It's that time of year again, but for me, it's truly always 'that time of year'. December 1st comes around and everyone drags out and dons their little snippets of red ribbon. Mine never leaves, because it's permanently etched on my heart.
Over the years, as I've volunteered with AIDS charities and my circle of HIV+ friends has grown, the number of people I've known who've succumbed, including a young girl in the first flush of life, has grown in proportion. In my office, there's a service award from the camp with which I volunteer for children affected by HIV/AIDS, engraved with the name of a former camp colleague who is no longer with us. Blue nitrile gloves and bleach are my constant companions as I deal with the laundry of seventy children who are heatsick or having accidents because the heat means we have to continually push them to stay hydrated. It's not a complaint. It's a statement of what I do; I volunteer to do it. It's my choice. I wouldn't have it any other way.
The most obvious thing, though, is that he's still with me, too. The flashing smile, the spray of freckles that always grew more prominent under the harsh sun of band camp, the feline grace with which he handled a guard rifle...and the quiet, angry dignity when our band director stripped him of his position as drum major, largely because he was unapoligetically gay in an era when we were all good little Reaganite Republicans and pretending that we lived in a halcyon revisitation of the Eisenhower Years. The official reasons were that a) we needed him for the mellophone solo, b) he couldn't exert authority over the straight boys, and c) we could really use him back in the guard line. He was the best mellophonist we had at the time and he was a thing of great beauty with a rifle, but that doesn't excuse the blatant demotion in favor of someone who was a nice girl but a marginal drum major. It was a crushing blow, and it was also the moment I realized that our band director was a homophobe.
He finally got pissed off and took out one of the valves on his mellophone, trying to make a distinctive imprint on that solo. For weeks, he fiddled with the thing until he could reproduce the screeching, scorching characteristic wail of the bugles we heard in DCI competitions. The first time he dropped that hat trick into a rehearsal, our director's head nearly exploded...play it _straight_, came the order from on high (atop a bus, overlooking the parking lot where we practiced). I got in trouble for emitting a barking laugh from my spot in the drumline during that tirade. Yes, I'd breached discipline, but the irony of the etymology momentarily blew my mind. To my thinking, well, if you're busted down the ranks for being gay, then you should be able to play as flamboyantly as you want.
There was a young man in the neighboring high school's guard last year who literally took my breath away with his performance. It was like watching a ghost. After seeing him at their home contest, I caught our former band director by the sleeve. "He was so..." my voice trailed off, and he replied, "Yes, he was." It was a conversation of very few words, fraught with remembrance and regret.
The funeral was a hellish experience for several reasons, not the least of which was his mother's dogged insistence that he died of cancer. Yes, he had Kaposi's sarcoma and had done for quite some time...however, the terminal event was complications of pneumocystic pneumonia. There were two moments when I nearly lost it- when our band director approached me in front of the casket, and when the man who preached the funeral lapsed into an indictment of homosexuality and announced that gay men went, unquestionably, to Hell. I snapped an arm off the chair in which I was sitting.
We cannot resurrect the dead, but we cannot remain silent and permit their memory to evaporate like a fine mist. Wear your red ribbons for a day, and I will wear mine constantly until I join my beloved merry prankster on the other side.