As a gay man who came out in the midst of a disease that decimated an entire generation of Americans, I consider myself fortunate that I was born in 1971 instead of 1961. Think about it: many of the gay men born in the 1950s and 1960s are gone, having suffered the torturous fate documented in productions like Philadelphia, And the Band Played On, Rent, Angels in America and Longtime Companion.
One of those men was Bob Grainger, a close friend of the guy who rented a room to me when I first moved out on my own. I was a very, very young 18, having grown up in the rural South. Even in a small urban area like Greenville, S.C., a city known for its thriving arts scene and a bustling gay community, AIDS was claiming men at an alarming rate. Bob, who was in his early 40s, knew the dangers I faced as a naive teenager on my own for the first time. And he knew how powerful an experienced male influence would be on me.
The first time Bob sat me down for a serious talk, he rolled up his sleeve and showed me the Kaposi’s sarcoma he had on his arm. Naive or not, I knew what the purple splotch on his skin meant.
Over the next couple of years, Bob gave me steady but firm reminders of what could happen to me if I didn’t take responsibility for my health as a young gay man. Acting almost as my father, he lectured me once about doing something I shouldn’t have. “Sean, you’re a good kid. I don’t want you to end up like me.” It sounded like something from a hokey adaptation of Brokeback Mountain, but it was sincere and from the heart.
On a summer afternoon in 1992, my roommate called me to say that Bob was asking for me. It was his final visit to Greenville Memorial Hospital, and even though he hadn’t been lucid for a couple of days, he wanted me to come see him. I rushed out the door.
But something happened that day. As I got off the elevator at the hospital and turned the corner to walk to Bob’s room, my feet were frozen. I could not budge. For five minutes, I stood there, trying to will one foot in front of the other. Tears streamed down my face, but I could not find the courage to go and tell my friend goodbye. I didn’t want to see him; I wanted to remember him the way he was when I first met him in 1990.
I finally gave up and ran out of the hospital. Bob died that night.
I have carried this experience – and Bob’s memory – with me for my entire adult life. Faced with the prospect of seeing my Grandma in a hospice earlier this year, I swore to myself that I would not repeat the mistake I made the day Bob died. In fact, I was stronger for it – I was completely unafraid when I went to say goodbye to Grandma. It was the most profound experience of my life.
So each year, on Dec. 1, I think about Bob Grainger. I tell him I’m sorry. I tell him I was a terrified 21-year-old who never had to deal with death, who never had to deal with AIDS and who never had to face the prospect of losing a friend.
And each year, on World AIDS Day, I remind myself that Bob knew me in a way few people ever have. And that he understood.
I miss you, Bob. Thanks for everything.