Tuesday, December 2, 2008

My World AIDS Day 2008

Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave. I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
-- Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1892 - 1950

This poetic fragment is newly inscribed on a bronze plaque installed Monday at the celebrated poet's alma mater, Vassar College. Millay graduated class of 1917 and became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1922.

She grew up in Camden, NJ where Walt Whitman lived out his final years also during the 1890s. Today, the city of Camden lays pretty much in prosaic ruin directly across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, my adopted hometown since 1979.

In the 58 years since her passing Edna St. Vincent Millay has been memorialized in numerous books and in monuments around the world. The new Vassar plaque is not actually another dedication to her life or work directly. Rather, it was created to honor the memory of 25 known Vassar alumni and one faculty member who have succumb to AIDS over the last quarter century. It was ceremonially unveiled on the occasion of this year's World AIDS Day, the inaugural event of AIDS Awareness Week on the bucolic campus.

I was invited to attend the unveiling as the surviving partner of Kirk H, class of 1976, who died in my arms on May 9, 1992 in Madrid. Kirk and I had honeymooned together on the Hudson shore campus during the better part of his senior year and I found deep and lasting friendships in a few of those who had shared his whole coming-of-age experience there. I also became acquainted with several others during that time who, along with Kirk, continue to exist today only as memories that we refuse to let die. Their memory is now preserved there in a bronze slab that evokes their collective spirit by way of those perfectly fitting words lent by the poet.

I planned to attend the ceremony with BB and NC, two of those long-standing friends from Vassar's class of 1976 who share my undying love and memories of Kirk. It would be fitting since they too continue to be very near and dear to my heart.

It was bound to be a poignant weekend. Regrettably, the occasions have become too rare that we three are able to get together these days . And the hours out of these few days we had set aside would serve to span the ever-widening oceans of time and space that separate these mundane lives of our own making.

Grateful for as much our most gracious host included a traditional Thanksgiving feast on Sunday which was open by invitation to several other friends from his current life. And they would have surely only enhanced the familial atmosphere had the weather not turned so foul. As it turned out, it was only the three of us at dinner that turned into a long casual evening and stay-over, just as I had envisioned it, lolling about with Daphne, BB's wonderful new dog.

In the morning, BB and I would prepare to travel to Vassar for the unveiling. NC would be with us in spirit but had a previous commitment to work in the City.

Though I have no doubt my friends love me singularly, there will always a familiar feeling of personal incompleteness for me when we are together. Kirk had introduced me to this kind of life and left me in it all too soon. Though near decades have passed a bitter sweetness is still palpable when we who knew him are all together and it can turn quickly, if briefly, into a pained silence straining to fill the space where only he could have completed our repartee.

I am sure I am not the only one that feels it. This weekend however there was another unspoken difference in the air, born of a new shared experience - to some extent - that all of us have now faced the loss of someone who had been the center of our separate lives. It came by way of a love one's unexpected recent death for BB; and for NC an on-going deterioration of her long-time partnership. The latter may, in fact, still be salvaged and a breaking heart may be spared. Naturally, we wish her and TR the best.

Our weekend retreat recalled feelings I first experienced when certain other friends rallied to my side immediately after returning to the States, newly suffering through my greatest loss. Some of them were grieving themselves over concurrent break-ups and abandonments by still-living partners who had shattered their hearts. Though my own grief was profound and heartfelt I became acutely aware at the time of advantages I held over those particular friends. Commiserating sincerely with them lent a practical perspective to my own predicament, I think, from which I could truly feel worse for them than for myself.

First, I had learned from my experience the value of "closure" - having been fortunate enough to spend his final months with my partner in life, in close intimacy, essentially isolated and undistracted by all the mundanities of our familiar world. We had been traveling in Spain when he unexpectedly took ill and died for lack of suitable medical attention. So the two of us were free to take all our remaining time together to communicate those things between us that lovers often wish they had said or done before parting forever. We made our peace and said goodbye over three weeks of certainty that the end was closing in on us.

And that was a whole different thing, the second advantage I had over my broken-hearted friends: my loss was undeniable. While they still held out hope in the fantasy that their partners may yet come back and they may live happily ever after, I had no choice of fooling myself into believing that my life with Kirk, as we knew and shared it for 17 years, was over.

We who survived would all be fine eventually, of course, on our own. Though life may continue to rough us up, let us down, it would deal us new victories and wounds among the stretches of wholly unmemorable times. We would persist, reinvent ourselves, find new loves to lose and maybe keep as long as we should live and keep them.

And after so much time on our own it may never happen that we stop wondering each day as I do, among other things, if he might be proud of me - were he to know - for having followed the ways I found on my own. I admit sometimes I doubt he might even recognize me today.

But I still know him as much as I did after spending half his finite life with me. As sure as I am of his generous and life-loving spirit I know Kirk would be pleased with how things worked out this week: we did not make it to the unveiling of the AIDS plaque at Vassar.

BB woke up on World AIDS day feeling too frail from his own symptoms of the disorder and wisely decided that the 70 mile drive to Poughkeepsie would be too hazardous to his unsteady health. Kirk would not have given it a second thought and neither did I: the potential ill effect to our dear BB's well-being was not worth the risk.

Instead, I left BB alone in his home and drove with NC into the City where we took in the dreamy Miro and Van Gough exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art. It was the kind of stimulating, artful and life-affirming pastime that Kirk would have definitely favored over some somber death-centered gathering as we had planned for our recognition of World AIDS Day. He would be pleased, we assured ourselves, even if it meant missing a chance to revisit his beloved Vassar campus with its gardens, parlors and those secret romantic niches that held for us secret memories of two young lovers that once we were, after thirty two years and counting...

I will be there in the spring.

I am not resigned...
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.
Crowned with lilies and with laurel they go: but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains - but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,
-They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

-- Edna St. Vincent Millay. 'Dirge Without Music'

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