Hurricanes, Tornadoes, and AIDS: A Memoir

In 1991, Andrew, my gay significant other, died of AIDS. We met in 1977. During those 14 years, we lived together on and off, and easily passed as a couple to unsuspecting parties. We were drunk together, and then sober together. We ushered one another into adulthood, and frequently gave one another unsolicited fashion and dating advice.

Cynthia J. Long. Photo Courtesy of Cynthia J. Long

Andrew’s death followed four others from my inner circle, and came as the eye of a rampant, recurring hurricane, no less daunting or deadly by its frequent return. Left standing were five empty dining room chairs. A whole dinner party—a bawdy, witty, and raucous dinner party—silenced.

Lesley, Gary, Bobby, Robert, and Andrew died inside of 18 months. Not one of them saw his 40s.

Andrew and I met at a home for mentally retarded men on the East Side of St. Paul. I was the activities assistant, and he was a program assistant. We attended college by day, and worked evening shifts. Soon, we started hanging out, and in 1978, we moved in with one another. Initially, he provided the apartment, and I provided the car. We shared the household chores, and cooked for one another.

Eventually, Andrew bought a house in St. Paul, and we moved in together. We adopted Jessica, a leviathan sheepdog to most, but for us, she was our surrogate child. Apparently, she thought of herself as a small toy poodle, because she frequently knocked things over as she recklessly barreled through the small A-frame house. She did not have a very good handle on her actual girth, as Andrew put it. He remained confident that it was merely an awkward stage, and she would outgrow it. She didn’t.

My family adored Andrew, and thought I could do a lot worse. I had to remind them he was gay. His family, from rural Indiana, disowned him after he came out to them. I always tried to make up for the loss of his family with the gain of mine, and I am proud to say that my family did not fail me.

On occasion, my Mom, then in her 60s, would join Andrew and me for a night of disco dancing at the Gay 90’s, or, as Andrew would say, “an evening of clubbing and cocktails.” Gracie was well-loved at the gay clubs, because so many of the young men had lost their own mothers and grandmothers to the truth. One night, Andrew and I were on the small dance floor doing some incredible gyrations to Donna Summer’s “Last Dance,” and looked over to the bar to check on Gracie. We couldn’t see her immediately, as she was surrounded by a flurry of young gay men, flirting and giggling with her. A head moved, and we got a peek of her. She expertly was applying thick eyeliner to one of the drag queens. It was clear that she could have had a second career in getting the guys, or ladies rather, ready for the stage. Andrew and I just looked at each other, smiled, and boogied down.

Andrew made it a point to meet my dates when we lived together. He would invite them into the “drawing room,” as he liked to call the living room. Then, he’d ask where they worked, how we met, what we planned on doing that evening, and whether they voted regularly. He was very civic-minded. I would stand out of eyesight of my date—rolling my eyes at Andrew, and circling my index finger in a gesture of “wrap it up, already.” I was the fiancée and spouse he was not allowed to have, and the daughter and granddaughter he never would have.

When I started law school in 1983, Andrew was no less involved. He joined the Wives’ Club at William Mitchell. It was commenced at a much earlier time, when most students were men and married. The wives felt abandoned by their husbands’ consuming schedule, so they got together monthly for cookies and tea, and to commiserate about their absentee husbands. Sometimes, they held bakeoffs for local charities. Andrew was, of course, the only man in the group. Needless to say, he was a hit. His signature was the refrigerator cookie. I always knew when an outing was coming up, because this anemic tan log would be in the fridge waiting to be sliced and baked into delicious cookies.

In the late 1980s, Andrew met Robert. I was sure he was not good enough for Andrew, and kept a vigilant eye on the relationship. Robert kept an equally vigilant watch on me to ensure his solo post as the significant other. We eventually came to a truce of sorts, with Andrew’s happiness as the compromise. Robert moved in, and the three of us lived together uneasily for a while. The house was built for two, however—much like love. I moved out, and immediately began to like Robert better. They bought a house together in North Minneapolis, and lived like most married couples, but with the conspicuous absence of state or church sanction.

Early in their partnership, a new character arrived on the scene: AIDS. In the late ’80s, AIDS was a death sentence, with a short and torturous stay on death row.

One evening, I visited them in their North Minneapolis home. Though I visited them frequently since they had been diagnosed with AIDS, this time, I had not been there for about a month. Andrew invited me to dinner. I rang back to ask what I should bring for dessert. Robert answered. He requested chocolate ice cream. No alarms were sounded in the brief telephone conversation, as I knew Robert’s penchant for chocolate.

However, when I arrived, I entered the living room, and Robert was sitting on the couch staring straight ahead. He did not acknowledge me, which was completely out of character. He had lost much weight in a month’s time, and his eyes were glassy and vacant.

I recognized this look. I had seen it in the weeks before other loved ones had died. My heart began to race, while my palms became slippery. I silently bargained with God, “Please, not yet. Just a couple more years. Another birthday maybe.”

“Robert?” No answer. “Robert, I brought the chocolate ice cream you requested,” I said in my best smiley voice, with eyebrows raised, as if to sustain my false comportment, and discourage my own tears.

Robert slowly turned toward me, and warned Andrew in a weak old-man’s voice, “Andrew, someone’s here.” His eyes were matted at the corners, which was contrary to his normal fastidious style. He did not recognize me, let alone recall the telephone conversation of less than an hour ago.

I darted to the kitchen, where I heard Andrew clanging about. When I entered, I saw him hugging the counter to keep his balance, with his frail body bent unnaturally forward. He was struggling not to fall, while he worked at the pasta sauce jar. He wasn’t able to open it—he had become too weak. He was in obvious pain, and tearing up with frustration. And he was embarrassed

My eyebrows and voice pitch rose even higher, while I tried to portray some semblance of my halcyonic self. I wanted to rescue him from the humiliation as much as from the pain and his shortened mortality. Trying to hide my panic and to assuage my guilt for not visiting sooner, I attempted outward calm.

Andrew updated his conditions. His neuropathy, which included a painful numbing of the feet and legs, had worsened radically. The condition was causing him to lose his footing and fall. He also was having trouble breathing because of Pneumocystis pneumonia, a virulent, opportunistic form common to AIDS patients, which, if unsuccessfully treated, single-handedly can lead to death. His back was covered with painful shingles. He did not need to mention the Kaposi’s sarcoma—it was self-evident. His formerly handsome face was ravaged with purplish-brownish lesions caused by the AIDS-related cancer.

Robert had spiraled downward into severe dementia. The next day, we began arrangements to get him into the VA Center, where he would be safe. He had served his country bravely in Vietnam, and now would reside with other soldiers. At home, he would turn on the stove burners, and leave them unattended, or walk out of the house in the middle of the night in his underwear, and get lost. Andrew no longer was able to chase after him, because he himself no longer could walk unaided, let alone run. Robert had fallen into a worse foxhole than he ever had survived in ’Nam.

We had Andrew fitted with a cane, but it did not assist with his balance problem. We immediately moved to a walker for a couple of weeks. By the time Robert died, a few weeks later, Andrew’s legs were paralyzed, and he was confined to either his bed or a wheelchair. Eventually, he lost control of his body functions, and wore diapers.

It was as if a tornado had decimated the household, but left the house intact, ready for its next occupants.

Andrew had willed himself to outlive and properly bury Robert. Andrew missed his parents and Robert. After Robert’s death, I called Andrew’s parents. I asked them to decide whether they wanted to be part of their son’s dying, even though they had not been part of his recent life. It was a difficult call to make. I selfishly wanted Andrew to myself, and I did not think they deserved his company at this hour. They arrived two days later. And for Andrew’s sake, I was grateful that they came. I buried my own selfishness.

Andrew’s mother brought his favorite dish, a thick, gooey gray gravy with dumplings and some kind of meat—a mystery dish to me. Andrew convinced me at least to taste the gravy. With great reluctance, I brought a small teaspoon of it to my mouth, stopped with spoon midair, and demanded, “Andrew what is this?” From his wheelchair, he retorted with a sly smile, “Just try it, Cin.” As soon as I put the glutinous substance in my mouth, his father proudly exclaimed, “Well, hell, girl, it’s squirrel. Shot ’em myself from the porch before we came up. Then, Ma stewed them.” Gagging, and pointing my goo-coated spoon at Andrew, I yelled, “A rodent? You had me eat rodent gravy?” It was the last time Andrew broke into a full belly laugh. And it was the last time he sat at the dinner table.

In the few ensuing weeks between his parents’ arrival and Andrew’s death, his father rarely touched him. He reminded me of Festus from the TV show Gunsmoke. He seemed to slither around the perimeters of the rooms, avoiding full eye contact with anyone. He would have been much more comfortable in the back 40 of their rural Indiana homestead, with a shotgun at his side, shooting squirrels. Instead, he was in the city, watching his gay son die violently of AIDS. But he was there, for both his wife and his son. Presence trumps comfort.

His mother was a trooper, and a great comfort to Andrew. The hospice walked her through the supplies of gloves, suppositories, bedpans, diapers, and needles, as well as explaining the medication schedule and hospital bed instructions. She absorbed everything without a moment of self-pity. She took care of his baths and diaper changes, as she did for him 36 years earlier. She performed this tenderly. This comforted me immensely, because I knew Andrew finally was receiving the touch from the one person who mattered the most: Mom.

Andrew became completely bedridden. He was on countless drips, including morphine. He was in and out of consciousness. His ribs were as visible as those of a Holocaust victim.

The last thing Andrew said was on the night before he died. With a baseball game blaring in the background, courtesy of his father, Andrew whispered, with eyes closed, “I got the car packed, and the game is almost over.” Then, his eyes flickered open, and he looked at me. He said, “You can’t come. You have to stay here.”

Andew had read my mind. I didn’t want to stay. I was weary. I was lonely for all my friends who had died, and fearful of the number who would die in the future. I wanted to travel to the other side with Andrew. I felt alienated from most people. I acquired an edge. I saw other people’s concerns as petty. I did not know if I had another eulogy in me. And mostly, I dreaded another trip to Waterston’s Chapel and Cremation Society on Nicollet Avenue.

The next day, Andrew passed in his own bed, in his home, with his parents, our mutual dear friend Kent, and me standing around his bed. His Mom swooned at Andrew’s last breath. They both stopped breathing in the same moment. Kent caught her, and held her up.

After the initial shock, his mother’s strength returned. She knew there was more to be done. She shooed the three of us out, and told us to start making the necessary calls.

I remember not wanting to leave Andrew—not just yet. Though I obeyed his mother, I only could get myself to the other side of the door. I leaned against the wall in the tiny hallway, and simply let myself slide down the wall to the floor like a pile of soiled laundry, while silent tears attempted to cleanse me.

His mother had collected all the things she would need to perform Andrew’s last bath. It was as ceremonious as a baptismal, and I could feel the power and divinity of it as if I were inside the greatest cathedral during Mass. I never saw his body again, but I would not be surprised if he was completely swathed in white linen strips.

On occasion, I hear Andrew’s voice whisper, “You have to stay here.” All these years later, I continue to miss him and the other friends who died, then and since.

I’ve learned the relevance of the line I heard from the 1970 film I Never Sang for My Father: “Death ends a life. It does not end a relationship.”

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