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THE END OF THE LINE

"I have AIDS."
They all burst into tears. His mother remonstrated him: He should have married a nice girl, and none of this would have happened. They should have seen and helped him change. Ric let them go on until they ran out of tears and recriminations. "Now, wait a minute," he said gently, pulling his mother to him. "I'm not going to die tomorrow. And if I can help it, I'm not going to die for a very long time.

"I am what I am, and I like myself. Tomorrow's my confirmation; just be happy for me."
The next day he faced the altar while Danny, proudly sniffing back the tears, stood by. Blessed by Father Bohte and anointed with oil, Ric was welcomed into the Church.

The following morning he took his first communion. Ric trembled as Father Bohte prepared the Eucharist. Offered the sacramental bread, he felt tears come to his eyes, and by the time the chalice of wine reached his lips, tears were streaming down his face. Holy Communion represented life eternal, a continuation of his soul. Death, whether on the cross or from AIDS, could be defeated.

For the first time since he realized that he must be carrying the virus, Ric felt safe. He was home.

"Go in peace," Father Bohte intoned, smiling at Ric's tears.
"And peace be with you," Ric recited with the rest of the congregation.

Danny and Ric often spent their mornings reading the obituary columns, tracking the disease as it cut a swath through the gay community. Ric was on permanent disability from his state job, and Danny was living off his dwindling savings.

The two daily papers didn't publish the causes of death, but there were clues. Young men dying between the ages of 25 and 40, leaving no wives or children, only family and sometimes a male "friend" as survivors. Services held at the Monarch Society, where bodies were cremated in order to avoid dealing with body fluids. Requests that donations be sent to various hospices or the Colorado AIDS Project.

Each month that passed brought Danny closer to death. By that fall he looked like an old man. His ears stuck out from his bony face; his skin was stretched and fragile; his legs were no bigger around than Ric's wrists. He suffered from recurring and painful bacterial infections in his bones.

When the pain let him sleep, Danny often woke up in terror; Ric began staying over to help calm him down. Then one night he watched as Danny got out of bed to use the restroom. When he returned Danny poured two glasses of juice from a pitcher--one for himself, one for Ric. Danny drank his, then went back to sleep.

Ric went into the kitchen and wept. There had been no glasses or pitcher in the room--Danny had acted out the whole scene. That meant only one thing: dementia. The virus had invaded his brain.

Returning to bed, Ric held his friend through the night.
The next day Ric called Dr. Bill, who told him the dementia was part of a final dying process that might take Danny months to complete. "It'll be up to you," the doctor warned him. "You'll get all of his anger, all of his fear. You'll also be the one who sees everything."

Some days were better than others. Despite the near-constant pain, Danny kept his sense of humor, calling Dr. Bill to leave pornographic messages on his answering machine, or playing possum to frighten his friends. On other days he would wander in and out of the dementia or suddenly lash out in anger, especially at those closest to him.

Ric got the worst of it. Caring for Danny became a full-time job: cleaning him and the apartment whenever he lost control of his bowels; cajoling him into taking the drugs that no longer seemed to help. The nights were often sleepless--Danny wouldn't let Ric turn off the lights.

"It's in the dark that they come for you," Danny explained.
His new faith got Ric through the dark days. He took communion often. And every week he lit two prayer candles--one for those living with AIDS, the other for those who were gone.

That winter he began lighting a special candle for Danny. But he no longer prayed that his friend would have the strength to go on for another week, or even another day. "It's time to take him," he begged. "He's suffered enough."

In early January 1991 Danny entered the hospital for the last time. His family kept Ric away during visiting hours; they had told other family members and friends that Danny had leukemia. Ric had to wait until visiting hours were over and the nurses let him sneak back into Danny's room.

One night the nurses told Ric that Danny had been unresponsive all day. Was he too late to say goodbye?

Entering the room, Ric softly spoke his friend's name. Danny opened a eye. "Where have you been?" he scolded. He'd been playing possum since morning to avoid dealing with his family and the doctors. Ric smiled, but the mood soon turned somber.

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