The First Loss is the Deepest
This article originally appeared in A&U Magazine.
Every long-term HIV survivor on the planet has stories to tell about friends, lovers, co-workers, and/or family members whom they lost to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 90s. Anyone familiar with my writing knows the importance I place on our storytelling, our sharing our stories ourselves, to avoid the “straight-washing” of our history that happens when we let others tell our stories. With that in mind, this is a story about the first of my friends to die.
Dean died first. In early 1982. For about a year, we had worked together at Folsom Magazine after we left Drummer, he as art director and principal photographer, I as editor and head writer. Even though I was only twenty-nine and Dean was twenty-two or -three, I felt much older than he and protective of him in an older-brother kind of way. He looked even younger than he was, with his short shaggy-cut chestnut-hued hair, creamy white skin, deep brown eyes with gold flecks in them. He was taller than me and somewhat gangly; he moved with a combination of youthful awkwardness and grace that made him a glorious terror to behold on the dance floor. His energy was boundless—he filled the art room with rowdy punk rock while he worked and pogo’ed around the room like a leather-clad faery. Despite his rough-hewn exterior, he was as wholeheartedly dedicated to his art as any other artist I’ve ever known. I was often amazed at how mature his artistic sense was, how keenly perceptive his photographer’s eye was, for someone so young.
Dean flounced into work one morning, his knees sticking through the man-made holes in his jeans, his aluminum spray-painted worker’s boots muddier than usual, his hair cut and bleached. He had shaved his hair into a Mohawk and dyed it the most shocking color I’ve ever seen, a “nuclear canary yellow,” like the last little bird to fly over Chernobyl.
When I first saw Dean’s Mohawk, my jaw dropped open. He grinned as if to say, precisely the reaction I wanted!
“Whattya think?” he asked, fluffing his hand through his feathers.
“Well, Dean,” I began, crossing my arms and smiling, “I think it looks like hell! But that’s the whole point, right?”
“OF COURSE!” he laughed, and off he bounded into the art room.
Later that afternoon, when we were alone, Dean turned down the punk rock music—a rarity—and slowly ambled over to my desk.
As he put both hands on my desk and leaned down toward me, he whispered, “Hank?” I glanced up from the story I was editing and saw that his eyes were watery, his lower lip trying not to quiver.
“What’s the matter, Dean? Sit down. Please. Tell me what’s wrong.”
“No, I’m okay, I just wanted to show you something.”
He took a step back from my desk and slowly lifted his t-shirt up.
The creamy white skin of Dean’s torso had disappeared behind a camouflage pattern of lesions; his chest and belly had become a battlefield full of detonated landmines, with each fleshy crater cradling a purple-brown-yellow lesion, blue and red veins running out from the craters like unmarked roads on a war-torn map.
I didn’t have to ask if the lesions were painful; I could see the pain in every vein, in every crater.
When I could finally look up, our eyes locked, and for several moments we just stared into each other’s eyes, saying nothing and everything, the tears freely rolling down our cheeks. Neither of us spoke for a while. I looked down at my desk, wiped tears from my face, and looked up to see Dean slowly, painfully lowering his shirt.
“My doctor says it’s definitely KS. The ‘gay cancer.’” He bit his lip. “It doesn’t look good.”
And I couldn’t even hug him. It would have hurt too much. For both of us.
Just a few weeks later, Dean died.
Do you remember your first loss to the epidemic? That first death that made you realize, oh my god, this is real, and it’s closing in. The first death that made you consider your own mortality. The first death that ripped your heart out and stomped on it ’til you thought you’d never feel anything again.
We all have a “Dean” in our past.
Honor your Dean by telling your story about him as far and wide as you can. It won’t bring him back to life, but it will keep his memory alive.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.