November 25, 2012

Never Enough

Yesterday, I sent the email that follows to a very dear friend. I've omitted only a few more intimate comments. I decided to share it with you, because there is a related point about this that I want to discuss:
A revolting person on my opera e-list sent a message recently decrying the influence of gays, lesbians, transgenders, etc. on opera in recent years. He got appropriately pummeled by many followup emails.

This one, from a man who isn't gay himself and who is a fairly well-known opera personage (he's written books about opera, and had a radio show for years on which he interviewed many famous singers), really got to me:
AIDS killed off the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic part of the opera audience, and the opera scene since has been but a shadow of what it was 30 years ago. Instead of asserting that there are too many gays in opera, one could argue with greater justice that there are too few.
And that is true, at least based on my knowledge of opera and its recent trajectory. And it's not simply the audience: the list of AIDS deaths includes many conductors, singers, managers, coaches, critics and on and on and on.

Moreover, this phenomenon is not limited only to opera, of course. The same is true in theater generally, as well as in some other arts. (I think it may be less true in film, and the reasons for that might be an interesting subject of inquiry.)

I find that whenever I think about these issues, even when writing this email, I immediately have to distance myself from it emotionally to a significant degree. If I don't, I collapse into a helpless mass of grief and loss.

It's an awful, terrible business, in every respect. And I think many (probably most) people have little if any understanding of what the costs have been. The AIDS epidemic, particularly in all of its hideous effects and ramifications, is already fading into distant memory. And most young gays of today don't know that much about this, either.

So it's not just war, murder and the other brutalizations of the vicious system that's killing us that most people ignore and seem to be blithely unaware of -- it's all these additional catastrophes as well.

It never ends...well. Far from happy thoughts. Sorry about that.
About my comment concerning young gay men today (by which I mean men roughly 25 and younger), I would briefly add that any lack of awareness of this still recent catastrophe is, in one sense, a tremendous blessing; I'm deeply happy they can live their lives outside the dark shadows this history casts on some of us. Yet in another way, I think it also carries certain dangers (and not only medical ones).

Here's a quick fact about my own life. I moved to Los Angeles from New York in 1978. I came out shortly afterward. By 1980-81, I had a very active social life, and an exceedingly active sex life. In this, I followed my usual pattern of choosing the worst possible timing. But that's somewhat repellently narcissistic: many other gay men were on the same schedule, of course, for a variety of reasons. People began getting sick in noticeable numbers less than a year later. I said this would be a quick fact: by the mid-1990s, only 12 or 13 years later, the great majority of the gay men I had gotten to know during my first five or six years in Los Angeles -- and that was a lot of men -- were dead.

And here's one anecdote from that time. There are countless stories like this, told by many people. This is one of mine. I was very fortunate to have a wonderful doctor, one of the two best-known gay doctors in West Hollywood and environs. (By gay doctor, I mean both that they were gay themselves and that most of their patients were gay men.) I referred a number of friends and acquaintances to him, and it was one of the best things I ever did. All of them were profoundly grateful for the compassion and understanding that he always displayed. Even if you saw him in the evening, at the end of what was for him an exhausting, terrible day (almost all of his patients were HIV-positive by the mid to late 1980s), he made you feel that you were the only person he had seen that day, the only person in the world who existed for him. He was a genuinely extraordinary man.

I recall one night when I saw him in, oh, it must have been 1993. After the examination and consultation, we were chatting about this and that, as we often did. I had been seeing him for over ten years, so we knew each other very well. At one point, I asked him: "I was many times has your practice turned over in the last ten years? If you tried to figure it out that way, how many times have you started over, with an almost entirely new roster of patients?" He agreed with my estimate that it was at least two or three times. Then he thought a few moments longer. He got up and said, "Come with me."

Except for us, the office was almost entirely empty by this time. It was 8 or 8:30; most days ended for him around that time or later, sometimes much later. I followed him into a hallway that was lined with file cabinets -- the kind with wide drawers, from the floor almost to the ceiling. He began pulling out file drawers. He pulled out six or seven before he stopped. Each drawer was filled with patient folders, hundreds and hundreds of them. I don't know how many there were altogether; there must have been well over a thousand, perhaps more than two thousand.

He stood at one end of the hallway; I was at the other. He looked at me over all the drawers he had pulled out, over all those patient folders. After a few moments, he said, in the manner of simply stating a fact, but with a tone tinged with disbelief that such a thing was possible, as if he could barely make his mind absorb it, "They're all dead."

They're all dead. I couldn't speak. What could I say, what could anyone say, that would begin to express the limitless tragedy represented by those folders? I know we were both thinking of all the funerals and memorial services we had attended, all the friends and loved ones we had watched as they died, often in agonizing, grisly ways, with symptoms and ailments I wouldn't wish to describe to anyone. And he had witnessed all of that, in excruciating, horrifying detail, with all those men whose medical histories were contained in those folders, always doing the very best he could to alleviate their suffering, and to provide them with the great gift of a deeply compassionate caregiver. We stood with the piles of paper between us -- just paper after all, with names, notes and numbers on it, test results, drugs administered, descriptions of the endless ways we try to buy a little more time, until we fail at last. Just paper containing marks and symbols, neutral in themselves, meaningless to someone who didn't know what they signified, with names of persons unknown to most of the world. But he had known and cared for all of them. I knew some of the names on those folders, too. I knew what had happened in those lives, and how they had ended. Paper and folders, in a hallway steadily filling up with death.

After a minute or two during which we both remained silent, he slowly closed the drawers. I don't remember us saying anything else that evening, except good night. I do remember that we hugged each other before I left, probably a little longer and harder than we usually did.

Living through years of horror like that changes you. It can change you in profound ways. So I write about the horrors we face today. But most of the horrors I write about now are entirely man-made, that is, they are entirely avoidable. (Many of the AIDS deaths were also avoidable, if only those in power had chosen to recognize and address the calamity as it unfolded in its earlier years. But if I start writing about that, I'll begin screaming. I did scream a lot while it was happening; many of us did. And the AIDS crisis continues today, especially among African Americans and other disfavored groups.)

I remember those ghastly, soul-scorching years, and I think about the avoidable horrors of today. I am always wondering: How can people let this happen? How in the name of anything they hold sacred can they permit these horrors to continue, and to grow still worse? I think I know some important parts of the answer, but I still wonder about it.

How can people let it happen?

I shouldn't have written this. I'm crying now. Again. Always, it sometimes seems.

All those lives destroyed, all those irreplaceable possibilities for joy and happiness wiped out of existence forever, then and now. And people watch, and they do nothing. They let it happen.

I will never understand it, not completely. So I write about it. It's what I do. It's all I can do now. Does it make any difference? Perhaps in an almost undetectable, very small way, here and there, once in a while. But it can never be enough, not nearly enough.

Never, ever enough.