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David Died and All We Got Was This Lousy Quilt Panel

I honor my friend David’s life by thinking about him daily, but I refuse to let the story of his death go untold. The worst part of his decline was watching him change from one of my role models of out-and-proudness to someone so vulnerable he seemed to believe he’d brought his suffering on himself. He had been a fighter, but for years before he developed full-blown AIDS, the stigma of having HIV had kept him from talking about it and, I assume, kept him in denial. By the time he couldn’t deny it anymore, there wasn’t much that could be done. In the sixteen years since he died, the stigma hasn’t faded much. We’ve got to keep shining light into that darkness.

When the time came, David went home to die because the city hospitals didn’t want him. He went to a regional hospital near the no-stoplight town where he grew up. All of his sisters had worked there as nurses, so they made sure he got admitted.

I had the unfortunate honor of keeping watch with his family for his last days. We cheered on his speedy death, which didn’t seem odd at the time, as he’d suffered a long time. One of his sisters suggested that we make a souvenir, something like, “David died, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.” We agreed the only reason he would have disapproved was because he didn’t think of it first.

Sometime during those last days, a nurse asked how long I’d been with David. I wasn’t his partner, but I remember feeling relieved that the way I cared for him could be interpreted as that kind of love. I did love him like a brother, maybe. It’s the closest comparison I know. We had selected each other as family and shared a kind of intimacy that only family can allow.

David's Names Project Quilt Panel

Here's David's panel in the Names Project quilt. He's downstage-center, of course.

We had the window open a little so his soul could find a way out, but his healthy, 32-year-old heart just wouldn’t stop. Well into the third day of our vigil, his sister Julie touched my arm and said, “You know you’re welcome to stay, but please go.” As I walked to my car, the sunlight seemed too bright, the humid air too intoxicating. I didn’t deserve these gifts. I had to get home before I thought too much. I drove away as if I were trying to beat a storm, westward over two-lane roads, a single-lane bridge, where I waited at a red light, wondering as I sat there if David’s soul had found its way out of the hospital room window. I busied myself with the radio until the light turned green.

When I reached the interstate, I let it take me south toward home, but there was David, right there in my head, right there with me. He had observed that his impending death was bringing old friends out of the woodwork, suggesting that he hadn’t lost touch so much as they’d abandoned him. I’d only seen him every few months in the last year. Was I just a repentant lurker, showing up for David’s finale to gain forgiveness? Was that what he thought? Was that all I was?

Two nights before he died, I had sat with him. David struggled for every breath, but the EKG monitor kept the slow, steady pace of his heart. Sometime around one a.m., he pushed himself onto his elbows. He looked me in the eye, mumbling for a few seconds until he spoke clearly.

“I was weak in my asshole,” he said. It was a an explanation, maybe, or a confession.

I held him with my eyes, had my mouth open, about to speak, about to say something important because I had to stop him from believing that he’d done anything wrong. I’d felt that way every time David got one of those pity-filled, “what did you expect?” looks from supposedly well-meaning “friends” or disapproving distant relatives, as if they knew his story better than he did, and I didn’t know what I should say, so I didn’t say anything. Before I could exorcise the demons or comfort him, he settled back and drifted away to sleep.

“That’s not true, goddammit,” I finally said to myself and to the machines in the room. I touched his arm. Hugs hurt him, but I hoped my touch might soothe him, even in sleep.

His EKG monitor beeped, “Fuck. Off. Fag.”

It took me an hour and a half to make the drive from his bedside to my front door, blasting the car stereo all the way to keep my momentum. If I stopped for any reason, I risked getting stranded. Finally home, I walked into my apartment building and saw a neighbor I barely knew, the first person I’d had contact with since leaving the hospital. I burst into tears. He hugged me and walked me to my apartment where he stayed with me until I settled down. The next morning, I got the call. David had died sometime between five and six a.m. I hung up the phone and left for work.

I didn’t cry much until after his funeral, and then was a wreck for about ten years. And here comes that feeling again. Sometimes looking at his Names Project panel sets me off, sometimes just a flash of some silly memory. That part of my past won’t let me go, and I’m not going to shake it off. Anger becomes fuel if you let yourself learn how to work it right.

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