoyed during these twenty – not ten – unanticipated retirement years:

There was the beautiful wedding of my youngest sister Janice to Randy, the marriage presided over by my brother, at the gorgeous botanical gardens in Montreal.

Their first child, Kailey, was born in August of 2001, the year making it easy to remember her age because on September 11, 2001 Craig was on the train from Montréal to see her for the first time and called me several times along the way to be kept abreast of the day’s tragic events.  I’ve seen Kailey grow up through those baby-cute years to be a wonderful young school girl and a terrific older sister.

Brennan is another blessing, whose birth in 2003 I remember for the reason that it was just a few days after holding him at McMaster Medical Centre that I was in hospital myself in Toronto, following a mishap with a taxi-cab.

Dad did not live to see Brennan but our last pictures of him have him holding Kailey on his lap for his seventy-fifth birthday in 2002.  It has been very moving to watch Mom adjust to a life together lasting fifty years, now without Dad.

We could not have foreseen Craig’s death just five years later; nor is it easy to find blessings in it other than the knowledge that he was never in any pain, based on him showing no agitation of any kind. I really didn’t want this in the wouldn’t-want-to-miss list but it doesn’t hurt to remind myself of how plans and assumptions have a way of changing, whether I like it or not.  (I was absolutely certain that I would be a goner by 1994 at the latest, and many are pleased to remind me of my certainty.)

I can’t mention Craig without acknowledging the blessing Claude has been to our whole family, for their sixteen years together, and continuing to this day.

The aforementioned collision between my femur, wrist and the front of a taxi afforded me the opportunity to travel in luxury for a tour of the Canadian maritime provinces in 2005.  Having only been as far east as New Brunswick previously this was a delightful excursion by train, bus and ferry.  It was the first year I had a digital camera, too, so the trip was very well documented!

Any list is certain to have omissions so I would ask you, my loyal reader, to add great things that I have missed – or not as is the case here – over the last ten to twenty years.

The return home from family, following Craig’s death, laid bare some stark choices I had to face in my life and so it was in June of 2007 that I rejoined my “recovery” family.  Old friendships have been renewed and new acquaintances made – a few would have to be called more than ‘acquaintances’.  These friends manage to keep my life within some kind of perspective, always in good cheer.

I’ve also been part of a rich family of seekers since early 1999 at Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church.  They, too, have seen me through much these past ten years – almost from the point of my forecasted demise!

What to me is, or has been, the mystery of my survival stems from the life and death of a friend named Jim Revell.  I met him in 1990 and we became fast, intimate friends, as Jim did with many people.  Although he, too, was HIV-positive he approached his health in many ways that I did not, and too often still do not.  He ate well.  He swam and worked out at the gym.  To me he was the model of surmounting illness.  His CD-4 count was such that he still was not on preventative therapies.  Then he started having severe pains in his stomach.  After a lot of checking and re-checking he was diagnosed with lymphoma.  We were all shocked but Jim doggedly took all treatments being offered and remained in high spirits, building and enjoying a new relationship, and it took a while before any of us could believe that he might not make it.  I could not believe that he was dying before me, so certain I had been that we’d be in reverse situations.  He died on January 14, 1994.  That brief time he spent in my life is a collection of very, very rich memories, even if some are desperately sad.

Jim was one of so many guys in my circle lost in the 1980s and 1990s.  Their names and faces come back to me often.

In 1996, the year the first of the drug combinations which have become known as the “cocktail” was available, I was a delegate to the International AIDS Conference in Vancouver.  What an experience – something else I’m so happy not to have missed – if for no other reason than it was my first visit to the west coast.  Of course it was much more than that.  Par example. I remember having breakfast with some women from Africa and they stared in wonder at the pills and capsules I was taking, telling me that they have to walk several miles to another village if and when they can afford to buy common aspirin.  That’s an awakening that is still going on here in rich countries.

I reiterate that is by no means a complete list.  You could help me by adding your picks of some of the highlights of the last ten, or even twenty, years; things that you would have not wanted to miss that have changed the world for the better.  Send me a reply in the comments section.


A leading instigator of Toronto’s AIDS Memorial, Michael Lynch (who would himself die of AIDS-related illness) wrote this poem which greets visitors to the memorial:


In God’s image

I know I’ve checked with Ron about this before – we apparently are not related – but I come from a Chaplin family rooted in Perth and Glen Tay. (I now reside in Toronto.) The story reads like it could have been written about either my late brother Craig or me. I share two particular things with Ron, as did Craig – being gay and living with HIV/AIDS (but it was a fall which ultimately took my brother’s life two years ago). We’ve also shared in a passionate, faith-based activism that grew out of being different. I wish Ron the best and hope that he will be out to see the tulips soon!

In God’s Image
By Bruce Ward, The Ottawa Citizen

Ron Chaplin is still on the right side of the grass today, his 57th birthday, which is pretty amazing when you think about it. Chaplin has been fighting off pneumonia in hospital for the past few weeks and is improving steadily. He was not expected to pull through at one point, but he has a habit of surviving grim prognoses.

Click here to read more.

Beatrice (Bea) Arthur: May 13, 1922 – April 25, 2009

A great scene from “The Golden Girls”, although I remember Bea Arthur from her 70’s show “Maude” and her first portrayal of that character on “All in the Family”.

The hilarity of Bea Arthur, and the rest of “The Golden Girls” helped get me through some of the roughest moments in the early years of AIDS.

What a contribution to life to have made so many people laugh, while never shying away from taking courageous stands on so many social issues!

As an aside May 13 was my brother Craig’s birthday, 33 years after Bea’s. There were definite similarities.