THE END OF THE LINE

part 2 of 2
It was also in 1985 that Ric met Danny and his lover, Brad. The pair ran black-market AZT from Mexico, selling bottles for $75 that U.S. pharmacies sold for $300--if you were lucky enough to be part of the government drug-testing program. They were carefree rebels, angry about the slow pace of AIDS research, yet always ready for a practical joke.

Danny, the son of a wealthy Denver family, had a particularly dark sense of humor. That's why Ric thought that Danny was pulling his leg one evening when he called and said simply, "Brad's dead."

Ric wouldn't believe him. He had seen Brad the night before, and although he'd still had that nasty cold he couldn't shake, Brad had been so full of life--it was hard to imagine that his life was over.

Brad had had AIDS, Danny explained, and it left him vulnerable to opportunistic cancers of the stomach and esophagus. That morning Brad had been unable to keep his breakfast down. Announcing that he was tired, he'd gone back to their bedroom to lie down.

A few minutes later Danny went to check on him. Brad looked terrible but smiled weakly and said, "I love you." Moments later he was dead, having drowned in his own blood.

It soon was obvious that Danny, too, had the virus--even though he denied it. He was losing weight rapidly and getting sick too often for someone who had always taken care of himself.

Ric loved Danny, but they weren't lovers. And they both knew their friendship was going to be more important than sex in the hard days ahead.

In February 1990 Danny went into the hospital for tests; he was running short of breath and experiencing dizziness. While he was hospitalized, Ric reached a decision. Raised in the Lutheran Church, he had always believed that God was out there somewhere. Now, with death all around him, Ric needed to be reassured that this wasn't the end.

Ric had started attending Catholic services with Danny, who was devout and rarely missed a Sunday. He liked the ritual of mass: No matter where he went in the country, he could count on mass to remain a constant. The church of Saint Peter had survived nearly 2,000 years--and survival was very much on Ric's mind.

"Danny, when you get out of here, there's something really special I'd like you to do for me," Ric told his friend as they held hands in the hospital room.

Danny gave him a sideways look. "This wouldn't have to do with money?"
"No," Ric said. "I think I want to become a Catholic, and I want you to stand up for me at my confirmation."
But first, there was something Ric had to know for sure.

On March 23, 1990, Ric sat patiently waiting in the examination room for Dr. Bill, as he was known to all his patients--many of them gay and HIV-positive. Today he would hear the results of his blood test.

All week he'd prepared himself for this moment, certain he would test positive for the virus. He imagined how the conversation with the doctor would go, and reminded himself that it wouldn't be the end of the world...at least not right away. There was no cure for AIDS, but there were drugs to slow its progress. And who knew when modern medicine would work another one of its miracles?

Still, in the back of his mind, there was a faint hope that the disease had passed him by. That hope disappeared when Ric saw his doctor's face. "I think you already know the results," Dr. Bill said.

"Yeah," Ric nodded. "I'm positive." But he wasn't ready for the doctor's next pronouncement: Not only did he have the virus, but it had already progressed to full-blown AIDS. His body's defenses were dangerously depleted.

"How do you feel?" the doctor asked.
"How do you think I feel?" Ric shot back. "I feel like shit. I have AIDS." He began to cry, and was grateful that his doctor believed in hugging patients.

Three months later, as he prepared for his confirmation, Ric wondered how he was going to tell his family. His mother had found out that he was gay a few years earlier, after reaching a number of different male voices when she made her usual Sunday morning call to her son.

"Are you a homosexual?" she had asked.
He could tell she was troubled, but he couldn't resist teasing. "Yes, Mom," he said. "But only on Sunday mornings when you call." He had hoped for a laugh, but she hung up.

Three months had passed before she called again. How long would it be, he wondered, after he told her he had AIDS. But she would see Danny at his confirmation, and there was no disguising his illness.

That afternoon Ric gathered his family--mom, dad and sister--in his apartment's living room. "I have something to tell you. It wasn't something I could tell you over the telephone or write in a letter," he began, then nearly stopped when he saw the fear in their eyes.

"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.

"I won't be making it home this time, will I?" Danny asked.
Ric could see that his friend knew that the end was near--and was frightened. "You won't be making it back to your apartment, but you will make it home," he told him.

Now it was Danny's turn to be brave. "Have I told you that I love you?" he asked, patting his friend's hand.

Ric nodded, trying to find his voice. "I know," he said. "I've known it for a long time."

Just then another friend arrived. Danny asked the two of them to fetch a pair of fresh pajamas from his apartment.

At the apartment, Ric went out on the balcony where he and Danny had often sat enjoying their morning coffee and talking. He'd been outside several minutes when the other man said they should be getting back to the hospital.

Ric shook his head, wiping at his tears with his hand. "We don't have to go back. He's already gone." He lifted his eyes to the leaden sky. "Goodbye," he whispered. "I'll see you later."

Last July Ric moved back into the old Capitol Hill apartment that held so many memories. He'd become friends with Vern there. He'd lived there when he met and fell in love with Ed. So many others had passed through that living room, passed through that bedroom--and then passed on.

But they were friendly ghosts, and Ric immediately cluttered the apartment with the flotsam of a full life. He plastered nearly every inch of wall space with art ranging from pornography to Georgia O'Keeffe posters to prints depicting the ascension of the saints to photographs: Ed on a camping trip; Danny, smiling, with his head in Ric's lap.

It became nearly impossible to walk through the living room. Half-finished art projects were scattered about among the books and boxes. The toys of Ric's childhood--a stuffed pony and those big steel cars from the Fifties--were heaped in front of the couch. His mother had sent them, having finally accepted that Ric would never give her grandchildren. She still had difficulty accepting his homosexuality, but AIDS had a way of clarifying what is important.

Ric surrounded himself with memories of those he has loved. There was no room for regrets--not for the deadly lifestyle, which had led him to the people he loved most; not for the virus, which had led him to his faith.

He remains sexually active, visiting the bathhouses once a week and occasionally cruising Cheesman Park. Always, he insists on using condoms.

It troubles Ric to see some of the younger men having unprotected sex. The bathhouse attendants are supposed to keep an eye on the back rooms through peepholes in the wall, and to stop any unsafe sex. But the holes are easily plugged with tissue, and the attendants usually only act when someone complains or the participants are blatant.

Ric does not report what he sees, nor does he attempt to lecture the younger generation. The information is available. If they can look at him and other members of his generation, see the devastation caused by this disease and still not use a condom, he doesn't feel that it is his place to be their policeman.

Besides, at this late date he's taken on another role: guarding the millions of dollars in federal funding designated for assisting people with AIDS.

In July, when Ric was getting ready to move back to Capitol Hill, he approached the Colorado AIDS Project for help with his rent payments. A CAP client since 1990, he'd never known that such assistance was available until friends in other cities said that the federally funded Housing Opportunities for People With AIDS program had helped them with rent vouchers.

When Ric asked CAP about the program, he was told it didn't exist in Denver. Confused, he contacted Lance Clem, who was about to lose his job as the executive director of the Governor's AIDS Council ("Ill Will," March 16). Clem assured him that HOPWA funds were available through CAP.

With Clem along for moral and technical support, Ric confronted CAP officials about HOPWA money. Finally he was told that yes, the funds existed, but he could only have a one-month voucher. Federal rules say nothing of the sort, so he and Clem pressed the point.

"And how come clients haven't heard about this?" Ric asked. CAP officials assured him that it had been announced in a newsletter. But the mailing only went to people who donated money, not the clients who might need the assistance.

(CAP director Julian Rush says the confusion may have resulted because the program is relatively new and the agency is still trying to sort out the differences between national and local guidelines. "Initially, we were told by the city to hold off advertising [the availability of HOPWA funds] because they needed to get a feel for how many people might use it," Rush says. "But it all got worked out.")

After Ric received his rent vouchers, he faxed notices to dozens of small AIDS agencies throughout the city and state, letting them know that HOPWA money was available.

"I wouldn't come down here for a while if I was you," a friend who volunteers at CAP giggled over the telephone a few days later. "They've been swamped with requests for HOPWA money, and your name is shit."
Ric laughed. It was about time someone shook up the AIDS establishment. And if there was so much confusion and disinformation regarding HOPWA, maybe there were other problems with AIDS services funding in Denver. Ric lobbied to be appointed to the mayor's HIV Resource Council, a group of activists and agency heads that oversees the city's AIDS education and funding efforts. After being named to the post in December, he quickly established himself as a gadfly, raising questions about the funding requests of such established AIDS services agencies as CAP.

Ric now concedes that some of his questions are nitpicking. But if the rules are being bent on the small stuff, he asks, what is happening to multimillion-dollar grants?

When Ric learned that auditors from the federal General Accounting Office would be coming to Denver this week to investigate how the city allocates its AIDS services funds, he called the GAO and set up an appointment. Adding to the clutter in his living room are files full of documents that he intends to give the auditors.

Many of those documents relate to his battle over HOPWA money, as well as funding requests from CAP that Ric contends did not follow federal rules yet were authorized by the council. The violations, he says, include spending emergency assistance funds--designated for such items as medical bills and housing--on education programs and personnel.

Ric doesn't know what effect his complaints will have, but he knows he's not going out without a fight. He owes the memories of his friends that much.

On Palm Sunday, as he approached Father Schaffer for communion, Ric knew he wouldn't be able to keep from crying. Easter Week, with its message of resurrection, renewal and life everlasting, has special meaning for him.

At the altar, the priest smiled and hugged him. Father Schaffer was sending a message to the other parishioners, and Ric was grateful for the gesture.

"Peace be with you," the priest told the congregation a few minutes later, after the last of the bread and wine had passed their lips.

"And also with you," they answered.
After the service, Ric stopped in the anteroom to light his candles and pick up several palm fronds to weave a cross for Danny's crypt. Outside, the snow was still falling. Feeling the flakes on his face, Ric looked up and said thanks.

end of part 2

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