I HAVE AIDS. I am surprised that I do. I have not been exposed since the 1970s, which is to say that my experiences, my adventures in homosexuality took place largely in the 1960s, and back then I relied on time and abstinence to indicate my degree of freedom from infection and to protect others and myself.
At first, shadows and doubts of various kinds disturbed my sleep, but later I felt more certainty of safety. Before Aids was discovered, I thought five years without noticeable infection would indicate one was without disease. When Aids was first identified, five years was held to indicate safety. That changed. Twenty years now is considered a distance in time that might indicate safety, but a slight number of Aids cases are anomalous; that is, the delay in illness is not explicable within the assumed rules even under the most careful, cynical investigation. It doesn't matter much. I have Aids and must die.
There it is. At the time I was told, I was so ill, so racked with fever and having such difficulty breathing, that I hardly cared. I was embarrassed and shamed that the people who cared for me in the hospital had to take special precautions to protect themselves. Then as the fever went down I suppose my pride and sense of competition took over. When someone from social services showed up to offer counsel, I found that bothersome, although the counsellor was a very fine person, warm and intelligent. I suppose I was competitive with or antagonistic towards the assumption that now my death would be harder than other deaths, harder to bear, and that the sentence to such death and suffering was unbearable.
I didn't find it so. I didn't want to find it so. Granted, I am perverse. But my head felt the doom was bearable. My body hurt. I haven't felt even halfway human for eight or nine weeks now, until the last two or three days. It was as if I had walked through a door into the most unstable physical state of wretched and greatly undesirable discomfort possible.
But, of course, blindness and dementia are worse states. And my parents suffered excruciatingly with heart trouble and cancer. Also, I was not, am not, young. I am not being cut down before I have had a chance to live. Most important, I was not and am not alone. On the second day, when the truth was known, my wife, Ellen Schwamm, moved into the hospital with me. When we began to tell the family, no one rejected me. No one yet has shown disgust or revulsion. I expect it. But in the hospital Aids is a boring thing for internees, it is so common. And outside it arouses, at least in New York, sympathy and curiosity. I do get the feeling I am a bit on show, or rather my death is and my moods are. But so what?
So far the worst moments, in terms of grief, came about when I was visited by my grandson, aged four, a wide-faced blond, a second child, bright, and rather expert at emotional warfare. I hadn't seen him in four months, and he looked at me snottily and said: 'I don't remember you.' I said: 'I used to be a pink-and-black horse.' He looked at me, thought or reacted, then grinned and said 'I remember you now,' and came over and took my hand and didn't leave my side. But the horror was I had no strength to respond or pretend after only a short while. I am not able to be present for him and never will be anymore. That led to a bad 24 hours. But that can hardly be uncommon, and I had already felt a version of it towards Ellen, although less intense, because I am able to be there in some ways still, and can find some sort of robot strength in myself still if I have to.
My doctor, who is very able and experienced, is surprised that I am not more depressed. He says cheerfully that I am much more upset than I realise. He credits the medicines with shielding me, my mood, and warns me that severe unhappiness is coming, but so far it hasn't. I feel cut off from old age, it's true, but that's not like someone young feeling cut off from most of his or her possible life.
In my adult life and in my childhood, I was rarely, almost never ill, but when I was, it was always serious, and nearly fatal. I have been given up by my doctors three times in my life and for a few minutes a fourth time. This time is more convincing but otherwise it is not an unfamiliar or unexplained territory. I was a hypochondriac, but for a good reason - I could take no medicine without extreme allergic reactions. Essentially I never got sick. I was gym-going, hike-taking, cautious, oversensitive to the quality of the air, to heat and cold, noise and odours, someone who felt tireder more quickly than most people because of all these knife-edge reactions, someone who was careful not to get sick, because my allergic reactions to medicines made illness a drastic experience.
I had an extremely stable baseline of mood and of mind, of mental landscape. Well, that's gone; it's entirely gone. From the moment my oxygen intake fell to about 50 per cent and the ambulance drivers arrived, I have not had even one moment of physical stability. I am filled, off and on, with surf noises as if I were a seashell, my blood seems to fizz and tingle. I have low and high fevers. For a day I had a kind of fever with shivers and sweats but with body temperature below normal, at 96 degrees. I have choked and had trouble breathing. I have had pleuritis, or pleurisy, in my right lung, an inflammation of the thoracic cavity that feels like a burning stiffness of the muscles and which hurt like hell if I coughed, moved suddenly or reached to pick something up.
And, of course, one can die at any moment or discover symptoms of some entirely new disease. My life has changed into this death, irreversibly.
But I don't think the death sentence bothers me. I don't see why it should more than before. I have had little trouble living with the death warrant aspect of life until now. I never denied, never hysterically defined the reality of death, the presence and idea of it, the inevitability of it. I always knew I would die. I never felt invulnerable or immortal. I felt the presence and menace of death in bright sunlight and in the woods and in moments of danger in cars and planes. I felt it in others' lives. Fear and rage toward death for me is focused on resisting death's soft joys at key moments, fighting back the interruption, the separation. In physical moments when I was younger, I had great surges of wild strength when in danger, mountain climbing, for instance, or threatened in a fight or by muggers in the city. In the old days I would put my childish or young strength at the service of people who were ill. I would lend them my will power, too. Death scared me some, perhaps even terrified me in a way, but at the same time I had no great fear of death. Why should it be different now? Ought I to crack up because a bluff has been called?
As with other children, when I was very young, death was interesting - dead insects, dead birds, dead people. In a middle-class, upper-middle-class milieu, everything connected to real death was odd, I mean in relation to pretensions and statements, projects and language and pride. It seemed softly adamant, an undoing, a rearrangement, a softly meddlesome and irresistible silence. It was something some boys knew and I thought we ought to familiarise ourselves with. Early on, and also in adolescence, we had a particular, conscious will not to be controlled by fear of death - there were things we would die rather than do. To some extent this rebelliousness was also controlled; to some extent we could choose our dangers, but not always. All this may be common among the young during a war; I grew up during the Second World War. And a lot was dependent on locality, and social class, the defence of the sexual self or the private self against one's father or in school.
Having accepted death long ago in order to be physically and morally free - to some extent - I am not crushed by this final sentence. I think my disbelief weeks ago gave way to the maybe so of the onset of belief. I am sick and exhausted, numbed and darkened, by my approximate dying a few weeks ago from
pneumocystis, and consider death a silence, a silence and a privacy and an untouchability, as no more reactions and opinions, as a relief, a privilege, a lucky and graceful and symmetrical silence to be grateful for. The actual words I used inwardly read ambiguously when written out - it's about time for silence.
I'm 62, and it's ecological sense to die while you're still productive, die and clear a space for others, old and young. I didn't always appreciate what I had at the time, but I am aware now that accusations against me of being lucky in love were pretty much true and of being lucky sexually, also true. And lucky intellectually and, occasionally, lucky in the people I worked with. I have no sad stories about love or sex.
And I think my work will live. And I am tired of defending it, tired of giving my life to it. But I have liked my life. I like my life at present, being ill. I like the people I deal with. I don't feel I am being whisked off the stage or murdered and stuffed in a laundry hamper while my life is incomplete. It's my turn to die - I can see that that is interesting to some people but not that it is tragic. Yes, I was left out of some things and was cheated over a lifetime in a bad way but who isn't and so what? I had a lot of privileges as well. Sometimes I'm sad about its being over but I'm that way about books and sunsets and conversations. The medicines I take don't grant my moods much independence, so I suspect these reactions, but I think they are my own. I have been a fool all my life, giving away large chunks of time and wasting years on nothing much, and maybe I'm being a fool now.
And I have died before, come close enough to dying that doctors and nurses on those occasions said those were death experiences, the approach to death, a little of death felt from the inside. And I have nursed dying people and been at deathbeds. I nearly died when my mother did; I was two years old. As an adult, at one point, I forced myself to remember what I could of the child's feelings. The feelings I have now are far milder. My work, my notions and theories and doctrines, my pride have conspired to make me feel as I do now that I am ill.
I have always remembered nearly dying when I was seven and had an allergic, hypothermic reaction coming out of anaesthesia. When I was 30, a hepatitis thing was misdiagnosed as cancer of the liver, and I was told I had six weeks to live. The sensations at those various times were not much alike, but the feeling of extreme sickness, of being racked, was and is the same as the sense of the real death.
I have wondered at times if maybe my resistance to the fear-of-death wasn't laziness and low mental alertness, a cowardly inability to admit that horror was horror, that dying was unbearable. It feels, though, like a life-giving rebelliousness, a kind of blossoming. Not a love of death but maybe a love of God. I wouldn't want to be hanged and it would kill my soul to be a hangman but I always hoped that if I were hanged I would be amused and superior, and capable of having a good time somehow as I died - this may be a sense of human style in an orphan, greatly damaged and deadened, a mere sense of style overriding a more normal terror and sense of an injustice of destiny. Certainly, it is a dangerous trait. I am not sensible.
At all times I am more afraid of anaesthesia and surgery than I am of death. I have had moments of terror, of abject fear. I was rather glad to have those moments. But the strain was tremendous. My feelings of terror have had a scattered quality mostly, and I tended to despise them as petty. I have more fear of cowardice and of being broken by torture than I do of death. I am aware of my vulnerability, of how close I come to being shattered. But next to that is a considerable amount of nerve - my blood parents and real grandparents were said to have been insanely brave, to have had an arrogant sang-froid about their courage and what it allowed them to do. They had, each of them, a strong tropism toward the epic. My mother, before I was born, travelled alone from near Leningrad to Illinois in the 1920s, a journey that, at her social level, took nearly two months; the year before, her older brother had disappeared, perhaps murdered. My father once boxed a dozen men in a row one evening on a bet and supposedly laid all the women under 30 who lined up afterwards. Another time, better attested, with two other men he took on a squad of marching local Nazis in St Louis, 25 or 30 men, and won.
I myself am a coward, oversensitive, lazy, reclusive, but the mind and spirit have their requirement of independence; and death can't help but seem more bearable than a stupid life of guilt, say.
Is death other than silence and nothingness? In my experiences of it, it is that disk of acceptance and of unthreading and disappearance at the bottom of the chute of revenant memories, ghosts and the living, the gauntlet of important recollections through which one is forced in order to approach the end of one's consciousness. Death itself is soft, softly lit, vastly dark. The self becomes taut with metamorphosis and seems to give off some light and to have a not-quite-great-enough fearlessness toward that immensity of the end of individuality, toward one's absorption into the dance of particles and inaudibility. Living, one undergoes one metamorphosis after another - often, they are cockroach states inset with moments of passivity, with the sense of real death - but they are continuous and linked. This one is a stillness and represents a sifting out of identity and its stories, a breaking off or removal of the self, and a devolution into mere effect and memory, outspread and not tightly bound but scattered among micromotions and as if more windblown than in life.
People speak of wanting to live to see their grandchildren marry, but what is it they will see? A sentimental ceremony or a real occasion involving real lives? Life is a kind of horror. It is OK, but it is wearing. Enemies and thieves don't lay off as you weaken. The wicked flourish by being ruthless even then. If you are ill, you have to have a good lawyer. Depending on your circumstances, in some cases you have to back off and lie low. You're weak. Death is preferable to daily retreat.
Certainly people on the street who smile gently at me as I walk slowly or X-ray attendants calling me 'darling' or 'lovey' are aware of this last thing. A woman I know who died a few years back spoke of this in relation to herself. She hated it. I don't want to talk about my dying to everyone, or over and over. Is my attitude only vanity - and more vanity - in the end? I steal each day, but I steal it by making no effort. It is just there, sunlight or rain, nightfall or morning. I am still living at least a kind of life, and I don't want to be reduced to an image now, or feel I am spending all my time on my dying instead of on living, to some satisfying extent, the time I have left.
Not constantly but not inconstantly either, underneath the sentimentality and obstinacy of my attitudes, are, as you might expect, a quite severe rage and a vast, a truly extensive terror, anchored in contempt for you and for life and for everything. But let's keep that beast in its gulf of darkness. Let's be polite and proper and devoted to life now as we were earlier in our life on this planet.
One of the things that struck me when I was first told that I had Aids was that I was cut off from my family inheritance of fatal diseases - the strokes and high blood pressure and cancers and tumours of my ancestors. My medical fate is quite different; I felt a bit orphaned yet again, and idiosyncratic, but strangely also as if I had been invited, almost abducted, to a party, a sombre feast but not entirely grim, a feast of the seriously afflicted who yet were at war with social indifference and prejudice and hatred. It seemed to me that I was surrounded by braveries without number, that I had been inducted into a phalanx of the wildly-alive-even-if-dying, and I felt honoured that I would, so to speak, die in the company of such people.
Really, I can say nothing further at this point. Pray for me.
1993 Harold Brodkey. This article first appeared in the 'New Yorker'. All rights reserved
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