Ghosts talk to me but don’t haunt me.
Thursday, Dec. 1, is World AIDS Day. The slogan this year is “Get to Zero” — meaning zero new infections. Since the epidemic began, more than 70 million people in the world have become infected, and 35 million have died.
I cannot process numbers that big. I can only tell you about Tim.
Tim was my private hero. He was Brian’s roommate in that cold-water walk-up above the Jersey City Funeral Home. On my first date with Brian (Oct. 28, 1985), we went back to his apartment, and I met Tim, who was baking a batch of cookies. He looked up from the oven and said to Brian, “I thought you could do better than that.”
I moved in with them a few weeks later, and the three of us struggled to make the rent. While Brian danced and I sold coffeemakers, Tim worked as a security guard at the Museum of Natural History. For Christmas that year, we had a Charlie Brown tree, and Tim worked night shifts so that he could “appropriate” two dozen dinosaur ornaments.
Tim was blunt. We got tattoos for one of my birthdays, him the green man and me seven chakric stars, and he waited three hours, until the very last needle stick, before he said, “You look like a Wonder Girl costume.”
Tim taught me to take risks, like going skydiving or applying to be a deputy sheriff.
One night, when Brian was at work, Tim and I were sitting on the old red velvet couch, splitting a can of Betty Crocker frosting, when he said, “I’m gonna have to stop eating like this. The doctor told me I’m HIV positive.”
We got mad, and we joined ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). The Republican president at the time said nothing while thousands died. We painted bloody handprints and wore clown masks at hearings. We stopped traffic on Broadway, and got the American public to pay attention to the fact that no one was paying attention.
Because of Tim, and Keith Haring, and a lot of brave people blocking the entrance to the FDA building in Maryland, we got parallel-track testing, which led to protease inhibitors and drug-cocktail therapies.
Ten Septembers ago we rushed Tim to the emergency room. He had gone blind in one eye and was unable to walk or eat. He weighed less than a hundred pounds. The doctor told me he wouldn’t be leaving. Brian talked with the head nurse, who convinced them to let us throw a gay Wiccan wedding.
You know those soap operas where the dying bride trembles in her hospital bed when a nervous groom brings in the justice of the peace? This was not that. This was the loudest wedding to ever occur in a medical center. The groom wore harem pants, the bride a hospital gown and white roses. The celebrant was a transgender priestess. Zane, a toddler at the time, played ring bearer. The bridesmaids were Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
Brian was the best man for the wedding, carrying Tim across the broom (because that is how Wiccans get married), and I was the best man for the funeral.
That night, while his new husband went to the reception, Tim said to me, “Kevin, can you get me unhooked? I want to go outside.” The nurse nodded. A few minutes later, Brian and I wheeled him out to the little patio. The fog was just coming in over Twin Peaks.
“A last look?” I asked.
Tim shrugged, “Really, I came out for a cigarette.” Brian drew a pack out of his jacket, put two cigarettes to his mouth and clicked the lighter. He handed one to Tim. Tim took a drag and said, “Not the honeymoon I expected.”
Uncle Jon, Brian and I took turns for nights in the hospital. Tim was drowsy on Dilaudid and morphine, and when he woke up, I got the nurse to give him his pain medication, and he said random things, like, “This is the nicest death I’ve ever been to.”
“You’re not scared?”
“No, not really. But I’m sad. A new journey awaits me, but I won’t get to see the quest that you are on. I’ll miss seeing Zane grow up. But I have faith that you’ll teach him to always embrace the adventure.”
He passed the next day.
A decade later, his ghost appears haphazardly in my dreams, as well as Brian’s and Uncle Jon’s. When I am most scared, Tim is that voice in the wind whispering: “Leap and the net will appear!”
Tim’s ashes have gone on the AIDS Walk for many years. Uncle Payo rode his ashes in a backpack on a bicycle all the way to Los Angeles for an AIDS/LifeCycle ride. If you want to do one concrete thing in the fight against AIDS this year, then donate to the AIDS/LifeCycle ride: www.tofighthiv.org. My friend Rich Bennett is riding with Team ALCaholics and is too shy to ask for support. Fortunately, I am not shy.
Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle