WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Decembrance

Old friend …

And then there was our good friend, Dan, who died of AIDS in 1995. I think of him every year as the calendar creeps through December, since he died in the middle of this month after a long and difficult deterioration.

He was my wife’s housemate when I met her. The two of them had worked at the same place and decided to buy a Victorian duplex together since nothing else was shaking for them at the time. He’d get the top floor, she’d get the ground floor, and they’d live like characters in a sitcom that never got green-lighted. The only problem was that the house was in the Mission District in an era when gang violence was bad and the police had a hands-off approach toward enforcement. Shootings broke out and ended too quickly for them to intervene, so it was a matter of scooping up the injured and/or dead and running them over to SF General.

Some kid, in fact, got shot right out in front of Sue’s place. Died there too. And his posse would come and spray graffiti on her garage door something about “RIP Little Puppet.”

So I meet her and learn, as the words to my song, “The Girl in the High Top Sneakers,” attest:

She’s got a bullet hole in her car door.

True. It must have happened one night while she was asleep in the house, way in the back and didn’t hear the shot.

But Dan, as a gay man, must have really had nerves of steel to live in that neighborhood. He worked at a restaurant and came home late every night, alone in his big Chevy pick-up. No biggie. He probably thought I was a pussy for not wanting to live there when Sue and I reached that point. I’d had a few scary incidents already and figured my days on Earth would be numbered if I lived on that block between Valencia and Mission. Hunt’s Donuts on the corner had all kinds of “interesting” people loitering in front of it. They shot me hostile looks and grabbed their crotches or put their hands inside the pocket of their hoodies.

Then again, I was new to San Francisco, so it might not have been as bad as it seemed. All I know is that Sue lost money when she sold the house after Dan died. Way under water.

Dan delivered meals to people with AIDS every Wednesday, so we’d have him over to our new apartment for pork chops and stuffing. We were on Church Street, only a few blocks from Dan’s place, but a whole different world. And soon Dan started getting sick himself and needed Sue’s help on his Project Open Hand runs. And the tenants in Sue’s old apartment were problematic, selling drugs and owning loud dogs, and the graffiti continued and Dan was in the hospital every other month for a week or more, losing weight and motivation. We’d visit him there and spend a little time with him, but he was often too tired to speak. Once we picked him up after he was discharged, and he had to stop and puke into the gutter on Duboce under the freeway.

And things got so bad that he decided he had to move out too. He rented a house in Oakland, where we went to see him once and found him with an I.V. pole as his permanent companion, all his medications laid out on the kitchen counter, though we knew they weren’t working. His mom and dad would come from Michigan to see him, and they’d always appreciate our presence because we were straight, and they’d say things like, “We just wanted him to meet a nice girl and settle down.”

The worst part, as all people with friends who died of AIDS say, was seeing such a robust, energetic, fun, warm, and loyal man go down. We were with him in the hospital once near the end, when Sue left the room to put water in his flower vase and Dan said to me, “I just want it to be over.” All I could do was put my arm around his frail shoulders and whisper, “I know.”

We don’t really think much about AIDS deaths anymore, thanks to the drug cocktails. I think 1995 was the peak of the death rate. It got better after that, but not soon enough for Dan to try a new regimen that would have saved him. He would have been sad to hear that the house wound up costing Sue so much money to get out of, or that she felt so guilty over the years about how those last three years of his life went. He’d have been crushed at how his dad behaved after Dan was gone, as the new owner of Dan’s unit. It wasn’t a good time, and when it was over we felt lucky to have unloaded that building even though it earned us a tax audit because the IRS couldn’t believe the loss Sue was declaring.

There are always ripple effects.

I believe Dan was 32 or 33 when he died, so he’d be in his mid-50s now, graying, maybe bald or balding, but I’m sure he’d be as fit as he always was and as enjoyable to be around. He’s forever young in our minds, though, and there are times when we’re able to put his last months behind us and remember him in his prime, when we spent time with him mainly laughing.

It’s more than a little ironic that he died just a week or so before the last time I saw my father. I think Dan’s dignity was wrapped around me as we entered that last big fight and I had to pick sides. You really can’t go wrong, I understood, siding with dignity.

16 comments on “Decembrance

  1. kingmidget
    December 20, 2017

    Great remembrance of your friend. Thank you for sharing it. It seems we all have one of these in our pasts.

    • Kevin Brennan
      December 20, 2017

      And we never stop thinking about them. It’s like the Buddhists say, that no one is really dead until the last person who remembers them is gone.

  2. Priscilla
    December 20, 2017

    So sorry. I can tell that even after all these years since he’s passed you still love your friend.

    • Kevin Brennan
      December 20, 2017

      Oh yes. So many people lost friends back in those days …

  3. pinklightsabre
    December 20, 2017

    Nice story, good salute to Dan. Thanks for sharing Kevin.

    • Kevin Brennan
      December 20, 2017

      Thanks, Bill. It’s a good season for remembering people like Dan. Gives the holidays a little more depth, I guess.

      • pinklightsabre
        December 20, 2017

        Amen to that, good time to remember good people.

  4. John W. Howell
    December 20, 2017

    Super tribute, Kevin. The reason I like your writing so much is you are able to provide the facts in a way we all need to pay attention. I lost a dear friend on the 15th of December in 2011.

    • Kevin Brennan
      December 20, 2017

      Thanks a lot, John. You know, I think Dan died on the 15th too …

  5. Woebegone but Hopeful
    December 21, 2017

    Poignant, filled with friendship and respect.
    Thanks for bringing Dan into our worlds.

    • Kevin Brennan
      December 21, 2017

      Thanks, Roger. We like remembering him this time of year, but we do bring him back year-round … 😉

  6. Ilona Elliott
    December 25, 2017

    That is a very beautiful tribute to your friend Kevin. I love what you wrote about Dan’s dignity wrapping around you and how we can’t go wrong siding with dignity. That is powerful and makes me think many folks have no idea of what dignity is anymore and no stomach for it due to it’s complete lack of hyperbole. Thanks for this great post Kevin.

    • Kevin Brennan
      December 26, 2017

      Thanks a lot, Ilona. I kept trying to think of one word that described Dan’s last months, and that’s the one that kept floating to the surface. And you’re right, it’s not flashy or extravagant, but it’s definitely courageous.

  7. 1WriteWay
    December 27, 2017

    I second all the previous comments. A moving tribute to Dan. I also appreciate the trip through the Mission. Our artist friends still live in the Mission … 16th and Alabama. That district has seen a lot of changes (i.e., gentrification) over the years, and yet too much of the bad stuff still remains. I worked at UCSF in the Department of Nursing in the late 80s. HIV/AIDS was part of the curriculum and I remember having to photocopy photos of patients with Kaposi’s sarcoma … I wouldn’t have wished that on my worst enemy.

    • Kevin Brennan
      December 28, 2017

      Thanks, Marie. It’s true, the Mission has improved a lot since our days there, but it never seems to shake the darker side. Gentrification puts so much pressure on the poorer residents.

      It does seem miraculous that AIDS has literally become a thing of the past …

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