December 31, 2010

Tommy's Tale, Part Three

If you missed the first two installments of this story, you'll find part one here and part two here. And now for the last part of Tommy's Tale, the true story of my brother's death. 

I didn't want to know. 

Over a year passed and all the while I tried not to think of my brother. I'm good at compartmentalizing my feelings. People can hurt me -- for about five minutes. And then I put the part of them that lives inside me to sleep, and I never wake it up again. Poof, they're gone. You learn how to do things like this when you grow up gay. Rejection is always waiting around the next corner. You get very good at compartmentalization. At least, I did.

Thoughts of Tommy did enter my mind but I always pushed them away. He was fine. I'd have heard otherwise, right? I clung to this last point. Of course he was okay or someone would have called me.

Someone did call, but only about a year and a half after Tommy disappeared. It was a female relative of his, someone I didn't know. I don't remember her name and I never spoke to her again. She wasn't calling about Tommy. She had a question and thought because of my job, I might be able to answer it. So really, no one ever called me about Tommy.

During an otherwise innocuous conversation, she referred to my brother in the past tense. I think she said, "Tommy was such a good guy."  

My heart stopped. Time froze and the light in my office got much brighter. And then I took a breath -- perhaps I'd just heard her wrong.

"You just said Tommy 'was' a good guy," I said. "Past tense. Has something happened to him?"

She was horrified that I didn't know -- though how I would know without them telling me remains unclear. And finally she blurted out the details. I can remember every word of her description:

"Tommy died from that flesh-eating bacteria -- you know, the one that got Jim Henson. One day he was fine and then suddenly he was having trouble breathing. No one thought it was a big deal at first but it just got worse, so they took him to the hospital. But he was gone in 24 hours. It was that fast."

As I heard her words, I recognized that Tommy had died because of AIDS. Who is most susceptible to flesh-eating bacteria? The immune-suppressed. I've never wavered in my belief that AIDS took my brother from me.

I started crying while we were on the phone and I didn't stop for days, maybe weeks or months. I really can't say. The moment I hung up, I gathered my things and stumbled out of the office. I cried on the subway, cried on the streets between there and home, and totally fell apart when I got to my apartment. My brother was gone. Somewhere deep inside me, I had known for a long time that he was dead. But now it was confirmed.

That was the first day of the worst bender I ever went on. I didn't go to work. I just sat in my apartment, drinking around the clock. Everything went black, literally. I remember looking out the window and being shocked by sunlight. How could there be sunlight? It didn't make sense.

My life shattered into pieces and I couldn't put them together again. Tommy's death pushed me right over the edge. I'd only been hanging on, even before he died. But this set me adrift. I have never felt so lost in my life. 

Earlier, I said I was good at pushing my feelings away and burying them, seemingly for good. This technique works; I can assure you of this. But there is a stiff price to pay for slippery mental bookkeeping. When the feelings finally hit -- and they always do; make no mistake -- you are destroyed. 

All the pain you pushed away remains stored deep inside your mind. It waits for you to let your guard down -- and when it finally bursts through, that entire backlog of pain hits you all at once like an avalanche. I was buried in despair. I have never felt such pain at any other time in my life. My brother was dead. I felt so alone.

I can't say when I finally realized I needed to pull myself together. But one day I went to an AA meeting. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon and I knew there was a tiny meeting in the Village. I figured I could handle that. I hadn't stopped drinking yet. I wanted to but the despair was suffocating me.

I had never talked to a soul about Tommy's death -- not one person. I just sat in my apartment, drinking alone. But when I hauled my body to the meeting that day, the magic that sometimes happens in AA surrounded me.

When the meeting leader entered the room I could see that he was visibly shaken. After murmuring urgently with a few people in the room, he sat down and opened the meeting. 

He said he'd just learned that an alcoholic friend had died during the night. He was very emotional as he spoke of his sense of loss. And so it went around the room, each person sharing about a terrible loss and how they handled it. I was bathed by their words, purified, settled. As people continued to speak about their pain, I realized this was a human thing; it wasn't something confined only to me. Other people had experienced similar pain. Immediately I felt less alone and was able to take a long, deep breath. I could breathe again!

I couldn't say anything when it came to my turn. I knew I would break into sobs if I spoke and I was unwilling to do this in front of anyone. But I didn't have to. That's the thing about AA magic: you bump into what you need at meetings. It just happens. I don't know why.

I did get what I needed that day. I felt I had shared my loss with these people, even without saying a word. The healing began in that room and stayed with me when I walked out the door. Within a month I went at a gay rehab in Minnesota, and I found my life there.

* * *

Tommy's death wasn't his fault. I say this in case any reader thinks this is the case. HIV/AIDS doesn't work that way. It's a virus. 

But for years I believed his death was my fault. I had been a bad example. I hadn't properly drilled the facts of HIV into his head. It was my fault. It took me about a decade to get over my guilt for not saving him. And the sadness has never left me; it's still here. It peeks out less often as the years pass but I still cry about Tommy sometimes. I guess I always will. I just feel so damn bad about it.

Two of my longtime lovers died of AIDS and it killed a ton of my friends. But the death that hurts the most is my kid brother's. I miss him and I wish he could be around for this part of our lives. We could have had such good times. I figure Tommy would be sober by now, too. I'll bet we would have had an even better relationship now.

But I lost him and there's nothing I can do to change that. I lost so many people that sometimes this seems to be a world of ghosts. But we were all quite real -- those of us who lived and those who died. We were just living our lives when a virus came to visit. And it took some but didn't take others. That's just the way it is.

We learned a lot from those early days. Because science studied the experience of those who died so swiftly in the early 80s, today we know how to protect ourselves from HIV. The people who died back then didn't die in vain. They saved many people. We need to remember that.

I know that even now some folks find it hard to stay safe -- especially if they're in the throes of addiction. I know for a fact that it's impossible to remember which syringe is yours once you're high. And it ain't so easy to remember to use a condom when you're drunk and that guy is so damned cute. It sounds simple on paper but life is more complicated than that.

It happened to so many good people, and my brother was one of them. I miss him a lot and I always will. And I also know that in a very real way, Tommy saved my life. I only wish I could have saved his.


Artichoke Annie said...

Last night I watched 'Before Night Falls' a movie about Cuban poet/novelist Reinaldo Arenas. Your story of Tommy's Tale also was fresh in my thoughts.

The two stories blended in my dreams in the wee hours. Tommy became Reinaldo and you became Tommy's friend Lazaro - you were with him at the end, to hold, help and love.

writenow said...

A sweet comment. I've been wanting to see it, too. Thanks.