"He was the talent of his generation," author David Halberstam said to my older brother Blair on the telephone. Mr. Halberstam was speaking of our younger brother, Brent, about whose death he had called to express sympathy.
Brent died of AIDS two days before Thanksgiving 17 years ago--November 20, 1990--when he was 34 years old. Actually, Burkitts Lymphoma is what killed him, but he'd been infected with HIV for 4 ½ years, at least as far as we knew. Before this lethal cancer, he had been zapped by energy-draining and stress-inducing illnesses of this and that--conditions or problems that meant he never felt completely well. The various maladies sent him to doctors who scheduled tests, gave him sacks of medicines, and wore him out--but provided no answers or solace. There were none to give, though Brent's medical bills were ever soaring. The physicians wanted to help but knew little to nothing about AIDS.
After Brent received what turned out to be his death sentence, there was only one time I'm aware of that he possibly felt completely healed and whole. This stunning moment of relief was in a dream he had about swimming with whales. I don't mean to imply that Brent had a bad attitude, or was resentful or bitter. He was the exact opposite. His openness to life, his charm and intelligence never failed him. His smile dazzled the world, and his courage was humbling to me, stricken as I was with fear the day he called to give me the horrific news of his HIV diagnosis. I was petrified every day after, from then to the end. But Brent was gracious and thankful for each moment of each day he was given--and also for his friends and those of his family who rallied around him with a giant umbrella of support.
What had sent Brent to the doctor when he received this most unwelcome diagnosis was that his blood wouldn't clot. Since then, it had taken four years for this aggressive and life-threatening lymphoma to catch Brent unaware and move into his weakened body. Eight months later--two days before Thanksgiving--he was dead.
We had spent the previous three days planning his annual Thanksgiving dinner. Thanksgiving was Brent's favorite holiday, and he was to host the 1990 dinner as he always had--but this year I would be the cook as well as his hostess. I would roast the enormous turkey and bake the cornbread and chop the onions and celery for the Southern dressing. I would stir the Big Cherry Jello salad and bake the pumpkin cheesecake, which I'd spent all afternoon making before his breath left his lungs and he grew cold.
His guests would be a glittering group of New Yorkers and international jet setters for whom Brent and I had spent hours and hours planning everything to the minutest of details. But this dinner wasn't just a feast for his friends--it was also to be the debut of his newly decorated loft, a showcase of his work. Brent was a decorator, and this was the talent to which Mr. Halberstam was referring. Brent's loft was also to be photographed for an architectural magazine. He never stopped planning. He never stopped imagining or creating. He never stopped living life to the fullest that he was able.
I held his hand all night long his final night, as he lay in a hospital bed in his New York loft. He was still conscious when the doctor told me on the telephone that he was going, and I repeated over and over again how much I and his friends and family loved him. When he drifted into unconsciousness, I selfishly begged him not to die. No matter what I cooed or pleaded it wasn't enough. I wanted to save him, and it was my great failure that I couldn't.
Brent had been living for this holiday, but he just didn't quite make it. His body wore out, and his soul was ready to go while mine tried to prevent his leaving. If he had lived long enough for the cocktail--for the drugs to improve--he might be at table with me tomorrow.
Others have benefited from these drugs, and yet so many are still ill and dying. I am grateful this year to have had my brother for 34 incredible years. But my hope for the future is that other sisters will not have to lose their brothers. Mothers and fathers will not have to lose their sons and daughters. Children will not have to lose their parents.
AIDS is still here--still killing. Please don't forget.