June 2011 marked the 30th anniversary of HIV/AIDS. This is another reflection from my experience working with HIV/AIDS, 1984-1993. You can catch up on previous installments by clicking on HIV/AIDS in the Topics box.
Do you remember looking forward to field trips in school? The prospect of no classes and a day away from school outweighed any potentially boring educational venue. Field trips offered something fun and different to look forward to. When you’re sick and and have no hope of getting better, field trips offered a tiny spark of something normal from the past.
One day I was checking in on Kevin and his caregivers. Kevin had AIDS and lived with his partner Steve. When Kevin started being more sick than well, his brother Mark quit his job and moved from San Diego to San Luis Obispo to help with Kevin’s care and support.
It was always fun going to their house. They had impeccable taste, an exquisite Lalique glass art collection, and always had something delectable and gourmet for me to try. We had ongoing philosophical and theological discussions and I never knew what the topic of the day would be. When British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time was published, we all read the book, basically forming a book club with others interested from the neighborhood.
When I arrived that day, Kevin said he knew what we could do for our next field trip! Our mortuary field trip had been a great success and he was hoping to be able to do one more field trip before he couldn’t go out anymore. A new movie was in town and he really wanted to see it. He had already started an invitation list and I was responsible for inviting Dr. and Mrs. Gordon to join us.
The day before our big movie date, Kevin had been in to see Dr. Gordon. He was fighting several infections and in need of a blood transfusion. Without the blood transfusion he wouldn’t be going anywhere. Luckily blood was available and the transfusion scheduled for the next day with plenty of time to still make it to the movie.
Well, that blood did not want to go into Kevin! He did make it to the theater with a few minutes to spare. There were about twenty of us and we just about had the entire theater to ourselves. We were surprised the theater was so empty.
We all settled in our seats. Kevin was on one side of me and Dr. Gordon was on my other side. The movie was Longtime Companion, the title taken from the phrase the New York Times used in the obituaries of the surviving same-sex partner of someone who died from AIDS in the 1980s. It was the first major release theatrical film dealing with the subject of AIDS.
The movie opened dramatically and graphically, not at all with your typical let’s-ease-into-the-subject-matter. Kevin leaned over to me and said, “With Dr. Gordon here with us, it’s like seeing an R-rated movie with your parents! I’m going to have to apologize to Mrs. Gordon.”
Longtime Companion thoughtfully, sensitively, and accurately portrayed the reality most with AIDS faced in the 1980s. Longtime Companion came out in 1989 and it wasn’t until 1993, with Philadelphia, that the next movie on the subject became mainstream.
You know when there are turning points for people when they bravely share their memories during memorial services. Many spoke about our movie field trip at Kevin’s memorial service, sighting how meaningful it was for them to have something that so profoundly affected their own lives be captured for other audiences to experience.
And Mrs. Gordon? Several years later, I was talking with Mrs. Gordon after her husband’s memorial service. We were sharing some of our fond, non-orthodox experiences around Dr. Gordon and AIDS. Mrs. Gordon put her hand on my arm and said, “You know what was one of the highlights for me? Going to see Longtime Companion with Kevin and everyone.” I’m sure Kevin and Dr. Gordon were sharing a hearty laugh together!