Laughing with AIDS Patients

Between 1985 and 1990, I was a “buddy”—a helper and caretaker but not a medical care specialist—for seven gay AIDS patients, all of whom died. As I reported earlier, I volunteered because I couldn’t stand watching men die in the streets because no one would care for them. I did everything for my patients—fed them, bathed them, dressed and undressed them, took them out when they were up to it, took them to medical appointments, and, in effect, helped them die.

When you’re on such an intimate footing with people, you get to know them well. I ended up loving all my patients, even the cantankerous ones and the prima donnas. And don’t kid yourself; there are an awful lot of prima donnas among gay men.

What happened with all of them was that the imminence of death became second nature. We accepted it as a given and lived as best as we could in its shadow. We came to speak of death casually, a part of life that was inevitable. One result was that my patients and I often laughed together.

A good many of the gay men I met during my years of caring for AIDS patients showed a genius for humor. They knew intuitively what would make me laugh. And I learned what would bring a smile to their faces.

That escape into humor shows up in the pages of No-Accounts. I quote below the scene on Christmas day when Martin, the buddy, has been out shopping for Christmas dinner for Peter, the patient now permanently in a hospital bed, and Roger, his father. Peter, ever the prima donna, had told Martin he was in the mood for something cosmopolitan. He proposed south American food.

Martin breezed through the door to the apartment, his arms filled with brown bags, his muffler trailing behind him. “Mission accomplished. I feel like Scrooge visiting Bob Cratchit.”

“You look more like the ghost of Christmas past,” Peter said. “You realize how long you’ve been gone? A man could starve to death around here.”

“Peter, cut it out,” Roger said.

“Let the hell cat warble,” Martin said, all grins. “If he’s not good, we’ll crank up both ends of his bed and let him practice being the letter U.”

“You’re certainly full of yourself,” Peter said with unconvincing ill humor. “What did you get, a Chilean luau to go?”

“Better than that. An Ethiopian formal dinner for four.”

Ethiopian? That’s not South American.”

“It’s not? Never was very good at geology.”

“Geography,” Peter corrected.

“Told you I wasn’t any good at it. Anyway, the Eritrean in the restaurant assured me that it was very cosmopolitan to eat Ethiopian food on Christmas.”

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