It was 1990. Christ, what a year. My good friend Phil died of a rare bone cancer in December of '89. From Russell Crowe look-alike to emaciated man in constant pain in 16 months. And then, three months after being Phil's pallbearer, it was my only brother.
My brother called from San Francisco in January, a month and a half after I carried Phil's casket into church. I need your help, he said, I'm getting bad. Got a call a few days later from a mutual friend, Debbie. Fly out right now. I did. Rented a car. Drove to Twin Peaks, noticed the Pacific fog drifting so slowly over the hilltops. It would have been a beautiful milieu under any other set of circumstances.
When you walk up to a dying person's house, you always take a deep breath and turn the knob before you go in. His friends Daniel and Bob were there. It was Bob's place. My brother couldn't manage his own apartment any more. They gave a warm greeting and smiled, and I felt better knowing he was with good guys.
He was in bed, propped up, with fresh brightly printed bed linens with tan and blue stripes. My beautiful blonde brother, a high school wrestler and weightlifter was down to less than a hundred pounds. The beautiful San Francisco sunlight streamed through the window, falling on his bed. He got up slowly, so slowly. His legs were shockingly skinny. All of those hours in the gym doing squats and leg presses, all of those bicep curls, all of those stomach crunches, for naught. He led us to the back porch, where he lovingly watered and fertilized his plants. We sat on the warm back porch, he drinking water, wearing his bulky sweater. He wanted to know how his nieces were doing. They are young and full of sweetness and love. They are everything we love in girls. Although he would want more than anything to see them again, it is not a pleasure he would permit himself. He wouldn't want their last memories of him to be like this.
He had a fine doctor, a young doctor who understood the psychological trendlines of dying AIDS patients. My brother didn't need false cheerful optimism, he wanted facts. He wanted the honest clinical truth about how he was going to die. He wanted to know his doctor's challenges in keeping him alive. "AIDS is a fascinating disease. Dr. Mark explained it to me, and it is so fascinating. It would be a lot more interesting if I didn't have it, of course." He volunteered for experimental drug regimens. It was too late for him, but his experience may have helped others. The cocktails he was given were brutal; in many ways they were worse than the disease. But he didn't give up. In a certain Christian sense, it was a redemptive thing for him. He must suffer so that others may have better lives. He understood this, and willed his body to accept his decision. It was not easy.
He did not fear death, but he was angry that he had to die so young. So many ideas. So many unaccomplished goals. We wanted to grow old and compare notes when we were old. We were twin halves of one august event, growing up close in age and outlook. After high school graduation, like an iceberg that was split in two, we split apart and began leading separate lives, I going off to college first, choosing engineering and the hard sciences, and he following later, equally conversant in the arts and the sciences, but choosing a different course, one with plants and arts and beauty. We always assumed that in our dotage we would re-merge and learn from the other.
He feared separation of a different sort when we were younger. In our younger adolescent days, I inveighed against fags, queers, sexual perverts, and homosexuals. I quoted Scripture. He remained silent. Whatever natural love he felt for his older brother must have been gradually eroded by my mean-spirited diatribes. God forgive me, for I know not what I say. He died by degrees, perhaps, back then, when we were still living together. He learned that he had to hide what he was. But somehow in his great capacity for love, he still cared about me enough to worry how I felt about him as a gay man. We spent a weekend renting a cabin together up in Big Bear Lake when he told me. He was living with a man. On the drive up I asked if he was gay, dreading the answer, but knowing it too. He said yes. We drove on in silence. Do you have HIV? He said yes.
And here is the great cosmic joke: I, ostensibly the Christian, learn the meaning of "long-suffering" from my gay brother. I, the hetero, learn that within my own family, my other-half brother is gay. Same mother, same father, same house, same neighborhood, nothing different. He's gay, I'm not. It wasn't his choice. Choice had nothing to do with it. No one would choose to grow up with that kind of abuse. But I had a choice. Could he still count on his brother's closeness? Would his brother walk away?
When you are confronted with this question, a heart of love speaks more powerfully than a thousand Bibles. You cannot deny your own flesh, your own blood. Your brother will always be your brother. He didn't want to be gay, but there it is. It was time for me to grow up and say fuck it, here we are, you've been dealt a shitty hand, let's stick together. I will never leave you or forsake you.
So here it was, a few years later, when his T cell count was alarmingly low, and cryptosporidiosis was claiming him one meal at a time. Eat. Vomit. Eat. Vomit. The parasites never let him digest his food enough to permit proper digestion. They were not treatable by any drug.
He wanted control over his death, no matter how painful, no matter what the cost. He did not want to go to a hospital or a nursing home. He did not want to give up his beloved San Francisco to come live with us on the East Coast.
He and his doctor worked out a plan. Like Socrates, he was going to die by his own hand. I was but a bit player in the drama. Three or four large syringes of potassium chloride, injected into his arm, would stop his heart. Brain death would occur a few minutes later. That afternoon, we made him a meal he loved: baked chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy. He ate it, enjoyed it, and threw it up. Our mother was there with us. At four in the morning I was to set the quiet alarm, and wake up and see his wishes through. He made me promise that if he couldn't finish, I would finish for him. He stared into my eyes. I wanted to deny the reality of the situation, but he wouldn't let that happen. He needed to see steel in his brother's eyes, as there was in his own. There was no steel in my eyes, there were only tears. Of course I will help you.
All night long I dreamt strange dreams. What my brother must have dreamed can only be imagined.
At three a.m. a strange sound woke me fast. It was coming from my brother's bedroom. His small night-table alarm clock was quietly but insistently beeping. My brother wasn't turning it off. My heart pounded as I tiptoed to his room, not wishing to wake my worn-out mother. As in some horror movie I walked down the small hallway to the half-open door, and remembered seeing my arm opening the door, even though I knew only unhappiness lay there. In the moonlight, his body lay sprawled across the bed, his ribcage showing through his pellucid skin. He had been sitting at the side of the bed and injected himself. He fell back when his heart stopped. Two syringes emptied. He had started an hour early. I was his insurance policy, but none was needed.
Years later, I wonder and marvel at his courage. His final act was a triumph over death. Oh death, where is thy sting? Oh grave, where is thy victory? I'll tell you, that was his victory.
Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt, Werner Robert Seelig, 1957-1990