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Remembering Charlie

December 1, 2011

Charlie was my friend. He died of AIDS. I think of him often, but especially today during World AIDS Day. He is the personal face of this affliction to me.

Over the years AIDS has moved from the front page headlines to the back pages and now virtually out of the public eye entirely. Many have forgotten, or because of their age, never knew this frightening scourge and its wake of tragedy in the early years of its advent. It seems as though not too many people concern themselves with it anymore unless they have some personal connection. I am one of those people, for my friend Charlie was one the victims when AIDS was still a fearful and misunderstood specter haunting our country.

Charlie was my friend. He was a warm and caring person, bursting with creativity and energy. I think he felt it was his mission to make everyone else’s day brighter. Most people didn’t see the turmoil within him.

I knew Charlie well when we were in college, though I didn’t know he was gay. Perhaps he didn’t either at that time. He married another of my college friends, but eventually that union unraveled and his inevitable emergence as a gay man was complete. His new partner was an Argentinean he met in New York, but by that time I no longer saw Charlie as the paths of our lives had diverged.

For a while, our paths were one. Some of my most emotionally challenging times were shared with him. More precisely, he, acting as a self-appointed guardian angel, attempted to rescue me.

One of those occurred during a difficult time in my attempted courtship of the girl of my dreams. She had suffered a heartbreak once and was unsure about the nature of this new relationship with me. I do not blame her for that. However, I was emotionally fragile, and Charlie sought to nurture me.

His family lived in Schenectady, and on the spur of the moment,  he convinced me to join him on a long weekend trip home. No one else knew of this, so it seemed that I had disappeared from campus. During the bus trip upstate, I poured out my misery to Charlie, and he comforted me. We talked for hours, more deeply and personally than I ever had before with anyone, sharing stories of our lives and our hopes and dreams. I remember falling asleep exhausted with my head on his shoulder as he sang softly to me. The time we spent with his sister and brother-in-law proved to be a healthy diversion, and my absence, though short, was startling to my sweetheart, and a better chapter between us ensued.

Another incident I remember clearly developed out of my frequent flirtation with academic disaster. I was a diehard procrastinator, but usually could pull the fat out of the fire at the last minute by pulling an all-nighter or three. However, on this occasion I had gotten myself into an impossible jam from which I didn’t think I could extricate myself. I had two major papers due, neither of which I had even started, and one of them had already been postponed once. I knew yet another all-nighter was my only chance, but after struggling late into the evening, defeat appeared to be at hand. That’s when Charlie popped in. He listened to my plight, and without a second’s hesitation sat down to help. The term “help” hardly does justice to his effort. As I composed one paper at my typewriter, Charlie busied himself at another, asking me questions and helping me clarify my thoughts as he typed away. My dire situation had taken a turn, and there was now hope where there had been despair. We finished at dawn, and more than a few laughs were shared as Charlie helped shape my ideas into an admirable and often inspired piece of writing.

Charlie loved Leonard Cohen. His favorite song at that time was “Suzanne.” I think the dark tone that still retained the hope for beauty and love appealed to him. Charlie wrote in a similar vein. I still have his notes and poems and musings written on scraps of paper now yellowed with age. He gave me this after our Schenectady trip:

“I have come to give you the blue blue sky with my hands

and show you the dark dark dawn with its gray lands

where hot meets cold; and besides I have the time time

to spend on forever to gather the sky sky in a rhyme.

It may never be said how much I must need give you

or show you, you, sitting mournfully, weeping, you who

tried to love before and failed failed.”

When the end of college arrived, he gave me a folder with some of his illustrations and what I now understand was his letter of farewell to me. In it I also see the acknowledgment of his new path:

“But this school year is a rebirth for me; it ends in anxiety and joy. I conquered a world and I face reality. Your end-year must be very sad; I wish you the comfort of understanding but the purification of pain. Learn to smile in the face of pain and tragedy. I do it daily.”

I did not witness Charlie’s descent into the horrors of this disease. I am regretful of that because I could have taken my turn as guardian angel. In a way, though, I’m glad my memories of him were not tainted by his time of debilitation; I believe he felt the same way. I went with a few friends to a small memorial gathering on the Hudson River where we dropped flowers into the flow and shared some of the many Charlie stories we all had.

Because of AIDS, Charlie became a statistic, part of the tragic toll this disease took. But like each of the statistics, he was someone, a real person with family and friends and hopes and failures. Each left behind friends and family. Each left behind memories of whatever mark they left on the world and the people whose lives they touched.

Yes, Charlie was my friend. He died of AIDS. I can not, and will not, forget either of those.

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