At the Whitney Museum, David Wojnarowicz’s portrait of his friend Peter Hujar claims its own wall. Ten feet back, I twist from parallel to perpendicular, unexpectedly lingering instead of walking by. I stare at the collapsed arches of his feet, the skin hanging from his collarbone like towels on a rack. In first grade, I’d written that when I grew up, I would cure AIDS. I didn’t know what AIDS even stood for but probably heard about it during my family’s Sunday ritual of 60 Minutes. Fifteen years later, seeing Hujar’s body shows me how AIDS sculpted ghoulish caricatures out of healthy bodies. I was spending that summer interning several blocks down at a Wall Street bank, a place where activists like Wojnarowicz once hosted die-ins. The exhibit unveils an activism I never learned during my rural Michigan public-school education.
I’d collected the benefits of past struggles without actually acknowledging the past. I’d put on my bank’s branded, rainbow-accented T-shirt to march in Pride, but mainly because it meant I had Sunday off. The bravest thing I’ve done in the name of being gay was cut off the sleeves of that shirt.
I grew up in a farm town where homemade billboards built of drywall hastily painted with pro-life and anti-gay messages stand at the edge of barren winter fields. Naturally, I became the type who’d rather not hold hands in public: “Let’s not make a statement of ourselves, sorry, thanks.” I felt this same way when I didn’t react while watching The Dallas Buyers Club even though my mother cried on the couch next to me.
At six years old, when I wanted to cure AIDS, I hadn’t known it had killed my Uncle Randy. At twenty-one, though I knew, I realized I didn’t know Randy beyond his diagnosis, other than a few obscure details from stories about my mother’s childhood. Apparently he used to curl up the pink undersides of his eyelids to disgust my mother, his youngest sister, closest in both age and spirit. I wish I could say that I often thought about how Randy lived, but I never knew him. I only know his absence, even if family members won’t stop comparing me to him.
Fortunately, it was never just that we were both gay. My mother says my profile resembles Randy’s. This must be true, because once while standing on the porch of my grandma’s hospice room she saw me out there and thought Randy had come to take her to God. Until I came inside, of course, and she told me I’d spooked the shit out of her. I never pushed for what commonalities existed beyond the physical moldings of genetics. Could our shared identities bear any shared experiences if I never have known real suffering? Sometimes I like to believe that had Randy lived, I’d be more open. Or maybe Randy would have been like my father’s gay brother, an uncle who can barely choke out a conversation with me. To him, I’m just a younger gay who benefitted from his era’s bravery only to blithely assimilate.
In investigating Randy’s life, I hope to see him tangibly instead of as a ghost. Then I can trace my lineage from him. But I’ll need to use other people’s memories to fill in my blank spaces like a color-by-number painting.
When I tell my father that I want to write about what Randy’s story says about the AIDS epidemic, he interrupts: “Jack, he wasn’t just some guy who died of AIDS.” He doesn’t, however, tell me to avoid poking at the embers of my mother’s grief like I had feared. I run it by my three sisters. After their reassurance, I ask my godmother if I can use her library card to access Randy’s old high school yearbooks. When she hands it over, she tells me it will mean so much to my mother.
My father has already briefed my mother when I Facetime her. She has come prepared. She flips the camera from her face to the ground. An array of Randy’s things cover our living room floor: letters, a tape recorder, my grandmother’s address books, poems, photos, his drawings from his work as a landscape artist. I’ve never seen these relics. Seeing what he once touched at least helps me to know that he really lived. My mother begins with the pictures, positioning them one by one in front of the phone, mostly of the two of them. She curated them chronologically, starting with their high school tennis photos and ending with them on the beach in Cape Cod.
My mother names Randy’s friends, many of them also gay, as we go through the pictures. There’s “Little Eddie.” He’s a tanned figure that in one photo tightly hugs Randy. Later his name reappears in Randy’s funeral program. I can’t help but wonder which of Randy’s friends had since been felled. Was his pallbearer the next one in the casket? Sometimes the only thing I can find about the names on his program is a corresponding listing on www.findagrave.com.
This is true of Randy’s partner, David. When I see David in pictures at my father’s bachelor party and at my parents’ wedding, I don’t mask my surprise at my parents’ inclusivity. Of course, Randy introduced David to outsiders as a “friend,” just as I do now. When searching online about David, I can’t find anything except his grave, which is inscribed with “Our Youngest Son, David.” He died at 25, only four years older than I am now.
My mother saw David for the last time in an airport after their trip to Cape Cod together. When I picture this, I try to see my mom as she was then, with short feathery hair. But I only see the same woman who walked me into the airport when I moved to NYC that summer. Right before security I confess self-doubt, tears playing Red Rover in my cornea. She grabs my hands, says in a matter of fact way that “this is your dream, isn’t it?” I believe I can only imagine this version of my mother because Randy and David needed this version.
I imagine my mother kissing David on the cheek, saying, “I’ll see you at Thanksgiving.”
David responds, “I won’t make it this year.”
My mother furrows her brow. “What do you mean?”
“I just don’t think I’ll be there.”
The whole plane ride home my mom looks out the window replaying David’s words. I imagine she’s thinking of the coming days when Randy will echo this sentiment.
Some 800 miles away from the Cape and some thirty years later, my mother asks me on Facetime, “Can you imagine how brave they both were? Randy even designed his own grave marker. He didn’t want a stone, he wanted a ‘cool fountain,’ and he drew the whole thing out. Imagine, knowing you are going to die and going on anyways…”
I can only shake my head. How could I imagine?
Now my mother unfurls his drawings, park designs with stately oaks growing in brilliant green, blueprints for a garden in Kyoto, and rows of endless palms for a Houston plaza. Randy’s work as a landscape architect took him around the world, which ironically made him and my mother closer. Of her eight siblings, he was the most quick-witted and the most worldly.
Randy eventually settled in Houston, bringing with him his high school sweetheart, his wife, Diane. When the relationship ended in divorce, Diane told my family she thought Randy was gay. She acted not out of spite, but confusion. She probably wanted to believe the same “it’s only a phase” story my grandparents initially crafted.
My mother even went to Diane’s aid, staying with her in Houston immediately after Randy asked for a divorce. My mother saw the needs of a heartbroken friend and her guilt ridden brother, and bounced between their new, separate, places.
“Do you think she’ll be okay with me reaching out?” I asked my mother, nervous about the outcome of reaching out to a woman I had never talked to, my almost aunt.
When I found Diane’s work email online, I slammed my hands on the table in excitement. Then, the consequences of reaching out suddenly dawned on me. Would she really want to talk about her dead gay ex-husband? But I felt that I had to at least try to connect to the only love of Randy’s still alive.
The email I sent to her waxes apologetic, exploding with qualifiers for its very presence in her inbox, “if you would have any time,” “obviously I understand if you’re busy,” and “if you feel comfortable.” Over a week later, when I have already written off hope of a response, Diane’s name appears in my inbox. She begins by referencing her son Jack. What follows is a poignant preservation of Randy’s virtues—his creativity, warmth, and humor. Diane’s references to the divorce and Randy’s death come up only tangentially, when she writes that they “would’ve been there for each other throughout our entire lives, and we do so now in our spirit hearts.”
Diane writes with the love an aunt would, giving me the best of him. Her writing seeks to comfort me. By not acknowledging my request for a call, I realize she wants to remember him only by this beatification. She has reconstructed him this way for both of us.
“I stalked a few of your photos on Facebook,” she adds at the end. “You kind of look like him.”
A week later, my mother calls while I’m folding my laundry. As she paged through Diane and Randy’s wedding album, she found a note addressed to Diane. The letter’s date indicates Randy wrote this shortly after he left her. At first, his message drips with apologies and assurances of genuine connection and love. But he never signed this letter, meaning he never sent it. He closed by saying, “What can we do about it? Do you know? I don’t. Like I said, I’m scared.”
In the barely legible, anxious script characteristic of a confession, even if never delivered, he discloses his vulnerability. I suddenly feel as though I’ve found him. I realize that we are alike in that sometimes we’d do anything to be less like our own kind.
Despite the passing of thirty years and having two gay uncles, I conceal my own identity. I transferred high schools after being outed to avoid pariahdom. I lower my voice on the phone and never cross my legs while sitting. Last summer my roommate berated how many queers were in NYC and I laughed, not hating him, but them all. Myself included.
Because Randy existed, I had a somewhat easier time coming out in a Catholic family. I thought the point of writing about him was to give thanks to that but I know that a part of me wants to claim others’ acceptance of Randy as a substitute for my own self-acceptance. Even with familial support, I am still scared of what others might think.
When I say I am okay with it I want to mean it. Instead, I revel in the fact that a friend once called my outfit for Pride “tasteful, and with just a touch of pride.” Small, seemingly harmless comments like these from those who espouse progressive values make my sexuality acceptable only as a tangent to my identity. I want the memory of Randy to show me we deserve to live and love honestly.
After his divorce, Randy lived about as honestly as he could in spite of the blatant hostilities surrounding AIDS. In death, Randy wasn’t granted that same honesty.
“People didn’t know at the funeral,” my mother says. “Mom and Dad told people it was cancer. It was all hush, hush, lie.” The last word slaps down.
“It just felt so dishonest,” she adds. “And it was so hard.”
My mother hesitates with these last few phrases, setting the phone face down so my screen goes black. She continues to talk even as her voice slowly clamps up. She says Randy looked like himself in the casket. Apparently, he looked nothing like Hujar’s feeble body that my imagination cast onto Randy’s body.
“Mom, I can’t see your face,” I say.
“Well it doesn’t look pretty right now.”
“You’ve been facing the camera the other way this whole time,” I respond.
“I have?” She picks her phone back up, her voice returning to its usual register.
“Yes!” We both start laughing. I assumed she was keeping her sadness hidden out of maternal protection, but in reality, she can be a bit of a technological klutz. She had no idea that this whole time I’ve been watching her feet on the ottoman.
She interrupts her recollections of Randy to talk about me, always starting with my name.
“Jack, when I got pregnant with you, I’d already had three girls, and we wanted a boy. I prayed to Randy that you would be that boy. When I found out I remember how I was so grateful, I believed that he helped me have you.”
Later in the conversation, she interjects in the same way, but this time it’s to talk about me being gay. She usually waits for me to bring it up, which I rarely do. Sure, I’ll bitch about a love interest, but I never talk about the identity that lies beneath that.
“Jack, when you came out to us, I asked Randy to watch over you. I didn’t say much to you because I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. I just wanted you to be comfortable as yourself. You can have that in a way that Randy couldn’t.” I eke out a smile, but even over Facetime my mother always knows when I’m about to cry.
Eight months after Randy’s death, my parents watched Philadelphia at the movies. On the drive home, my dad had to pull off the road. Somewhere on the shoulder of a road I have probably driven on thousands of times since, my father leaned over, crying, to hug my mother. “I am so sorry you lost your brother.”
My mother shares this story last. After hearing this, I watch Philadelphia and actually cry. The connections between Randy’s life and the film pop up in almost every scene. My imagination jumps to every instance Randy received no empathy. He had to go to free anonymous clinics to receive trials of the AZT he couldn’t afford. He hid his sickness at work, worrying that it could get him fired.
I force myself to remember instead how my parents spent a weekend with Randy and David in Cape Cod when so many people feared breathing the same air as them. How Diane told me their love for one another respectfully remained, always.
So, I pray too, offering it up to Randy, hoping that writing this heals me even though the cure for shame may be unreachable. Randy’s things stay in the corner of my storage room. In a place similarly inaccessible, I tuck away my self-loathing.
My most tangible connection to grief for Randy is my mother’s grief. I measure the weight of my own loss by seeing what death has displaced in her memory. The physical reminders of him act as proxies for what we lost. Some letters disappeared in the mess of sorting things out after my grandparents passed. This kind of secondary loss comes in waves, like when I hear about Randy’s tape recorder.
My sisters and I must have accidentally recorded over Randy’s voice. We ruined the whole tape. I imagine my mother’s anger, yelling at us for what we did. I imagine her scrambling in a panic to fix it, trying to recover the only recording of his voice. I imagine her cradling it and crying the way she did over his body.
This time I’m imagining something not because I wasn’t there, but because it didn’t happen. My mother discovered the ruined tape when she returned from the hospital, where she’d been dealing with her episodic depression in wake of Randy’s death. Instead of doing all these things, she took me and my three sisters outside to play.
Luckily, my mother had the forethought to transcribe his words, a poem he wrote for his family before he died. In a small way, I pretend the tape recorder’s message is for me:
I hope you know this comes from me
I want you to walk in peace and harmony
This wish I ask isn’t just for me
I want my life remembered happily
I need to say these things to let you know you’re all so special too
I don’t always say but I hope you know it’s true
I never lived without all of you
So take my words and know I’m always there
And I’m looking to His loving care
I’m sad all that we’ve been through in these hard days when losing you—for now
I love you all
I had a happy life
Randy said not to fight, but what he left behind in his poem, what Wojnarowicz left behind in his art, was an indefatigable defiance against what would erase them. I am no activist. In large part that’s because thanks to that generation, I haven’t had to be. But when someone asks me if I have a girlfriend, I will not leave it at a simple no.
I’ve imagined what I would say to Randy if given the chance. Thank you for loving my mother. Thank you for living honestly. I’m so sorry for what you went through. All you lost. All we lost. I don’t think I’ll ever understand it fully. I hope to God I don’t. If you are there, thank you for watching over me. And thank you for giving my mother her boy.
Perhaps Randy’s legacy isn’t the disease, but the dignity.
I write it all down. I claim my inheritance.