This week I’ve done a post each in memory of Tim R, John M, Jeff C, and now Steve R. They’re not the only friends and acquaintances Tom and I have lost to AIDS, but these four are the ones who changed our lives.
When I met Steve, he was mourning the loss of his lover–because that’s what he called Don instead of the formal sounding “partner” or clunky “significant other”–in the days before anyone even dreamed “husband” would actually have a legal foundation for same-sex couples in sixteen states (and counting). I never met Don, but I felt like I knew him. When I made an AIDS Memorial Quilt panel for him, I didn’t include his last name, only his initial, out of respect for his family’s privacy. No one in the small rural town where he grew up knew that Don died from complications related to AIDS. His parents had no illusions about who Don was, and they loved him unconditionally. But as his mother explained to Steve, “If the people in our church knew, they would ask us to withdraw our membership there.”
It’s the kind of situation many parents faced–and I suppose still face. The communities from whom they seek the most comfort, because their bonds there are strong, are the ones from whom they keep secrets. (This is not limited to church, but workplaces, social networks, friends and families.) Steve’s parents, who were also from a rural community in a different state, were forthright with their neighbors and fellow worshippers about Steve’s illness and later, his death. People handle things different ways, and I never judged Don’s parents for their decision. I also believe that the several years’ difference between when Don was ill and died and when Steve died were a factor. By the time Steve died in June of 1992, famous people were wearing red ribbons, and the AIDS Memorial Quilt included panels from every state and 28 countries. AIDS was also part of the national political discussion. In October 1992, the entire Quilt was exhibited in Washington, D.C. (Tom and I were volunteers there), and in January 1993, representatives from the NAMES Project were included in President Clinton’s inaugural parade.
After Don died, his mother sent Steve a tasteful set of new bedding–sheets, bedskirt, comforter, shams–because as she said, she worried that sleeping on the sheets where Don had been ill, even though they’d once shared them as a couple, might hurt Steve. She didn’t want him to be lost in grief, but to move forward and find happiness again. I talked to her on the phone several times, and it was clear that her own grief for her lost son was still raw. She felt like she lost another son when Steve died.
We used that bedding for a long time in our guest house, but when Tim made that his home, we packed it away. It’s not the only gift I have from Don’s family to Steve. Once when he was purging things in preparing to move, Steve pulled out a handmade quilt.
“Don’s grandmother made this,” Steve said. “I’d like for someone who would care about it to have it. Do you want it?”
“I’d be honored,” I said.
“Okay, but promise me you won’t let your dogs sleep on it!”
Our dogs Pete and Stevie are long gone, and Margot and Guinness are old girls now. But I never let any of them sleep on Don’s grandmother’s quilt. It’s on the window seat, and they do like to get up there at times, but there are several other quilts on top of it to protect it.
Last night I was thinking about Don, and I wondered… Doesn’t anyone from his hometown ever speculate? Maybe someone has even posted about him online, in a class reunion message board or something. So I googled him, and in doing so, I found his mother’s obituary. She died this past spring–she was eighty-six, outliving her son by twenty-six years.
Steve used to say that when I died, he and Don were going to swing by to pick me up so we could all have a big adventure together in the afterlife. I’d like to think right now, he and Don are making Don’s mother laugh again. She told me once that was a great gift her son possessed.