Old Was Never an Option
Let me rephrase that. I simply never, actually, thought I would BE old.
I was diagnosed with HIV about as early in its virulent history as it gets, early 1984 officially but through blood donor studies in San Francisco and other, more convoluted statistical measures, more likely the late 1970’s. Back then symptoms, not the elusive diagnosis that was still years to come, meant death, often within weeks and surely within months.
Walking past the Star Pharmacy windows on Castro and 18th back then, seeing the Bay Area Reporter obituaries going up and growing up every week was a right of passage no one had dreamed of nor desired. One day he was your funny bartender friend at the End Up and the next week he was a face on “The Wall”; gone, leaving a shell-shocked circle of disbelief in his short-lived wake. You saw the gaunt gazes shamefully peering out from beneath tightly tucked baseball caps, their necks swaddled in scarfs and their long sleeves belying the sunny halcyon days of the party that was San Francisco; the party that was even then winding down to what would become the worst hangover in the modern world’s history.
Shame. Terror. Anger. Fear. Uncertainty. Death. They haunted the psyches and back alleys of every person’s mind and we all, each of us, were certain that “it” was coming for us, was punishment for our lives, was inexorably on its path to mow us all down as the punditly prophetic politicians deemed was our due.
By virtue of being who we were born to be, we were now being summarily executed by a vengeful god and hailed as falling and failing infidels, relegated to the dumpsters of the dead sinners that walked the earth for generations before us. Dumpsters were then even too good for the likes of our mortal remains. Back then, we could not get medical personnel to lay healing hands upon us no less a mortician to fire up our remains for burial services that even our families, in large portions, would not attend regardless.
Even our closest and dearest cringed when the next among us began to wobble. Weight loss? A fashion statement no more but a precursor to the Death March that was soon to follow. Aside from assuaging our ever-present fears with reflexive food and alcohol consumption, keeping weight on…ne: gaining weight even, belied the “fact” that we were most assuredly (in our own minds) next to fall on the front lines of this war that we had not enlisted in and that had no cause celebre save for the trumpeting vengeance of the zealots who would, historically, have our heads for and by any means they could.
We were fodder for the Uber-Right’s over consumptive tactical warcraft. Virile, handsome, exuberant youth who flaunted their sexuality and lived the lives that so many of those in power would themselves, secretly, pursue and, as the age of information grew, fall victim to themselves in an almost tragi-comedic, multi-generational stage show that runs still today. Politicians Behaving Badly. Someone needs to do the expose on that one. Retribution is mine sayeth the Gays.
And so, given the terroir of our particular vintage age, most pointedly old……age……, was not on the menu for any of us consumers of fine lives. We would stumble, fall, and wither along with the rest of our brethren, to be tossed on the horror-heap that had become our past, present, and infinite future.
Old Age was not an option, it was a future denied.
By now, as Paul Harvey would intone, we all know “The Rest of Story”; medicine “caught up” to reality, albeit without the help of anyone in power or authority (conjure up a bombastic, script-reading Reagan never acknowledging a problem no less putting forth a leadership-driven path to a solution), drugs were developed, many of the early ones feeding directly into Francis Bacon’s all too true axiom “The remedy is worse than the disease” category, and glimmers of a version of hope began to flicker across the near-dead visages of the afflicted. Actually those glimmers came first to their doctors and nurses who saw if not a path, at least a cluttered trail through the dark wood that had so far been in-penetrant to any light at all. In truth we, the patients, were much too busy with the business of our own dying to see that path in that forest for the all the fallen trees.
I have recounted before that upon being given a 6 month expiration date once in the late 80’s, still feeling hale and hearty, I chose to go on a cruise, buy a Trans Am, and charge up all the credit I could muster to assuage my final exit in the style (or lack of, it was the 80’s, after all) to which we were all ascribing (again, think lots of gold chains and pinky rings).
And then I lived. And lived. And lived. On.
And then I met my husband and lived on some more.
Today, 25 years after that auspicious meeting, we continue to live on having traversed too many miles to recount but enough to know that we have really and truly lived, well.
And so today, as I approach the onset of my 65th year, I marvel and recoil in equal measure, at the old man that I am rapidly destined to become. As the youth movements, which followed after me, have taken their rightful place in their own histories I, and those exactly like me, are left to sort out our honeycomb of emotions as we contemplate what our specific “old ages” will look like. While the worker-bee youth flit about us in frenetic, perpetual, motion, adorning themselves with the trappings of their brand of pollen, we elder Queens are left on the shelf, not exactly revered, but in possession of some sort of stature that we have yet to define and more pointedly to work to our advantage.
As anyone of a certain age will opine; “Old age is not for sissies”.
Well this Sissy has got to say “Old age IS for sissies” and Cissies, and straights, and any other human beings who have managed, through the trials of their own lives, to make it to an age that they may or may not have envisioned for themselves.
60 is the new 40.
Balls. 60 if fucking 60. Live with it. 60 has issues. 65 will have more issues. Live with them, or not, your call.
The indignities of age in our modern society are too numerous and multi-faceted to enumerate. The housing of elders in “homes” (a euphemistically-enhanced term denoting storage bins), and the diminution of status amongst the still living are two prime suspects that we all know, see, and fear.
For men, gay men in particular but all men in reality, the vanity of the vanishing virility is paramount. Our identity as male humans has revolved around the concept of a vigorous, sometimes to the point of virulent, sexuality that has propelled our cores through the ages and stages of our lives. Now we have prostates that wake us, aches where before we had muscles, and the face that reflects in the mirror is none too familiar, nor do we ever want it to be. Culture (and Big Pharma) deluge our already fragile egos with cures for all causes; Viagra, Cialis, derma-fillers, dyes, ab- sculptors and organic hormone enhancers.
As gay males and thrivers in the time of HIV/AIDS we add the indignities of not having ever planned, financially or emotionally, for this long of a life span. We are short on time, money, and resources and getting long in the tooth. Our drugs cost upwards of $100K a year, the rest of our medical management maybe that much again. We haven’t worked in decades (and can’t if we want to qualify for any aide programs to help defray the poor house knock) and so we trundle about seeking value and worth in our vindication as survivors.
In truth, we are the best at this practice in the world, as any survivor of war would tell you. When you’ve dealt with the worst that humanity can throw at you, looked it squarely down to ground zero, and managed to live another day to do it again, there is little you cannot and will not do.
We arrive now at World AIDS day once again, December 1st. I was here for the first in 1988, and now, almost 30 years on, have small glimmers of hope that I might actually be around to see the last; a time when we no longer have to gather and commemorate, grieve, demand recognition, and lobby for justice and equal treatment and protection. A time when HIV/AIDS will take its rightful place on the bookshelves of the world as an historic, epochal, life-altering time in human history that millions have had to endure and thousands have had to activate and motivate through in order to effect change and progress and demand that human decency prevails.
Old may not have been option for me when I was young but now that I am here, I would not trade a moment of the life I have had. I am richer in time and timber for the battle and as any senior will tell you, perspective is everything when memories are becoming your chief currency and the simplicity of routine is more comfortable than the thrill of the unknown once was.
I choose Age…..not Old.