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Three Deaths in Vancouver

To survive, I have to learn to live with a permanent foregrounded sorrow. I prefer to wrap that sorrow in exotic cloth.
Stephen Arod Shirreffs

Issue #7, September 1993

for Michael Merrill, Maurice Flood, Jack Green, Kurt Woodill, Tom Burdick,
Gaetano Bandiera and Robin Simpson

I wasn't even at home when Gaetano left to drive to Vancouver on June 2. (He lived upstairs.) He was taking the car, which was not to return, and I didn't want to see it leave. It turned out he was leaving. I pointedly do not regret these odd lapses that can haunt you in the epidemic. Regret piled atop grief leads to a festering that is incompatible with a future: easily said, harder to effect.

Ian left a message from Vancouver on Friday, June 11. 'There's a situation here that, I guess, you should be aware of.' Canadians habitually understate — I can say that being Canadian — as if baldly putting the matter might influence it, pushing it over an already barely tolerable edge. It was late; I didn't feel like bad news, but I called anyway.

Gaetano and I met in February, 1976. I was twenty-three, he twenty. He moved into the second floor above me of a ramshackle East Vancouver woodframe building. He had been advertised as the nasty straight-guy ('but just won't admit he's a fag') ex-husband of a long-suffering wife. It turned out to be the opposite: the wife was the witch, he the one fleeing. I fell in love at first sight; Gaetano took a few weeks to realize his fate. Thereafter, we spent ten years as lovers. The first five years, we lived in Vancouver through that latter half of the heroic period of gay liberation before the bureaucratic imperative had replaced the principled optimism of free-lovers. My brashness and Gaetano's bashfulness made for an enigma that pestered our political opponents. The latter five years, we lived in San Francisco, unwittingly pursuing steadily more elegant lives, me driven from the movement by its changes, he driven towards a sensual love of nature which increasingly became his only deep comfort.

So the call on June 11: Gaetano, on holidays in Vancouver, had been admitted to St. Paul's Hospital with acute Hepatitis B, a flare-up of the chronic condition he had had since an ill-advised, teenage heroin binge in Switzerland with the wicked wife of previous mention. He was conscious, but in extreme discomfort. We knew he'd been drinking heavily: he more or less invited an early death from good bourbon rather than the drip-drip-drip of AIDS which he knew otherwise to be his fate. Gaetano's resolve seemed to have redoubled when Rod-the-Bod died, wasted from muscular pride to skeletal shame. At bottom, it was a rational choice.

Through all the deaths — I've lost five best-friends and countless acquaintances in four years — we've come to view any given crisis in an actuarial fashion. 'Yes, he might die this time, but more likely he will survive and continue to function, albeit on the next level down.' I recognize that this reliance on steadily reduced survival engenders a palliative grieving in the company of the to-be-deceased. Kurt used to say that the only mercy of this disease is that we can grieve together, the actual death being relief for all concerned. In this vein, at a point when Gaetano passed briefly out of crisis, I expounded to Ian about the tedium — as opposed to the horror — of death. But Gaetano's death in reality reintroduced me to the horror.

So the weekend proceeded normally, if anxiously, for me. I had tickets for the Giants on Sunday. Ian and I talked on Saturday night, and concluded that things were bad but not yet grave. The next day, I delayed leaving for the ball park just long enough for Ian to call again: 'If you want to speak to Gaetano again, you have to come now.' He's going to die — tonight, today, tomorrow, Wednesday, who could say. Death this time not the tedious, but the inconvenient — a sharp jolt of pain to a fatigued heart: I just can't have another death now. Strangely, not even a month before, after Tom's death (he wasn't really dead, but his homophobic parents and an emotionally disturbed friend had combined to drive me away from his care, notwithstanding my being his long-time named paper-holder; of course, the bastards waited until his dementia was so severe that he couldn't protest) — I had told Gaetano after Tom's 'death' that now I could have a respite from all the morbidity. I had no one on the ramp; I was no one's power-of-attorney, no one's executor, not in charge of a single ashes-scattering, nor organizer of another bittersweet picnic in which love ritually conquers loss. Not to be.

I already had a ticket to Vancouver for Friday, June 18. Robin (he of the second of these three deaths) had paid for it so that I could be present on his forty-third birthday cruise around Burrard Inlet with forty of his best friends. Robin is bald-faced about his death. It's a curse, but that's the way it is. He proclaims his satisfaction at having lived well, succeeded at two careers (as actor and as interior designer), gained the profuse accolades of his eclectic assemblage of friends. Perhaps he was never meant to be an old man, he says — this precisely my complaint: where will the old gay men come from, the ones who have been there, who know how to live in our particular configurations? Why can't Kurt be rocking, cranky, on his porch, muttering down the perversities of a new age? Why not Robin as geriatric pulling out his copious photos and demonstrating how this or that uniform is worn on such and such an occasion? No old men.

Death like petrification: suddenly another friend starts slowly turning to stone. I am left with statues where before I had friends — living, breathing friends. Now only stone.

I spent an hour on the phone arranging to change the ticket; then an hour cleaning aquariums (one of my several obsessions), then a half hour talking to Robin, explaining the change in plans. Try telling a dying man that another man has caught up with and passed him on the way out. Now Robin's and my joint vacation must be shared with Gaetano's death agony. So Sam (Gaetano's third lover) and I have the same flight to Vancouver, only four hours after we first got the news that it was all but over. Sam had met Gaetano at the Box, a disco which, like so many young gay institutions, is a living counterpoint to the over-weaning political notions of an endemic racial, age and gender fractiousness among homosexuals. Sam told me he didn't like me much when we first met because I was too weird or different. I didn't like him much at the time either, because we had precisely nothing in common: I guess my disco period is over. Sam's black, I'm not. We had precious little to say on the plane, both of us buried in our private horror. This was Sam's first cold dousing with the epidemic. He steadfastly, even nobly, refused to believe that death was a possibility. In Vancouver, he would play the role of jester, making everyone, especially Gaetano, smile, tweaking the stiff Canadian nurses. He's still a disco dude, but he grew as circumstances demanded. We gained respect for each other.

Ian picked us up at the airport, and within moments we were at Gaetano's feet, he writhing in agony, unconscious, but still the body beautiful. The oddest part of his death is that he was still whole, unlike Kurt or Michael or Jack or Tom, all wasted, tortured, drawn, every last drop of life drained before the merciful expiry. Most of the various friends who'd flown in stayed at Ian's. When we were in gay liberation, Ian, Maurice (of whom the third of these deaths is intended) and I functioned as a faction. Ian earlier came to resist Maurice's infernal 'leadership style,' but we did know how to operate together in the thick of battle. Ian has been there for every significant event in my life, and in Gaetano's and my joint life, since I met him. Now he got to be the official person (along with Deborah) for Gaetano's end: doctor-talking, paper-minding, memorial-organizing, all that stuff. Thank God he took that role, because I am completely burned out on it. He did well; at the ashes-scattering at Point Reyes (where Harold went), he read sections from Leaves of Grass. In the car on the way, we conspired to alter the gender of several pronouns, the more to accord the piece with the gay love with which we associate it.

I spent from three to twelve hours each day with Robin, beginning each day in the afternoon, after his daily morphine dose (for appetite) had kicked in, by joining him on the balcony of his eighteenth-floor studio apartment. He looks directly across the street to Lost Lagoon, with the fountain, the panorama of Stanley Park, English Bay, the North Shore; ducks fly by, pontoon planes land, ocean-going ships waiting for loading berths float at rest. Robin is a serious uniform collector. Born of British diplomats, he led a life of disembodied luxury as a child, official child-adjunct in foreign climes, trotted out in perfect array to impress all and sundry, then bundled out of sight. Our conversations are formal and exuberant, any topic, any order, with due respect and aplomb. We speak of his death as if it were an acquaintance, unloved but respected. We sanguinely review the bodily torments, belittling them and grousing over their nuisance. He pulls down his pants to show me the weird growth on his inner leg that torments him.

We rage without restraint at that peculiar opinion which reduces his death because he is a gay man, not one of the innocent victims. Robin had the courage of his sexuality when it was unpopular anywhere 'on the left' to be publicly gay. He looks upon the left with a certain curiosity, as if to say, 'How odd these fumbling fools who cannot embrace me because I mess with the categories.' There was a trisection once wherein Maurice, my mentor in gay liberation, determined in a democratic-centralist sort of way that Robin was a bad, specifically bourgeois, influence upon me. Our larger-left factional analogues not being precisely aligned, he had no explicit ideological authority to enforce this view, but he had considerable powers of persuasion, especially as they devolved upon my then unrepentantly enthusiastic and ideological self. Robin was shunted aside. He accepted this deviation in stride. Years later, after Maurice and I had parted company with that peculiar bitterness possible between former partners in an ideologically motivated project, Robin and I easily floated back into our dialogues and excursions.

We go to lunch — Robin rarely eats in — with Cathie and Gordon. Cathie is Robin's long-time English friend. Gordon is Robin's long-time sidekick; he also holds all of Robin's papers — medical power of attorney, executor, etc. The establishment is The Fish House in Stanley Park. When I lived in Vancouver, it had been a tea and crumpets place for the lawn bowling crowd. Much effort and funds had turned it into a popular lunch spot. Robin gave a sharp architectural critique, generally favorable, which concluded with the two glaring faults of the place. Firstly, the tables are too high for the seats; secondly, whyever would one spend so much time on such a space and then provide synthetic napkins. The matter nagged Robin until he called the manager and extracted an explanation that turned on a spurious practicality; he did, however, procure for us, as a special consideration, appropriate linen. Moreover, he gave Robin his card, telling him to call in advance to ensure that he would always have linen.

Robin's generosity is his trademark. Even in the best of circumstances, it is difficult to pay for anything. My being in graduate student finances, and Robin's genuine joy at giving, meant that this as with every meal we ate was his treat. The conversation turned and travelled from reliving past moments to speculating on the ephemerality of it all. Cathie held out as how she feels that Robin 'will see another spring'.

After each day of exchanges, I head to the hospital. I've taken the night shifts with Gaetano, from nine to midnight. His parents, second generation Italians from Northern Ontario, are waiting to be relieved. Leo, father, has Parkinson's disease. The featurelessness of that face — mounted on his huge, domineering head, once the bow on his battleship command of life — render his piercing eyes too painful to examine for more than a glance. We're careful with the parents, perhaps because we know more about the death of young men than they remember even having lived through world war and six or seven decades of exposure to tragedy. We don't know if they know he is HIV positive, so let's keep them up. So the happy chat — 'he's certainly more lucid today than yesterday; the doctors say that his being alive today means he has more than a ten percent chance' ... the percentage discussions are insane: one day ten percent, the next seventeen, then five, later twenty-two. Leo looked at me with the hard, unswerving look of Parkinson's and says, 'Hi...hi..his d..doesn't' No escape.

Ida, mother, chatters and cries, and orders food. She cares for her boy. He has to pass gas to relieve the agony, so naked he crouches with his butt in the air. Mom massages his stomach till he cuts. It's the nineties, so we have a photo to memorialize the happy moment of gas released. Gaetano always called her Eeking Ida because she never shuts up. When we were first lovers, they were openly suspicious of me. In time, however, Ida and I turned out to have more in common than anyone would have suspected, both of us avid collectors of curiosities. I like her now, but there are no words, no common language to examine this horror of her boy, my boy, being pushed out so soon.

So they leave and I settle in. At night, Gaetano is less lucid. I huddle at the window over the panorama of Vancouver at night. On my left stands the first boarding house in which I rented a room when I arrived in 1974. On the right is Numbers, the closest thing to a cruise bar that Canadians can manage — like most Canadian bars, it can't make up its mind whether it's a dance bar or a pool bar, or a dark, cruisy bar. So it is all three, and more, each separate entity a door frame away from its counterpoint. Gaetano moans, struggles to his feet. I help him into the bathroom so he can piss...brown like tea, just like the book says. In his delirium, he raves about the Vatican Council. I assure him there is no problem, kiss him, stroke his face. When Deborah arrives to take the all-night shift, we hug and cry, exchange gallows humor, and I part, to walk to Numbers, consume a beer, pretend to cruise. I look out the window beside the pool table, trying to discern which window is Gaetano's.

When we met, I was a dedicated gay liberationist. For Maurice, Gaetano was one of the real gay men, not motivated by ideology, but drawn to the movement by its practical exposition of the idea that 'Gay is Good'. Just as Maurice disapproved of my friendship with Robin, he championed my relationship with Gaetano as some sort of incarnation of gay emotional and sexual health. Here, now, on the other side of that ideological divide, it seems bizarre to distinguish between two gay men, both courageously living out of the closet when the odds were against them. The contemporary left has drawn a fraudulent picture of those early days, meant to accord with its unbowed distaste for proud gay men. No hubris intended, but we were out there, folks, when no-one supported us, not feminism, not the black movement, no-one in the straight left. We believed, and lived, the notion that sex is healthy and life-giving. Now, imagine the bitterness in this age of sexual hysteria across the political spectrum, with our brothers dying all around. We don't even get credit for the fact that no community has ever altered behavior more quickly or more completely than gay men did; no community has ever pulled together more quickly for mutual benefit and love. Is it envy? What motivates the persistent reduction of gay men? Perhaps spite.

Maurice died in February of 1991 in San Francisco. He had left his ex-wife, Cynthia, an author and feminist, in Vancouver in 1982. Until 1983, I had been very close to all of them including their two daughters Isabel and Margaret, now eighteen and fifteen respectively. With Maurice's and my spectacular parting, I was forbidden to see either of his daughters, so this trip to Vancouver provided the opportunity to re-connect. Maurice would have fits if he could know. He was a man of his particular era, who was outdated in a flash: that moment after Harvey Milk's assassination when the activist core of gay liberation was silently superseded by the apparatchiks of gay democratic clubs, social service agencies and liaisons between us and official society. He was bitter and unforgiving. Anyone who declined to join him in his self-realized gulag was even more despised than the spineless creatures who pretended to the movement he had created. I was chief among the despised.

I met Isabel in the rain outside her Gastown studio, a bare, romantic room in the very restored Hotel Europe where Robin had once created an elegant parlor amidst the stumbling, puking drunks who were the chief tenants of the period. Actually, Isabel and I have met several times since Maurice's death, and our friendship, interrupted when she was ten, has pretty much resumed. Maurice is her hero, a noble figure in a world of petty treachery. I guess I am forgiven for abandonning him, but that is not as important as that we can still communicate. She too is practiced in death. When Maurice had taken a sudden turn for the worse, he summoned Isabel from Vancouver with only enough time left for her to take him to the hospital and then watch him slip, angrily, away. She cleaned out the apartment, even wrote the obituary for the B.A.R. (the San Francisco gay paper of record for AIDS obits).

Margaret and I met for breakfast in Doll and Penny's, a too crazy restaurant for a Canadian city (they compensate by having snippy staff). She's a big girl who has constructed a sufficient scaffolding to keep the horror of events at bay. I probably didn't help, being a little too morose. We reminisced, but apolitically. She's luckier than Isabel, because she didn't inherit Maurice's venom. Where Isabel and I speak of sexual freedom and youth culture, Margaret and I discuss aquaria, my collecting mania, cats and dogs. But she shows palpable joy at closing the circle to a past stripped cruelly away. Outside the hospital, before my last visit with Gaetano, we hug and part and promise to be in touch.

Meanwhile, remember, Gaetano's death agony proceeds apace. I see him at his worst time of day: evening. He had staged a 'miraculous' but illusory recovery. Actually, the drugs which cleared his system of ammonia allowed a return of consciousness. It did provide a few days of joy for the dozen of us gathered from far and wide to haunt the waiting room. By the end of the week, he started chasing us from the room. We exulted in the return of his sarcasm.

Meanwhile, too, remember, each day with Robin. One day we drove around Stanley Park, that vast natural wonder adjacent to his block. We drove around three times, as slowly as the car would move, speculating, enjoying, treasuring.

Cynthia Flood, Maurice's ex, is a Canadian author of note. She is big, imposing, formal, aristocratic in demeanor. Our lunch was a re-discovery. When we last saw each other, I was still her husband's creature, his sidekick, political gopher who sometimes didn't get it right. Breaking with Maurice, like breaking with left politics, allowed me to become whole. I felt I had to convince her of this new wholeness through my academic accomplishments and, more manipulatively, my now excessive experience with death. Of course, no convincing was necessary. How human are yesteryear's icons. We reviewed two separate experiences of a decade, rattling off events at breakneck speed: this the good part of Canadian-ness, its terse ability to encapsulate and absorb. We parted friends, literally over Maurice's dead body.

The ten days draw to a close. I slate three hours wherein Gaetano and I will be alone together. The parents go off to lunch. Leo looks at us as he leaves. There is no doubt anymore, only silence. Gaetano drifts in and out of sleep. When he's there we chat amiably, involved. He pretends to want to take up with me again, but I miss the joke -his infamous sarcasm now flat, airless. I am under official orders, indirectly from Gaetano himself, that he only wants to hear optimistic thoughts because morbid thoughts make it hard to sleep. How do you say goodbye? When Leo and Ida came back, I kissed him, told him I loved him. Our eyes held a moment...his eyes a surreal, luminescent yellow; mine with tears professionally withheld. Leo watched that too.

Robin took me to the airport. He is punctiliously punctual. Our whole morning was precisely scheduled, from the last drive through Stanley Park to the exact moment of our arrival at the airport. In the midst of the throngs, we wept unreservedly, holding on until the last possible moment. He apologized for making me cry. He has such courage, even just to stand there, physically reduced but proud, while the throngs avoid us.

Gaetano died on July 1, Canada's birthday. His last words, crying repeatedly, were 'Let me go. Let me go.' That night Richard and I got drunk (in San Francisco) and wept the night away. We also 'got married'...just decided to stop pretending we weren't lovers. That's a long story, not relevant here, except that even love is wrapped in death here in the holocaust.

Tom died yesterday morning. I heard that through the grapevine, since the parents and his one disturbed friend have looted his belongings and specifically don't want me to get the photographs he willed to me. What do I do? Family supersedes the stated desires of the dead guy. The family didn't even bother to come to San Francisco when he died. They don't want his body in the crypt in Michigan lest the neighbors ask questions.

Robin is still alive. I'm leaving September 2 to spend another week with him, this time without the overshadowing passing of someone else. We're planning a weekend together in October. His optimism about that varies by the day and his strength.

This piece is meant only to be bleak. I did not resist the temptation to strike out, but that is not the point. To survive, I have to learn to live with a permanent foregrounded sorrow. I prefer to wrap that sorrow in exotic cloth, to build altars to my dead brothers, to spend hours alone tending my fish, watching baseball, combing manuscripts, walking the dog. I did my bit for humankind in the seventies; I'll do some more in the course of academic explorations. But the rest of life stretches forth before me like a desert. My solace is in the magic tents I construct astride the path, in the complexities of meditations upon what has been lost, what will be lost.

August 29, 1993

Stephen Arod Shirreffs is a graduate student writing his dissertation on Indonesian-Islamic textual traditions, in the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies at UC-Berkeley. He is also the webmaster of Southeast Asia Web. Stephen can be reached through e-mail at the following Internet address:

Copyright © Stephen Arod Shirreffs. All rights reserved.