on our sleeves

By 1988, there had been 61,816 deaths in the U.S. alone. I was twenty-one. Two years later, nearly twice as many Americans had died of AIDS as died in the Vietnam War. By the time I was thirty? 234,225 deaths. Forty? Nearly 600,000 deaths.

Just consider that for a second.

Six-hundred thousand dead.

That’s the entire population of Denver or Portland or Seattle or Austin, dead. Twice the population of Minneapolis, three times the population of Madison, Wisconsin, six times the population of Salt Lake City or Boise, dead. By the time I was twenty five, I’d attended more funerals than weddings.

It was so important to remember everyone who lost. Nobody deserved to be a statistic. Nobody was going to be the emotional equivalent of an unmarked forgotten gravestone. Our community lived for remembering. To do otherwise was unthinkable.

We queers became the experts at grief. We wore it openly on our sleeves next to our battered hearts.

Our personal calendars are always full of when friends and lovers lost the battle. Each of them live on through stories like this one. Stories about someone that touched our life in such a direct way, that you mark their passing each year on the calendar as a personal memorial day. When I was in my 20s, I had a couple that I called my ‘gay’ Mom and Dad.

It was the summer of 1988 that I met Mark Spencer. Mark absolutely defined ‘sparkle.’ He was a cabaret singer and local variety show performer. He was always spit-shine polished, and everyone knew who was responsible. Friends used to joke that his partner John was the stage manager for “The Mark Show.” It was never meant with even a hint of disrespect. We were all jealous of the complete adoration that was apparent in both of them every time you were around them. You’d see a slight, gentle touch on Mark’s collar while he was surrounded by boys telling some outrageously rude joke. You’d catch them stealing thick, bourbon-filled kisses in the kitchen at a dinner party full of house guests.

Pictures of them with fabulously feathered ‘70s hairdos, powder blue tuxedos and thick rimmed glasses looking like extras from an extra campy Magnum P.I. episode, adorned the entry way to their home. They would tell beautifully detailed, different versions of the same story depending on who got started. Always on special occasions they’d tell of the night they came home together down the gravel driveway to their woodsy, small home. It was like listening to someone recite the most romantic of all fairy tales. Mark’s little details always making John blush at the right moments. It all seemed perfect.

Watching him that day, he was the personification of celebration and remembrance. Even in Mark’s death, John was the supportive partner, putting on the perfect send-off party, determined to get it absolutely right. It’s crazy how I can remember that evening on the ocean vividly, right down to the most particular detail. Mark’s service was held at the labyrinth at Land’s End. Out on the end of the world, with the setting sun bouncing off the water, lighting up the Golden Gate like a picture postcard. You had to walk down the earthen steps and find your way down to the sea. Once we’d all arrived, John went around the circle as people continued to greet one another. He handed each person a paper lantern. A deep reverent hush fell over all of us as we each realized Mark and John had made these in advance. Written on mine in John’s perfect cursive handwriting was a long paragraph:

“We met you at the baths on a joyous Pride weekend. You had just turned 21. I am so excited to know you’ll finish college and make a real difference in the world,” I read, with tears welling up. “I know you’ll be brilliant. You’ll break through that trademark shyness of yours. I will miss you, bucky boy, but the world is going to get such a gift.”

I looked up around the circle, witnessing how these personal messages were affecting everyone involved. John walked out to the edge near the water and lit the candle in his lantern, passing it around the circle to the next person. The sun started below the horizon as everyone’s lantern bounced with candlelight and started to fill with warm air, making them light in our hands.

John let his go, and it seemed to hover, in fact, hesitate in his hands. He spoke in this incredibly almost unbearable soft voice, “No. No. It’s time for you to go, honeybear.” As if hearing his absolute command, the lantern lit off from his hands and floated up, catching the breeze, which took it up and out to sea, candlelight revealing that the entire surface of his lantern had writing upon it. He looked after it like a parent sending his child off to school on a fall morning. One by one, the lanterns in our hands followed suit, slowly rising into the sky and wandering away.

I’d always meant to keep in better touch with John. But Mark was right, I finished college, went to Africa in the Peace Corps, and my life had taken off like a rocket ship. I had always thought to myself that John had gone quietly and peacefully after his husband without regrets.

Twenty-one years later, there he was on Facebook. It was like a ghost came up on my computer screen. According to his profile, he’d gone on to get a doctorate and was now a counselor in Calgary. He was single, aggressively agnostic, and had a dog named Lucille. He still had that calm smile, like the entire world had become a “Mark” for him to adore from across the room.

The computer beeped, and a message from him came up: “I’ve missed you.”

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This is an excerpt from “Brief Moments: A Collection of Short Stories” by Robert B. McDiarmid — available on Amazon.com in paperback and in Ebook/Kindle editions.