My roommate is dying. His body has cancer due to the complications of being treated for HIV, and the way it and the medication for it has ravaged his body for the last thirty years.
When I met Bil, he was still a vibrant gay man. He had a bit of a belly and a fierce beard, along with the quick, sharp tongue wielded by the kind of gay man you want to be friends with (and not get on his bad side). He called it as he saw it, and it was this sort of mannerism that drew me to him instantly. He knew fierce. He knew fabulous. He knew how to mix a goddamned drink.
In the last year that I've known him, though, it's become apparent that so much has changed. He was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma in his throat over a year ago. Treatments, doctors, and chemo drove him and his partner in search of other options than what they could find in Denver, Colorado, where Bil and I met. He reached out to me shortly after my move to Portland, Oregon and wondered what it was like to live up here. I told him it was like a piece of Eden on Earth, with a lot more weird than perhaps anyone truly understands, but that it was a good place. The trees, the energy, the softness of the air all would be a comfort to him after living for years at the high and dry altitude of Denver. He said that his treatment options were greater up here, and that he and his partner Brandon were looking to move. Portland, at least on paper, had a lot to offer them both, and as they made their decision to take the leap, I caught a sense of what was coming. We made plans to meet up once they got here. I braced myself for what I might see in a man who was facing some medical challenges, but that I didn't fully understand, or completely appreciate from a distance. Photos on Facebook and text messages are often very, very cropped, revealing only the images and thoughts we can handle others knowing.
When I did see Bil, in the flesh, it was as a man changed from everything I had known about him when we first met and took off on a hike through the foothills of Denver. There before me stood a man who had aged thirty years. Gone was the spark from his eyes, the smile lines on his face had softened as his skin hung, slightly sallow. Instead of confident steps of power and poise, now he shuffled around, slightly hunched. He'd lost well over fifty pounds. He could barely eat. All of this took place in one earthly rotation around the sun. That's all. One year. I was in shock, and swallowed hard as I struggled to keep the warm grin of welcome upon my face when I first saw him.
I stood there, unsure how to respond, not quite stable on my own feet as he told me that he could feel the gentle step-back of his own small social circle as they collectively prepared for his death. Immediately, I realized that I was on the verge of doing the same thing, and I gritted my teeth. He mentioned this, as if only in passing, and then slid me a hard cider, one of the only alcoholic beverages his body could handle and that he could actually taste. The radiation treatment had killed not only his salivary glands but also his taste buds in his mouth. The cancer was spotted in his throat, to start, but now has started its journey throughout his body. He knows he only has a limited amount of time. I know my time to get to know him is shortened too. As the gravity of his health and situation sank in, I resolved myself to not pull back. I can't be that guy.
A breakup with the man I moved to Portland to be with had thrown a wrench into my life plans in this new town. I struggled to find work, but when I did, it happened a just the moment when the two of them were considering moving out of their apartment and into a home of their own. Bil and Brandon both recognized that my life had taken a tumble upon my landing up here in the Pacific Northwest, and that extending an offer for affordable shelter was the decent thing to do. At first, I was overwhelmed by their kindness and generosity. Now, though, as I have settled into my room in their house, and the schedule of life with these two has found its own pace and rhythm, I know that I am intimately involved in the end of Bill's life due to HIV. I lost my first partner from complications due to AIDS over sixteen years ago. It seems so strange, especially in 2014, to once again be witness to the passing of yet another creative, vibrant, imaginative, powerful, thoughtful, insightful person because of this virus. Though the stories are light years apart, they have that one common thread. They both represent lives that have taken a drastic trajectory change because of one tiny, microscopic half-living entity within their bodies.