Why I Cannot Yet Sew a Panel for the AIDS Quilt

I cannot yet begin to sew.

This week, I commemorated the 17th year of the passing of my best friend ever in life, my partner in crime, my former lover, my beautiful companion John Michael Wright. He died from AIDS-related complications; Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy was the horrific illness that turned his brain to ash. His anguish was unbearable and he had very much needed the presence of his friends as he grew sicker and sicker in semi-rural South Carolina, but his strict Catholic mother tightly monitored the impending end of his life and did not allow him many of his "unsavory" gay visitors. I was one of the few lucky ones who made it past her screenings and was allowed access to John near the time of his death.

Some local Atlantans will remember John for his early activism, for his work at Outwrite Bookstore in the nineties, for his design of the logo for one of the Atlanta Gay Pride festivals, for the way his leather clung to his handsome frame so tauntingly. Others will remember him because of his close association with his other best friend, Josh Kilmer-Purcell (renowned humorist, winner of The Amazing Race, one of the Fabulous Beekman Boys) and their early years together at the Portfolio Center of Atlanta. I remember his absolute beauty, his marvelous intelligence, his cunning sense of humor, his enormous smile, his full and unwavering devotion to our amazing relationship.

The AIDS epidemic was changing for the better in the United States in 1999 with the advent of HAART, but John did not survive the cruel and wicked touch of the malady. He had initially kept his HIV status a secret from me for several years. I had, after all, recounted to him with great, fearful eloquence the experience of the moment I saw my very first individual living with AIDS. I had told John about how I watched that man walk into the student union at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1986 when I was a freshman; an older woman had her arms around him supporting him warmly and courageously, but people visibly oozed to the peripheries of the building to avoid his plague. At the age of 18, I had joined them as they recoiled with full and ostensibly righteous homophobic aplomb. I rejected him and his disease and refused any possible metaphors or comparisons that would link my body and his. I never heard him speak, but I was soon to comprehend how his presence would boom within my personal history. When I later discovered that gracious, loving Princess Diana had begun to hold hands with patients suffering from AIDS, I remember at some point wanting to throw myself back in time to help that man walk as that good older lady had done and to hug him closely. He is indubitably gone now, and I will always rue that day of my extreme prejudice and ignorance.

I mustered the courage to come fully out of the closet in 1990 and moved to Georgia from rural North Carolina. I joined the Atlanta Gay Men's Chorus that year, but I only attended two rehearsals because my immature 22-year-old self was unprepared to deal with the spectacle of AIDS already beginning to chisel death into the faces of so many of the wonderful, kind men around me. One of the songs that I remember singing with the group was entitled "Light One Candle." It was intended to be an anthem of faith and promise for the epidemic, but my throat closed and I could not sing because of the painful juxtaposition of those beautiful harmonies with what then was unfathomable hopelessness. I returned to my car after the second practice, put my head on the steering wheel and began to bawl away the remainder of my adolescent naiveté. I knew that I could eventually no longer exist in a land of folly in which I would pretend that HIV would not alter my life. In my very early twenties, I had come to terms with the notion that the world would be hostile, but AIDS still remained something distant that only made stirs in my young, newly empathetic heart. Its evil had not really yet affected me personally, but I was terrified.

By 1990, the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt had already grown to the size of several football fields. After its inception in 1987, it quickly became a haunting giant tapestry that immediately called fury, fear, and unspeakable grief to mind. I visited the quilt on three separate occasions and found each trip completely overwhelming emotionally and physically. All panels were carefully wrought; I saw immeasurable desperation, loss, sadness, love woven strongly into these 3' by 6' rectangles. Each one unleashed a fresh torrent of mourning; I was stupefied anew at every piece of the quilt that I saw, and I cried every three feet. Boxes of tissues were everywhere but were often empty. The tragic fabric swallowed me with every step and every glance. I knew that even with its enormity, the quilt only represented a fraction of the trauma that had hurtled through the entire world, but in particular in my community, amongst my brothers, amongst these bright and creative and courageous gay men who stood steadfastly against the apathy of the Reagan and Bush administrations, against the sick bloom of a homophobia magnified unprecedentedly and bolstered hatefully by individuals like the terrible Jesse Helms who spat out biblical verses angrily about abominations and justified deaths because of holy wrath.

But then a guy I knew named Brent committed suicide because of his AIDS-related suffering. And then Robbie died. And then Kevin died. And then Michael died. And then the other Kevin died. And then David died. And then Randy the violist died. And then another two Michaels died. And at some point I lost count, but the obituaries became more frequent and the barrage of viatical settlement offers from corporations wishing to profit from the misfortune of our ailing community continued to pollute the gay publications.

In 1992, John disclosed to me that he had been infected for several years, and my prior HIV-phobic discourses crashed back into my consciousness with an ugly, well-deserved slap. My guilt transformed quickly into deep support as I reluctantly confronted the nastiness that had constituted the privilege that I had enjoyed at that time by dint of my virus-free blood. The mysteries of t cell counts and viral loads became commonplace topics of conversations with him, and without effective antiretrovirals, I was constantly worried about what I would do and how I would behave when John began to succumb to his disease. My steady apprehension turned into denial as more pharmaceutical progress was made eventually; John would be made invincible, his blood cells would become impervious, he would be immortal. I would never see in him the heartbreaking transformation of beautiful bodies into husks that I had by then sadly witnessed in those other acquaintances and friends, I would not observe the infernal wasting nor know of the spread of pernicious histoplasmosis or pneumocystis pneumonia inside him. I would not hear him screaming in agony. I left Atlanta to begin my doctorate and John moved to take a job near Hilton Head. Predictably, we remained close. When I became ABD in 1997, I returned to the city. John stayed at his job at an advertising firm.

I had been teaching French and Spanish to the most wonderful young women imaginable at Spelman College in 1999. After spending one very fun day with them, I was grading tests in my office one afternoon when I received a phone call from John. His speech was shaky and he was mispronouncing things; I clearly heard the heartbreaking beginning of death in his soft words. He told me that he thought there was something wrong with his brain. When I hung up the phone, I started sobbing uncontrollably. The auspicious and happy future that I had imagined for John crumbled into nothingness after I heard the first broken syllables in his sweet voice. I immediately made plans to go to see him, as did Josh, his former lover Kevin, and our mutual friend Sara. His mother was stern and controlling during our visits. That John was dying was a certainty, but I went anyway to a local outlet store and bought him hundreds of dollars worth of clothes, knowing full well that he would never be able to wear them. New garments always delighted him and he would've looked dashing in them even in spite of his advanced illness. His mother informed me that I had wasted my money, but I didn't care. I held him and hugged him and told him how much I loved him. When I drove away in tears from his parents' home, I knew that I would never see my beloved soulmate again. The picture of us here was taken just days before he died.

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John Michael Wright died at approximately 6 a.m. on March 21, 1999. A mammoth chunk of my soul shattered on that day, but I know that his death was but one tragedy amongst countless others. Approximately 23.8 million individuals have died of AIDS since the beginning of the epidemic. An average of 1.2 million persons still die every year due to AIDS-related illnesses. Pharmaceutical companies still reap enormous profits from grossly cost-prohibitive medicines and care more about money than about the welfare of humankind. Heterosexism still forces us into an erasure of those two decades of death and despair and impedes comprehension of our paranoia, our quirkiness, the PTSD and the mental illnesses that our individual coming to terms with that infernal virus still engenders.

The last time that I saw John, I made a silent promise on my broken heart that I would commemorate his death by making a panel for him for the quilt. I have not yet been able to do so. I cannot bring myself to learn to translate a proper memorial for the life of someone so perfectly loving and good and kind into stitches. Moreover, and more significantly, the threads in that infinite blanket of sorrow have now become colossal ropes that regrettably require needles larger than moons and oceans of cloth from an eternally moving loom. Forgive me, my most treasured friend, but as long as injustice and avarice dominate the politics of HIV, I cannot yet begin to sew.
How your spell lingers, magic boy.

John Michael Wright
May 12th, 1967 - March 21st, 1999

Act up. Fight back. Fight AIDS.