I met my Uncle Jude again in the late 80’s, after not having seen him since I was a child. We would visit his summer cabin on Cape Cod. Making mischief with our four cousins, we were the picture of normal East Coast vacationing suburbia.
When I met him for the second time he was living in an up-and coming gay district of San Francisco – the South of Market area. Jude moved to San Francisco after discovering his homosexuality late in life. He came out in the New York Gay scene of the late 70’s and early 80’s – ground zero for the AIDS epidemic in the US. By the time we re-connected he had already buried 50 of his friends.
Miraculously Jude had walked through the mine field of the early AIDS crisis without becoming infected. He would brag, “if every man I ever fucked joined hands they would stretch from coast to coast.” He was into the rough stuff, as evidenced by the sling hanging in his bedroom, his membership in a motorcycle club in which none of the members owned motorcycles, and his extensive collection of leather bondage devices. By all rights he should have died years before.
Jude was estranged from his children, I think his reaching out to me was an attempt to reconnect with family. His exceptionally messy divorce was the exclamation point in a family life that could never be called harmonious. Accordingly, his children said they were estranged from him more because of their experience growing up than his sexuality.
I was a visitor in Judes world for a few years. We would grab a burger, walk the Castro, and maybe cook dinner together. We were two black sheep estranged from our families for different reasons. He was defensive, expecting me to judge his life, I was needy, expecting every family elder to take care of me.
He knew how to have sex without exposing himself to HIV, he had been doing so for years. He was not only a regular at SF Gay bathhouses, but worked there. He was a part of the whole safe sex revolution. He forgot everything about safe sex when he went to visit a friend dying of AIDS out of state. “It was the weirdest thing,” he told me, “…we just started fucking each other without condoms.”
I think the death he had been surrounded by for so many years finally caught up to him. Maybe he felt he deserved to die for being gay, or not being a good father, or not going to church anymore. It was as if the vitality of his sex drive had become fused with a desire to die.
Over the next few years Jude underwent the process of slowly dying from AIDS. It took a year before he began to waste away. His roommate and surrogate son Jerry took the lions share of care on his own young shoulders. I visited and helped out from time to time.
Jude wasted from a beautiful, healthy, muscular man over 6ft, to an 80 lb hunched, tottering skeleton. Much of that weight was lost sitting on the toilet and screaming in agony as his anus burned from endless diarrhea. Still more weight was lost sweating out the chills or vomiting through the thrush in his mouth. I heard him one day, crying out for twenty minutes on the toilet but still grateful he was able to make it there on time before soiling his bed. In the end he became a death mask of his former self.
If Judes own passion had brought him to deaths doorstep, he certainly did not welcome the final steps across its threshold. He was afraid to die, afraid of the consequences of his life. He asked me once if I thought he was going to hell, the vestiges of his Catholicism consuming him as he grew weaker. I told him no, I thought love awaited him. I could tell he didn’t believe me.
Jerry had grown into his job of caretaker, making the hard choices only someone that close to Jude could. He called me up to visit for Thanksgiving, having me feed Jude tiny morsels of a turkey feast to savor, if barely swallow. It was less than a few days more when his bed opened up at the Hospice. Jerry wanted me there with him because he knew Jude would fight it, he thought he would go easier if I was there to help. Maybe Jude would want to appear strong before his nephew. Even so he screamed and fought, we had to peal his fingers off the front door frame as we carried him out into the waiting car. If he wasn’t so weakened we never would have been able to separate him from his beloved home. I felt like I was throwing dirt on a coffin that contained a living man.
It was the first or second night at the Hospice when Jude died. He got to go the way he wanted, peacefully in his sleep and not alone. Jerry was visiting with him, holding his hand and talking about good times when they both nodded off. When Jerry awoke Jude had died.
I don’t know if its realistic to say that Jude committed suicide. He did know what he was getting himself into. And he did feel to me to be a man surrounded by a darkness he could not hold off. I know the AIDS crisis felt to me to have the energy of something deeply anti-life within it. It took us in our prime, gradually sucking the life out of us until there was nothing left. It withered the brightest beauty.
Jude had two funerals, each attended by 9 men dressed in black. In San Francisco nine members of the leather community gathered with family and friends to scatter Judes ashes around Golden Gate Park. In Peru, Judes brother George, a Catholic Priest held a service for Jude, reportedly attended by nine Priests. In the strangeness of that time they all struck me as soldiers of an anti-life force, representing an eternal ritual of stoic self-destruction.
The vestiges of how we might deal with this force probably still exist as fragments in our lives. How we manage our funerals, how we deal with death probably contain whispers of long lost wisdom. Through Jude I saw this force working on a global scale, attacking entire cultures. I remember visiting the Castro before AIDS hit, and afterwards only the youngest and the oldest were there. It was a landscape depopulated. The few survivors skirting the giant footprint of a modern plague. It is only one footprint in a long march of plagues that have assaulted our specie.
I went by Judes home a few years ago, just to see how it was doing. I met one of the new owners, a man who could have been Jude in his prime – same moustache, same middle aged body made beautiful by frequent trips to the gym. I spoke with him briefly, he carried the same pride as Jude at his jewel of a home rising from the grime of warehouses and clubs.
Like a hologram who’s every shattered fragment contains an image of the whole, the individual deaths orchestrated by these forces are as unique and flawlessly choreographed as a plague that takes millions globally. The rhythm of his death betrayed the rhythm of the millions who had fallen before him.
previous chapter: “The Guy At The Bar” ~ next chapter: “A Sicilian Amongst Sheep”