I was 21 years old and everyone had forgotten my birthday. I’d come out one month earlier and promptly broken my ankle in three places—which makes a hell of a terrible sound, for those unfortunate enough to hear it—and was at the tail end of a friendship that soon wouldn’t survive my coming out process. Full of angst and sadness, and not especially mobile, I slowly crutched a half a block from my upstairs apartment onto Westcott Street in Syracuse, New York, where I was about to start graduate school in English literature. Woe was me. I figured if I focused on a simple goal of sitting down and having a two-egg lunch at the corner greasy spoon, I could just get through another moment in what I was sure would be my worst birthday ever.
From around the corner came an older man I knew as William, the partner of a man who sang with me in the Syracuse Gay and Lesbian Chorus. He had a very neat beard, hair coiffed to perfection, and AIDS, which I’d heard about before one of our rehearsals. William was just starting to get a sunken look in his cheeks that people will full-blown AIDS are prone to having, and his overall complexion was that of an ill man. Like trite portrayals of sick people, however, his eyes still sparkled, and in the immediate moment he just wanted to know how I was. I told him I was getting lunch and hey, I was getting around, broken leg or no broken leg.
He took another look at me and remarked that something was going on for me that day, wasn’t it. I nodded, saying it was my birthday, and before I realized it, I cried a little because I didn’t think anyone had remembered . What a silly child I was! He gave me a pat on the back and asked if he could join me for my meal, and we went on to have a lovely conversation. Cheered up, I wished him well and made the trek back to my apartment.
About an hour later, the doorbell rang. It was summer and very few of my friends from college were still in town. I went downstairs, carefully, and there was William—in full Radical Faery glory. Pink and lavender translucent wings, sparkly horns coming out of his temples, a skin-tight, nearly illegal body suit on, acrylic heels that made him look like he was floating, and glitter everywhere, almost like an aura he’d fashioned out of the air. In his arms was the largest bouquet I have to date ever received, dozens of different flowers all thoughtfully plucked out of his own backyard garden, bursting in so many colors they are still a part of my retinas.
Black-eyed Susans, goldenrod, variegated roses, hollyhock, bougainvillea, lavender, vinca vine, and bright red star flowers. They almost swallowed up his small frame.
“What is this,” I asked, and I’m sure, even after all of these years, that I gasped the question.
“Happy Birthday,” William said. He was holding his pride in his arms.
I invited him inside, and again we chatted and laughed and talked about the idiosyncrasies of the people in the chorus. After a time he left and I stared at those flowers for weeks, taking out the ones that were dropping and leaving the rest until I only had a few flowers left; by then I think it was close to two months later. Those flowers saw me through my entire time in a cast and the stress of that summer.
By the end of that year, William had passed away, and his memory and kindness is something that truly, I will never forget. I hope that on my best days I come anywhere close to passing on his love to the people around me.
Even as I write this, AIDS is out of control in developing nations, and still an issue here in the United States. The history of US and European involvement in Africa has directly set up the conditions that make HIV and AIDS such a humanitarian crisis on that continent. We feel so far removed from the disease, either because of our geography, or because state-side, our newer queer generations don’t know of Act Up or Queer Nation, and the incredible fight we had to wage against an indifferent and judgmental government and medical profession. There is so much more work to do, and it seems overwhelming to make a dent in a disease that 33.4 million people live with around the world.
We have to take responsibility, each of us, for being the best people we can be. If we have the means, we should give generously to care providers, public health educators, people who distribute anti-virals in developing nations. If we don’t we can volunteer. Hell, pluck flowers and give them to a lonely person. If we start with love, I hope it will lead us somewhere better.