by David Palmer
There was his studio apartment the first time I went home with him. It was uncluttered, thoughtful and had the esthetic ease that frames the life of a true artist.
There were the serious scars on his body from the three near fatal medical crises he had already faced in his young life. This was a person who did not have time to waste and did not suffer fools gladly.
There was the discovery, as we lolled in bed that first time, that we had met before. He had been a volunteer behind a mirrored window observing a test group of Gay men, including myself, discussing HIV, our attitudes and behavior for a pilot program that would later become the Stop AIDS Project. “I wanted you then,” he told me.
That night we fell in in love and for the next six years were rarely apart.
“W.C.” was what he was always called to avoid confusion with his father, William Claude. It was Missouri, and initials were good enough. He would never have tolerated being a “Junior.” His parents couldn’t have children so, eventually, they adopted two, W.C. being the oldest. He grew up on the family farm in a rural community that only needed one room for the first eight grades and one high school for the whole county.
W.C. learned farming, but he was never destined to be a farmer. His world view was far more expansive, far more urban. Instead, he studied architecture at St. Louis University but chaffed at the way student creativity was assiduously stifled. One day, without telling anyone except a roommate, he left school and bought a one-way plane ticket to San Francisco. During the flight his father had a massive heart attack back on the farm and died without ever knowing that his son had escaped. W.C. flew home the next day for the funeral but a week later was back in San Francisco still determined to start the life he knew was not possible anywhere else.
W.C. had known he was gay from an early age and also knew that he would never find a home in the fields of the Midwest. At University he realized that his family ties were more like chains and thus began to build a new life in the Gay Mecca. He lived on the cheap, went to a computer trade school, got a good job, and immersed himself in the culture that was San Francisco in the 1980s.
When I met him, W.C. was only 22 years old and had already survived Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, testicular cancer and a near fatal bowel obstruction from the scar tissue of previous surgeries. That was how he had learned to live in the moment with a mindful intensity that was both stunning and humbling. There was never any obfuscation, dissembling, or passive/aggressive behavior in his relationships, only real feelings and honest communication.
W.C. may have been fourteen years my junior but he was my Sherpa in the landscape of love. He understood that love was a choice and we chose to love each other every moment we had together. We never argued. He taught me to love as if there was no tomorrow because, someday, there would be no tomorrow. I now see how spoiled I was with the gift of his unconditional love and we would often marvel at our mutual good fortune.
After two years of sharing his studio apartment we found a brand new “mother-in-law” unit in the Castro on the side of Corona Heights. Just looking through the front windows at the unfinished interior, we knew it would somehow be ours. It was beyond our budget, but W.C. believed in surrounding himself with what made him happy. We scraped together the deposit money and were the first tenants to live at 180 States Street. It was two bedrooms, two baths, two stories with a split level on the first floor and, later, an office in the basement. The front had a redwood deck overlooking Twin Peaks and there was an empty lot next door. It was heaven.
W.C. quickly put his contemporary aesthetic to work and made our house a home with just the right furnishings and music. All of my friends and family loved W.C. and were incredibly happy for us. He was a culinary artist and our dinner parties were “events” prized by all attendees. Two other couples found each other in our space which seemed to have chemistry that distilled the best out of everyone who entered. The last meal W.C. ever cooked was for a group of my colleagues from around the country who still talk about his Cassoulet and chocolate torte.
Through my work I had close friends around the globe and we housed many when they came through San Francisco. We traveled together to Quebec City and visited my family in Chicago and Connecticut. We spent three enchanted Christmases’ in Santa Fe with friends. Our lives were golden and precious but the rest of the world was not. Already the Gay community was in the middle of the worst of the AIDS crises and many people we knew were getting sick and dying.
I remember coming home one day and asking W.C. whether he would like to know if I found out my HIV status? Of course, he replied, and I told him I had been tested and found out I was negative. He decided that he would also get tested at his next checkup. That is when he found out that, after three years of good health, his lymphoma had come back with a vengeance. He also discovered that he was HIV positive.
In those days, prospects were not good for those who had a recurrence of lymphatic cancer and his HIV status made the diagnosis even bleaker. But the life we had created was so spacious and full of love that there was never a question but what we would embrace this new reality together and treasure each day as we always had.
He had to quit his job and I sold my massage school so I could be with him as much as possible. After nearly a year of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, his cancer went into remission, but the experience had taken its toll. We still traveled and entertained and worked together for the next two years, but the pace was slower and we spent more evenings cuddling on the couch watching our favorite programs and listening to music.
On December 10, 1990, we found out that the lymphoma had returned. The oncologist wanted to start him on another course of chemotherapy but W.C. insisted that it not begin until after he had enjoyed one more New Year’s Eve dinner with a couple who had met at our house, always a special time for us.
Those last two months were a blur while we concentrated on this new development. The first time he had gotten sick, we had made a pact that we would carry on in “healthy denial” as long as there was any glimmer of hope. W.C. had no interest in letting a disease define his life. He never went to an AIDS or cancer support group because he didn’t want to be infected with the “victim vibe.” That just wasn’t who he was.
The new, aggressive treatment caused his marrow to stop producing red blood cells and he became very weak. About every ten days we would make a trip to the emergency room for a blood transfusion. He couldn’t eat and quickly was reduced to skin and bones.
After a visit to the doctor the first week in February, we were sitting in the car trying to interpret the latest prognosis when, all of a sudden we realized that what the doctor had, in essence, just told us was that the current treatment was not working. Immediately W.C. decided to stop all medications and therapy. He was exhausted and ready to let go. So, I contacted hospice care and we began making final arrangements.
Over the next few days there was a small stream of visitors and phone calls from our closest friends. W.C. was not sentimental. He had lived life deeply and richly and, because he had already come face-to-face with his own mortality on many occasions, he had no fear of dying.
A nurse friend of ours, Gary, was the only other person W.C. would allow to tend to his body and had stayed overnight on Friday to allow me some time to rest. Saturday the last of the visitors left and I tried to rest on the couch downstairs. At about two o’clock the next morning W.C. suddenly, but very firmly, sent Gary home. I crawled into bed beside him and fell into a fitful sleep listening to his labored breathing. When I awoke five hours later, only his body remained. W.C.’s spirit had already dissolved into the greater consciousness.
I was shattered. Being with W.C., even when he was sick, was a profound gift. Being without him seemed impossible. For the first time I understood the Hindu impulse of throwing oneself on a husband’s funeral pyre. It was only the thought of my daughter, who turned 16 the day W.C. died, that kept that impulse in check.
By accident of birth I knew I was one of the luckiest people on earth. I was white, male, middle-class and American. From the time I emerged from adolescence my experience was that each year my life got better, until this one year when it didn’t.
The next twelve months were the most difficult of my life but, with the help of a large group of loving friends and family, I survived, but I was never the same. It was no longer difficult for me to access my vulnerability, to feel empathy and to cry. I felt like I had finally joined the rest of humanity for whom tragedy was often immediate and ever-present.
The devastation that was AIDS continued for many more years. Within six months my earliest friend from high school had died of AIDS, then his lover, then my first lover and a dozen more acquaintances. W.C.’s doctor died three years later. Just as I was transformed by AIDS, so was the Gay community. We became the LGBT community and embraced our commonalities as well as our differences. We fought together not only for our rights, but for our lives. For the next 20 years I volunteered my time and my body to various organizations and health care experiments. One of the organizations I worked with was the Stop AIDS Project where W.C. and I first met.
Fifty people came to the memorial we held for W.C. at the house and to plant a tree to remember this quiet, gentle, graceful and wise friend. Before I met W.C. I never believed in Hollywood love-at-first sight. Now I believe in many kinds of love and find it everywhere, every day of my life. I only have to choose to see it.