13 February 2013
Years ago when I was in the English Department at Purdue, several of the new grad students each year got crammed into a "gang office" because there was not sufficient room to house us all in individual offices. As a result, we were put into a large classroom lined wall to wall with desks and file cabinets and which included an island of four additional desks all butted up against each other in the middle of the room. All told, there were probably at least 15 desks in the room, perhaps more; I can't remember exactly. You can imagine how much privacy any of us ever had, particularly during student conferences and most especially near exams when everyone's final papers were due. At these times the room would erupt in mass chaos as we all hosted the never-ending stream of ever-more desperate students hoping the magic "A-Fairy" would blithely ignore their past sins of missing classes and/or assignments and offer grade forgiveness. Trying to get any grading or work of your own done in this atmosphere was frequently challenging, but the upside was that you always had backup when a student got unruly and you always had other instructors to offer advice on how to grade or handle difficult situations or whatever. Later, as the older graduate assistants (GAs) finished their degrees, we were able to leave Grand Central (Teaching) Station for something marginally more private as we were rotated into their newly-vacated cubicles, sharing only with 2-3 other GAs rather than close to 20.
In some ways, though, I preferred the gang office to the pokey, dark closet/excuse-for-an-office I was eventually given for my home base. While certainly it was often distracting to try to work in the larger office, you also always had peers to talk to and to hang out with, people who completely understood where you were coming from because they were in the same boat. Amid the stacks of endless essays, each of our desks were dutifully lined with Great Works of Literature. Our desk drawers, on the other hand, housed each of our secret literary vices. One girl's desk hid a succession of romance novels, another's hid Stephen King novels, and still another's held People magazines. Mine frequently housed Sci-fi/fantasy novels, among other things. I always found it highly amusing that we all had a stash of something decidedly non-Literary (with a capital "L") on hand for the mindless breaks we all desperately needed from our own studies and from the piles of twitch-inducing freshman compositions. No doubt most of our professors would have tongue-lashed us for reading such trashy and/or pedestrian novels when they weren't looking, calling them "drivel" or "fluff." But we didn't care; one person's drivel is another person's sanity.
Another reason I secretly enjoyed the gang office was because I made some dear friends there that first year, a couple of whom I am still talk to regularly. One of these friends was named Brian Mexicott (he kept old-school mystery novels like Mickey Spillane tucked in his desk drawers). At the time, I was probably closer to Brian than to anyone else in the office; we were both very into theater and so often had classes like Contemporary Drama together. We also even ended up being neighbors in an apartment complex for a couple of years after B and I were unexpectedly forced to vacate our previous residence after only two days because none of our friends had bothered to tell us it was in the middle of a crack neighborhood, and I didn't consider dodging bullets daily to be part of the academic's job description. As a result, Brian and I hung out a lot and on nights when we both had a late class, and he would drive me back home across town after class since B had already left campus hours earlier in our only car. Brian and I spent a lot of time in his little truck laughing our butts off and doing impressions of assorted professors as we traveled to and from campus.
Not long after completing my Master's I left town because B had finished all but the dissertation for his doctorate, which he intended to finish during his first year working as an assistant professor in Memphis. So we packed up and headed south while all my friends, including Brian, stayed on at Purdue to complete their own doctorates. I stayed in touch with Brian, though, and followed his progress as the years went by. While he was working on giving birth to his dissertation, I was in Memphis giving birth to my daughter, neither effort any less a labor of love than the other. A couple of years later I learned that Brian's deteriorating health had prompted him to move back home to Ohio so his mother could help look after him during his illness. Brian continued to try to work on his research and dissertation (and his novel), though, and we continued to write each other, even calling each other on occasion.
Sadly, Brian's health continued to worsen; he developed throat cancer, which made it difficult to speak. He lost his hair. He got terrible rashes on his face and neck. He was miserable and scared. And I was scared for him, because I knew he wasn't going to get better. You see, my friend Brian had AIDS. And even though it was ultimately cancer which took his life, Brian likely would never have gotten cancer at such a young age had his whole immune system not become so horribly compromised.
Brian and I continued to write, especially after he could no longer speak; he always asked about my daughter (so I'd send him pictures) and he always told me with pride about what his nieces were up to. He showed me things he was working on and he told me how he was feeling even though I know he played it down. Through it all, he remained surprisingly witty and upbeat and tried not to dwell on the pain he was suffering. But I still knew how difficult things were for him. Even from a distance it's hard to watch a friend die. I only wish he'd been able to complete his doctorate before he left us...he came close, though.
Brian passed away on January 5th, 1996 when my daughter was only 4. I can remember her asking me why I was crying and trying to comfort me with her tiny little arms. I was invited to the funeral, but unfortunately terrible weather conditions that week made it impractical and unsafe to drive the 10 hours to Ohio for the funeral. Had I still lived in Indy, I probably would have tried to go anyway, assuming I could even get there. His mother understood, though, and very kindly sent me a copy of the program. I still have it.
A couple of months after Brian passed away his mother contacted me with a surprising request. She was trying to put together a panel for the National AIDS quilt in memory of Brian. Her daughter and granddaughters created a panel of their own, but his mother wanted several of Brian's friends to contribute to a second panel which would recognize their mutual interests. She asked one friend who shared an interest in flowers with Brian to create a square commemorating that interest. Another she asked to do something with his and Brian's fondness for photography. She herself had a couple of Brian's poems transferred onto fabric to include in the quilt, as well as making a block for each of Brian's degrees. Brian's mother asked other friends to provide similar such memorials. She requested that I design a square which celebrated Brian's and my shared love of theater. I had no idea what to create at first, but I was deeply touched to have been asked and more than honored to perform this small service for my friend. Brian's mom gave me the details and specifications and I went to work. In the end I made a stage, complete with velvet "curtains" on the sides. In the middle were a couple of easels with placards announcing the names and acts of some favorite plays. I even included a spotlight and the comedy/tragedy masks over the proscenium. When finished, I mailed his mother my offering. She sent me a note of thanks, and I never heard anything else about it till one day a few years ago when I was feeling nostalgic and happened to look Brian up online (there was no Google in 1996), where I found a reference to his quilt block. His mother had sent me photos of the completed panels, but this was the first time I was able to see his panel, complete with my tiny square included, as part of the larger AIDS Quilt. I kept a digital copy of the picture to remember Brian by, but I've still never seen either his panel or indeed any of the AIDS quilt in person. Soon that will no longer be true.
As it happens, last month I saw a notice in my newsfeed from the local newspaper mentioning that the AIDS Memorial Quilt would be coming to my town. Turns out that the AIDS organization here is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year; in an effort to raise awareness and to commemorate locals affected by the disease, the organization requested that sections of the quilt relevant to the city be brought over so they can be put on display downtown for three days. Included in the article was a note that anyone could request additional panels to be included in this display and a link to the proper forms required for such a request. I could hardly pass up the opportunity so I again looked up Brian's panel to retrieve his official panel block number. In addition to providing some basic information, I also had to answer the question "Why you have chosen to request this panel for AIDS Athens 25th Year Commemoration?” To be honest, I don't really remember what I wrote, other than to say that I had contributed to the panel and that the due date for the request form was almost 17 years to the day that Brian had died. I mailed the form and then didn't think much about it afterwards, figuring I'd hear one way or another at some point since I'd had to include my email address.
A month and a half went by with no word, then on Monday I received an email from the director of the local AIDS organization stating that they had indeed been able to procure Brian's panel for the display and inviting me to attend the opening ceremonies next Monday at 6 pm, during which the names of everyone on the panels would be read out. The director also asked permission to include my answer about why I was requesting the panel on Brian's quilt because it was "so lovely" that she wanted everyone else to understand the personal connection to his panel. I was stunned. Needless to say, I gave my permission straight away.
Brian was a good friend--a kind, sweet, witty guy who loved life and sought to make the world a better place through his art. He didn't deserve to die so young or so horribly or with any of the stigma attached to his condition. No one deserves that--no one. He was just as human as any of the rest of us, and I think of him often. Being asked to contribute to Brian's AIDS panel has been one of the signal honors of my life and I am deeply appreciative of the opportunity both to see the finished product in person and to remember the dear friend who inspired it. I will be grateful to say a prayer over it for Brian's continued peace, as well as for that of his family and friends, and I will borrow Martin Luther King Jr.'s prayer for us all:
“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of...prejudice will soon pass away,
and that in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and
brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating
Be at peace, dear friend...and thanks for all the rides.