Sunday, September 21, 2008

Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

Oh my friends, my friends forgive me
That I live and you are gone.
There's a grief that can't be spoken.
There's a pain goes on and on.

Phantom faces at the window.
Phantom shadows on the floor.
Empty chairs at empty tables
Where my friends will meet no more.

--Herbert Kretzmer

NOTE: All photos can be seen full screen by double clicking on them. The complete set of photos taken by Kevin and myself can be seen on my Picasa web gallery.

The following letter was written on February 9th, 1989, almost twenty years ago. As I reread it this morning, I wanted to share it with you all, partly as an historical document, but also because I feel the message is still relevant, even if dated. It was written to the ex-wife of a dear friend, a woman living in southern California and working in the entertainment industry. She and some colleagues wanted to put together a performance piece dealing with the way AIDS was effecting people in rural areas. I wrote of my own experience. In reading this, remember that this is a history, and does not reflect current facts. Missoula, for example, is now Montana’s second largest city. It remains a small town. Also many more than six have now died in Missoula.

Dear Dale,

When I think about AIDS in Montana many images come to mind. The first, of course, is Richard. When he was diagnosed in June, 1986, his was the first case to be diagnosed in Missoula County. It made the daily paper. No names were mentioned, fortunately. We expected the house to be fire-bombed. This is, after all, the town where the Mayor asked the City Attorney to ban a gay dance because gay people would bring AIDS to Missoula.

The local gay rights group, Out in Montana, had just started an AIDS Support Network, anticipating a future need. We didn’t tell them of the diagnosis because we didn’t have the strength to deal with both the disease and with their ignorance. We didn’t have the energy to train them to deal with people with AIDS. So we stuck it out alone, just the two of us. Richard asked me not to talk to anyone about his diagnosis, nor would he talk to me about his weekly conversations with his doctor, so for at least the first three months I was completely alone. Of course there weren’t many people in town who would have understood what we were going through.

Missoula is a small town, even if it is Montana’s third largest community. Word got out, and people in other offices on campus called me to offer condolences. I told them that while the situation was indeed difficult, it was basically no different that watching a loved one dying of cancer or some other fatal disease. I felt that I had to reassure them because of all the ignorance about AIDS.

From the time he noticed the first KS lesion in February, 1986, it took Richard a year and a half to die. We both learned a lot during that period. As time went on, we taught others a great deal, also. I did things I never dreamt I would do. I learned to give hypodermic injections. I learned to handle syringes and needles, subclavials, i.v. bottles. I never expected to become a nurse.

When Richard died, I was told to prepare his obituary myself unless I wanted the mortuary to do it for me. Since I had no control over what the mortuary would say, I wrote the thing myself, at work, the morning after he died. That was all I did at work that day. When I turned the obit in to the paper, it caused quite a stir. They wanted to interview me and they didn’t want to say that he was survived by his “lover.” We finally compromised on a less loaded term, and I agreed to an interview.

The interview appeared on the front page of the paper, complete with a picture of Richard, Thursday morning. (Richard had died Tuesday evening.) They didn’t waste any time. Within two weeks, the article had appeared in every daily paper in the state of Montana. (It is a small state, after all.) Again, I expected the house to be fire-bombed. That didn’t happen. What did happen was amazing. I received cards, letters and phone calls from friends, of course, but also from complete strangers scattered across our state. A woman from Phoenix saw the article in the Billings Gazette and sent it to me. A man read it in the Bozeman Chronicle and called me. An elderly neighbor called me to offer her love and support. Two people called the President of the University and demanded that I be fired. (I wasn’t.) The house was not fire-bombed.

After Richard’s death, a support group was formed that met with a counselor on a weekly basis. I attended the meetings, even though I no longer fit the criteria for attendance (i.e. sero-positive test result, AIDS/ARC diagnosis, partner/spouse/lover of either which assumed that the partner was still alive, or current care giver). Our group of ten quickly dwindled to a group of three: the counselor; a young man with KS; and me. Once again, I was being a support, but not getting much support. At the end of the year, when that young man died, I ceased all involvement with AIDS work. I have to heal myself and see no outside help available here. The truth of the matter is that if you want to be involved in AIDS work, even in Montana, there are more than enough sick people who need your help. Little time is available for those who are physically well, but emotionally drained.

The Missoula Gay Men's Chorus

Other aspects come to mind, though. The wonderful lesbian who has been at the bedside of nearly every man who died of AIDS in Missoula (six to date). She, too, is burning out, and I hope that she can find her own strength again. The population in Montana is small enough that we know each other. We’ve been friends, family, for years, and now we watch our brothers die. We also see others coming home. Men who left Montana at 20 full of health and energy are returning at 40 to die. The truth is that those of us born and raised in the state will always be Montanans, wherever we may end up. Perhaps half the cases of AIDS treated in Montana were diagnosed elsewhere: in San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Portland, Chicago. This has other implications as well. A (Montana) friend died last Saturday in San Francisco. I was told via long-distance from Washington DC and was asked to pass the word along to other friends. This meant calls to Seattle, Portland, and even to San Francisco, because so many gay Montanans leave the state, and David’s friends were no exception.

AIDS in Montana. The contrasts under the Big Sky are amazing. A gay man with AIDS in Great Falls has to see a dentist in Helena, 90 miles away, because no Great Falls dentist will work with him. A Missoula man dies in a Billings nursing home, 350 miles from home, because no Missoula nursing home will take him. The Billings AIDS support Network passes out condoms and safe-sex brochures to prostitutes on the street corners. The alternate test site in Havre (population 10,891) tests more IV drug users than all the other alternate test sites in the state combined. Medical personnel state that Montana fits the third world scenario for AIDS distribution, i.e. heterosexual transmission. No one is quite sure what this means, because the official figures do not seem to back it up. Maybe it’s their own homophobia coming out. Montana is the only state in the region that does not require reporting of names of those testing sero-positive. As a consequence, our alternate test sites serve North and South Dakota, Wyoming (which until recently had no alternate test sites), Idaho and even Washington residents. State health officials fear that the Legislature will change our unique regional standing.

Well, I fear that I have rambled enough. I hope this helps. Thanks for asking.




Thursday, September 18th, 2008. The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt came to Missoula. Well, seventy-five panels, each with at least eight quilt pieces, were put on display in the Adams Center, beginning with an opening ceremony. University President George Dennison spoke about the importance of educating our community. The Missoula Gay Men’s Chorus sang two numbers. Keri McWilliams, Executive Director of the Missoula AIDS Council and Gert McMullin, Quilt Production Manager from the NAMES Project office in Atlanta, Georgia, spoke. Twenty-seven people read the names of the men, women and children whose lives were remembered on the displayed panels.

If you’ve never seen The Quilt, let me tell you that it’s an emotional experience. I doubt that it’s possible for anyone to come away from a display untouched. But then, I have a personal stake in The Quilt. The panel I designed for my lover, Richard Donovan, was the first panel submitted from the state of Montana.

Richard died on the evening of July 21st, 1987, thirteen months after being the first person in Missoula County to be diagnosed with the disease and eighteen months after he first noticed a couple of spots on his shoulder which he suspected were KS (Kaposi’s Sarcoma) lesions. July 21st was a Tuesday. On Thursday, the 23rd, the Advocate showed up in my mailbox. The Advocate, then as now, is the nation’s leading gay news magazine. The July 23rd issue had a notice about a new project just getting started in San Francisco. Cleve Jones and a group of his friends wanted to remember the people they were losing to AIDS in the form of a quilt. There was a number to call for more information, so I called.

“Montana?” The person on the other end of the line cried. “Montana? We never thought we’d hear from anyone in Montana.” I learned that the quilt panels were to be six foot by three foot, roughly the size of a casket, and that everything should be sewn down, not glued. The plan was to get everything collected in San Francisco, then display the quilt for the first time at a special ceremony to be held on the US Capitol Mall, on Sunday, October 11th, 1987. Richard’s fortieth birthday.

I designed Richard’s panel, using his favorite denim jeans and vest. Richard was a tailor, and had made all his own clothing. It seemed only appropriate to use his work to remember him. Richard’s friend, Susan Gilmore, did the actual work of putting the panel together, and we shipped it off to San Francisco.

On Sunday, October 11th, I was in Washington for the opening. Whoopi Goldbert spoke at length, as we stood silently lining the sides of the Mall. Finally the quilt was opened, and readers started reading the names. I found Richard’s panel, and stood a while in thought.

Portions of the Quilt have been shown in Missoula on three other occasions. I have also traveled to Seattle to see it displayed there. The Quilt, as it is displayed, makes me think of the experience of walking through a military cemetery on a battleground. I have the same feeling of needless loss that I felt walking through the cemeteries of Gallipoli. But the pain is much more personal.

I used to keep a list of the friends I have lost. When the list of Montana names reached fifty, I stopped counting. My friends continued to die, but I could no longer bear holding that list. Things have changed. Today I have many dear friends living with the disease. It is no longer the automatic death sentence it was twenty years ago. It is still a horrifying disease. When I read about young men, “bug catchers” as they call themselves, who are actively trying to contract the disease, I want to scream. When I read about people who want to have only unprotected sex, I want to take them by the neck and shake them till they wake up to the reality of this disease.

Mostly I feel like a survivor of a war. When I go out to a gay venue, I see a few people older than I. Mostly I see men twenty to thirty years younger than I am. I see very few people my age. We lost the better part of a generation of gay men to this disease. Beautiful, handsome, strong men. The leaders of our community, gone to a virus. I want it to stop. I want it never to have happened. I want Richard back.

Richard Donovan
10-11-47 -- 7-21-87

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