World AIDS Day

Yesterday (Dec. 1) was World AIDS day and so rather than do a normal journal entry for today, I wanted to take time to remember some special people.

People who are never completely forgotten, never completely die.

The first person I ever knew to die of AIDS was Arthur Conrad, who died in November of 1986. Arthur was a dancer, an actor, a director, a choreographer and a host of other things. He was "Mother Marshmallow" in the Oakland ballet's Nutcracker for several years. He and I worked together on a production of The Mikado, my first (and only) stint as "Assistant to the Director." He had a "cold" during the rehearsal period and complained that he couldn't shake it.

The production ran in August of 1986 and at its conclusion, I drove Arthur home and he promised to call me to take me out to lunch for all the work I had done for him. I didn't hear from him and then on a Friday morning I had a call that he had been rushed to the hospital. He was diagnosed with pneumocystis pneumonia. I immediately went out and bought a card to send him. He died Sunday night and the card was returned to me the following week, unopened.

Until that time AIDS had been something that happened to someone else. The Lamplighters had been so fortunate that despite the number of gay men (at that time we all still thought of AIDS as a gay disease) involved in the company, and despite the other theatre companies hard hit by the disease, we had remained untouched. Unfortunately, Arthur was only the first.

John Gilkerson was the next Lamplighter diagnosed. Like Arthur, John was an amazing talent who could sing, dance, act, and design incredible costumes. He struggled through the building of a production of Princess Ida, his magnum opus. The costumes were magnificent, though his illness made him angry and he alienated a lot of people before the show opened. I hadn't seen him for several weeks before opening night and I was shocked at how much weight he had lost. The Kaposi Sarcomi lesions were also visible on his face and hands as he sat in the back of the darkened theatre to watch his creations come to life on the stage. I gave him a hug and told him how wonderful the show looked. I never saw him again and he died a few weeks later.

Eight more Lamplighter singers, dancers, actors, etc. whom I knew have lost their lives to this disease.

In Davis, Larry Ayo, who played Fagin to Paul's Oliver and who played King Arthur in a production of Camelot that David was in lost his life to AIDS.

Tony Fields, graduate of Davis High School, a member of the cast of the movie version of A Chorus Line, and a regular on LA Law (among other TV shows), died of AIDs.

Dick ("Dickie") Remley, from The Last Session group, who was Steve's best friend and in many ways the heart of The Last Session group lost his long battle with AIDS in January of 2000. His death has affected countless people whose lives he touched.

And closest to home for me was the death this year of my friend and distant cousin Bill Brunson-Kelley, who died in August. Bill and I became close when I spent time in Houston helping out after a crisis he went through in 1998. He outlived everyone's predictions for him and went down as he said he would, fighting all the way.

* * * * *

The statistics are frightening. And impressive. The news tonight, for example, said that in Sacramento, 75% of the people with AIDS are women. (That certainly has been my experiences through these months of working with Breaking Barriers.) Over half of the new cases of HIV in this country are in people under the age of 25. (A population that thinks AIDS is cured--or that it's "no big deal.") Some countries in Africa have been all but decimated by the disease.

And yet funding for AIDS research is down, funding for AIDS education programs is down. AIDS is yesterday's news and people aren't taking it seriously any more. "Oh, they've cured that, haven't they?"

There are only 16 people on my list of friends and acquaintances who have died of AIDS. There are those who know far more.

There are people I love who are living with HIV and AIDS.

Watch Steve some day filling his pill container for the week--white pills and yellow pills and big pills and small pills and round pills and oblong pills. How he remembers them all is amazing. Take this one with meals, and this one on an empty stomach, this one every 4 hours and this one every other day....

It keeps him alive, but trust me, it's a big deal.

We need more than "a day" to think about AIDS. We need to think about it every day and we need to work tirelessly to make sure that nobody else gets this terrible disease.