WORLD AIDS DAY

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1 December 2002

Today is World AIDS Day. I don't know if you "celebrate it" or "commemorate it" or merely acknowledge the sadness that such a day is even necessary. Over the past week I've heard more facts and figures about new AIDS cases (women are finally outnumbering men in new cases--and Eastern European countries have the fastest growing number of new cases).

I decided to participate in "Link and Think," a web site for people with a web presence to agree to use their web pages to draw attention to the AIDS pandemic, whether by turning the web site black in honor of those artists in our world who have been lost to this disease, or to use the site to give some personal experience with AIDS, and people who have been taken from our lives as a result of AIDS. I have chosen to do the latter.

Arthur.jpg (14842 bytes) The first person I knew personally to die of AIDS was a man named Arthur Conrad. Arthur was an amazingly talented person who was a dancer, a choreographer, an actor, a director, and probably a lot of other things I never knew about. I didn't know him well, though he had been around The Lamplighters for years. But we became close in the last months of his life when he directed a production of The Mikado and I was his director's assistant. (Please note the distinction between "assistant director" and "assistant to the director." The former is a person of talent and experience who can be second in command for a production; the latter is a flunky who goes for coffee and does other menial tasks that the director has no time to do. I was the latter.) We spent a lot of time together during that production and I remember that he had "a cold" which he couldn't shake. This was in 1986 and hospitals were still quarantining people suspected of having HIV or full blown AIDS and if you were allowed to see patients at all, you had to put on hospital gowns and masks and gloves. You never hugged a friend with AIDS for fear you would get it. So people were reluctant to be tested and lived in blissful ignorance of their status. AIDS was also a certain killer, as this was before any of the new drugs had made their appearance.

quilt.jpg (8619 bytes)Arthur talked about his cold and when I drove him home, he huddled in the corner of the car and shivered, and coughed.

When the show ended, he told me that he was so grateful to me for all the help I had been that he wanted to take me out to lunch as soon as he was feeling a bit better and we could find a convenient day. I was looking forward to that, as I dropped him off at his local supermarket so he could buy some soup to take home for dinner that night.

It was a month later when I received the call that he had collapsed and had been taken to the hospital. The diagnosis was pneumocystis pneumonia. The call came on a Thursday. I immediately went to the store and bought him a card and got it in the mail that afternoon. He died before it was delivered.

Arthur was the choreographer for the Oakland ballet and played Mother Marshmallow in many of its Nutcracker productions. He directed wonderful productions for The Lamplighters and appeared in several as well. I am proud that he was my friend and I still miss him today.

In between Arthur's death and the death of my friend Bill, I watched several other friends and acquaintances die. John Gilkerson (mentioned by Tom Hanks in his acceptance speech following his Oscar for Philadelphia. John and Tom were classmates at Skyline High School in Oakland). John was an actor, singer, dancer, choreographer and costume designer. He created the Christmas windows for the upscale store, Gumps, in San Francisco for years.

We lost Tony Fields, who appeared in the movie of A Chorus Line, had a recurrent role on L.A. Law, and was a regular on Solid Gold.  He was a graduate of Davis High School, whom we first saw do Bye Bye Birdie when it was the high school senior musical.

We lost Larry B. Ayo, who was King Arthur in Camelot the year David played the young page at the end of the musical.

Our friend Harry Krade was the social center of the Davis Comic Opera Company--president of its board, always hosting parties at his house. He and his wife Margaret, who died of emphysema, gave DCOC their barn for the building and storing of sets, and they were wonderful friends. I went to the hospital the day before Harry died to tell him goodbye and hardly recognized the shell of the man I had just seen a few weeks before.

There were people whose paths crossed ours, whom we knew slightly, but not well: Read Gilmore, a costume designer; Dan Gensemer, a marvelous actor; Sebastian Paillet, from Switzerland who performed with The Lamplighters; Jaymes Mark, an actor, costumer, and Joan Crawford inpersonator; Walter Matthes, a booming operatic basso and marvelous actor (sometimes known as "Walter, the spitter," for his habit of expectorating when involved in an animated bit of dialogue).

BillB.jpg (5633 bytes)My friend Bill Brunson (who was also, we discovered, my distant cousin) died in September, 2000,  after many brushes with death. He and I became close after a particular bad hospital admission in 1997, when his husband Mike was so terrified to go back to work and leave Bill at home, fearing he would come home and find Bill dead. I flew to Houston (in July) and lived with them for a month, doing housework, keeping Bill company, making dinner, and getting to know Bill better. We watched birds every day and whenever I see a cardinal, I think fondly of the cardinal family we watched. I returned a year later to bake him a cherry pie on his birthday, and the following year for a brief visit. The last thing he said to me as I left Houston was "come back and see us any time." Shortly after, he was hospitalized for his last lengthy stay. I spoke with him on the phone a day or two before he lapsed into his last coma and his last words to me were "I love you."

The Last Session group lost Richard ("Dickie") Remley on January 25, 2000. I didn't know Dickie  well, but have come to know him better since his death. He was Steve's best friend. And for the first months that I was part of the TLS group, he was its soul. One of the long-term survivors of AIDS, he had been involved with support groups in Los Angeles and was always there to comfort, to explain, to teach and to just be Dickie. He even developed his own theory about AIDS, which Steve and Dickie's girlfriend Gail encouraged him to put into writing--some of the new theories about AIDS transmission, while not inspired by Dickie's work, mirror it amazingly. I drove to LA to attend his memorial service and was blown away by the stories people had to tell about how he had influenced their life. Most influenced was his friend Bob, who has, himself, since lost his battle against this horrible disease.

When you put a face on a disease, it's hard to casually dismiss it. My passion for bringing acknowledgement and understanding...and research...to this pandemic is based on the faces I see who have already left this world much poorer. And to the people who have become part of my heart--Steve and Michael and Priscilla and Mona and a host of others. I want a cure to be found in time to remove the sword from over the head of each of them, and of everyone now coping with the effects of AIDS. I want to live to see a day when we no longer talk of whole countries in the third world decimated by AIDS. When more money is spent on finding a cure for AIDS than finding ways to blow up our enemies.

I don't want anybody else I love to die of this disease.

Quote of the Day

Scientists and economists have estimated that $10 billion a year could halt rising death tolls and infection rates in the developing world. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has established the Global AIDS Fund to collect and distribute the needed monies.

Monday's announcement from the Bush administration that the U.S. would contribute only $200 million is not only an embarrassment, but paltry support from the world's richest country almost certainly dooms the fund to failure.

~ ABC News

Photo of the Day

 

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Dickie Remley and his
friend, Riley Carey

about 2 mos. before
Dickie's death

 

 

One Year Ago
World AIDS Day
It's not that I needed any convincing that the people involved with Breaking Barriers were "instinctively kind and caring," but it was nice to look around me at all of the love that was in that crowd, a lot of it coming from gay people. Those "unnormal" people who apparently my correspondent feels are incapable of being kind and caring to the troubled.

Two Years Ago

Stranger in a Familiar Land
They were putting a stage up in the performing plaza that’s dedicated to Paul, in anticipation of tonight’s Christmas tree lighting. I thought about how Paul would have grumbled about the corny small town tradition, but I noticed that it was nice that the stage didn’t cover up the plaque dedicated to Paul, or the bricks dedicated to Paul and David. I didn’t recognize anybody on the city crew, nor did they know me. That’s a big change too. They looked like kids. Did our children look that young when they were the ones to be setting up the stage for all the special events?


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