Published on December 5th, 2013 | by Jason Ganwich1
In the absence of fear: for World AIDS Day
World AIDS Day has never been as personal for me as it is to those who were out long before me, and experienced firsthand the massive loss of friends, family, and lovers to the disease.
But as I scrolled through Facebook looking at all of the World AIDS Day posts, I was reminded of someone from years ago; a brief encounter that could’ve been more.
In the early 90s, I met a guy named Wes. My friend Ellen had asked me if I would be willing to meet him; she said he could really use some friends. Of course I said yes.
Wes and I hung out just once. It was summer and the days were long. We sat together in my father’s backyard gazebo and talked even after night fell. Wes was older than me, in his late twenties. Tall and thin with dark hair and black clothes, he was handsome and stylish and reminded me of a young, goth Adam Ant. The lymph glands in his neck were visibly swollen; a typical symptom of his disease. Wes was living with HIV/AIDS.
My mother raised me to be extremely compassionate, and if it wasn’t for that, I might have let my fears take complete hold of me and would never have agreed to meet with Wes.
Back then I was a virgin and still pretty fresh out of the closet. Although I had been “out” for a few years, I was still operating on old ideas. I used to joke that I hadn’t really come out of the closet, I’d just re-wallpapered.
I was still very afraid of life, particularly gay life. Other than my work in theater, my day-to-day experiences were dominated by overwhelming uncertainties and required confidence I did not have. My identity was largely defined by what my mother nurtured in me: my artistic nature and my almost therapist-like approach to many of my friendships. “Gay” became a part of myself from which I could completely disengage. Instead, I invested entirely in finding my identity as an artist for myself and a savior for others.
Wes, on the other hand, had lived the gay life. He had experienced a kind of freedom I couldn’t even imagine; despite his illness and the massive stigma it held, in my opinion he had really lived. In fact, if it wasn’t for his illness, I may have felt too threatened to meet. Wes’s vulnerability, and the luxury of my good health granted me the ability to put my fears aside that night and be a friend the way I knew how.
I asked Wes questions and listened without judgment, but my ability to empathize had more than one function; it had also become a survival mechanism. I ignored my fear by tapping into the therapist mode I knew all too well and was very good at. I think to some degree Wes needed that.
I had genuine compassion for Wes, but would not, or more accurately, could not allow myself to fully relate with him; so being a good listener and not shying away from questions about living with HIV/AIDS was safe for me. We didn’t dwell on it; he just wanted to have a nice time, and we did, but not in a way that disregarded his illness.
Wes was facing death. As he talked, I secretly thanked God I was safe and not in his position, the manifestation of a very real fear for every gay man at the time (the day I sprouted my first pubic hair, AIDS was on the cover of Time magazine.) Also, being the youngest of three siblings, I had developed a habit of “learning” from others’ experiences, and used that to avoid living and risking change. With Wes, it was easy, and necessary, to tell myself I would never end up in his position.
After he left, I felt good for a while; we’d had a nice time and I had helped someone. Inevitably though, all my fears of life and identity resurfaced, like they always did when I was alone.
I don’t remember how much time had passed when Ellen called to tell me that Wes was in the hospital. I don’t remember if she said it was to be his deathbed or if I just assumed. She said, “Wes would like to see you.”
You would think a request like this would make someone with a savior complex feel quite important and maybe even a little pleased, but this time, my fear outweighed my ego. This was too real. Visiting someone dying with AIDS was too much.
I hadn’t seen Wes since our evening together. I told Ellen that it was too weird that he would want to see me after only hanging out once. How could I have become someone of any importance to him so quickly? But it wasn’t weird at all actually, and I knew it. Hell, I’d done a pretty good job that night of trying to make myself important to him; it was some convenient self-help reasoning I abused to avoid the situation.
I could hear the disappointment in Ellen’s voice when she said she understood. I knew she had seen through my bullshit. Maybe it was the weight in her voice that was enough for me to assume everything at that point was “important.” She tried the case for her friend with me, but I stuck to my excuses, refusing to acknowledge that I was abandoning this sweet and vulnerable, dying young man.
I had made Wes’s request all about me, I realize now. It didn’t matter what questions I may have had about my importance in his life, he wanted to see me and that was all that should have mattered. Perhaps our time together just gave him something he needed and naming or defining it was unnecessary. Perhaps it was simple: I had been there and listened, and the therapist/savior persona I had developed to protect myself had done some real good for someone who needed it.
My hope is that Wes saw more of himself in me than I could see of myself in him. That he understood the strength of my fear and knew it wasn’t personal. I hope he was wise enough to see that. I hope he had genuine wisdom unlike my sophomoric and often-convincing attempts at it.
Little time had passed when Ellen told me Wes had died. I don’t recall that she went out of her way to tell me; I believe that was her way of holding up a mirror to my actions. When we spoke about his death, of course I attempted to console her and she disingenuously thanked me, making it clear that I had let her down. I tried to bury my own disappointment and the thought that I really had little right to ask her about Wes after the choices I’d made.
I write this to explore how a brief encounter nearly 20 years ago could inspire such deep sadness today. I wish I could travel back in time. I wouldn’t question why he wanted to see me. I would be honored and would give him whatever he needed. I would sit by his side as long as he wanted. I would lie in his bed and hold him if that would help him feel safe and loved. I know now that even though I was so full of fear, he was more afraid than I could ever imagine.
I can’t go back. I can’t right the wrong and I hate that fact. All I can do is acknowledge where I was emotionally at the time and show myself some compassion. I know that I could never behave that way again.
I didn’t plan on writing about my experience with Wes. It just sort of happened, prompted by World AIDS Day, a day observed every year in early December to remember those we’ve lost to the disease.
I’m reminded of the love both he and I needed at the time we met. We were really so much more alike than I was willing to acknowledge. Today, I remember Wes. He’s one of so many, and every bit as important as the others. Not a statistic. He was real with me and wanted to be my friend, and today I honor that gesture with love.
Love, I think, is more commonplace than it may seem. Perhaps it doesn’t take that long to love someone. Perhaps it’s always present, and in the absence of fear, available for us to share, especially when one of us really needs it.