“Let’s start at the very beginning…a very good place to start…–“The Sound of Music”
Green grass. A weeping willow tree with a self made tree house sitting half way up, accessible by a makeshift stairway. The clean, cool water of a swimming pool with it’s multitude of brightly colored inflatable rafts. A vegetable garden. Alongside the garden an outbuilding constructed of plywood, painted beige with red shag carpeting inside. Through my adult eyes, and the window of what was once my childhood bedroom, I can see my brothers and me in the backyard. Today my former bedroom serves as my home office, tidy and compact, where my stories come to life. Our parents built the family home as a protected space, a haven, far from city life with its confining yards and active streets, for their children to flourish. As a result, we were able to run through lush grass, swim in our pool, ride bikes along the quiet suburban streets and navigate the nearby woods. Trickier, as a result of their protection, was learning to navigate life. And somewhere in my life I learned to write. With no formal training I sit before the keyboard, tap it and speak. But I felt I needed to give a bit of history to bond, open up and let you see where my passion was born. We can use our history to our advantage or we can wallow in it. The choice is up to us. To wallow in it is short sighted; to embrace and allow it to empower us is hard work. I chose hard work. So here is the history that lives within me and while this particular story is more serious in content, I thank God every day for allowing it to make a more insightful, grateful, powerful and humorous me. And away we go…
It wasn’t long after coming into the world on January 19, 1961 I was introduced to death– perhaps five or six years and truthfully I really didn’t know my uncle who collapsed, losing his life. That single event taught a little boy that in a moments’ time mortality can strike. My uncle’s sudden death was a gift, which isn’t always the case. In the years to come more people would pass from my life, it’s just a given. There have been aunts, uncles, my closest cousin Jimmy, friends, my parents, pets and even my older brother, Randy. But at what point did death change me? At what point did it make me stronger, more resilient and able to see life through different eyes? Oh, yes…I remember…it was the one death that rewrote my life–my partner Dean’s. My Hiroshima. My Tsunami. My world.
On January 19, 1992, the morning of my 31st birthday the phone rang. The clock read 12:16 a.m.. On the other end our doctor’s voice was low and sympathetic. “Keith, it’s David…Dean died about ten minutes ago…I’m sorry.” I was lingering between sleep and wake but understood each word. “Thank you.” Had I just thanked him for the worst possible news? I understood he waited. On some level he knew it was my birthday. Son of a bitch. He always said I’d never forget him. My parents, woken by the ring, came to me, my father sitting at the foot of my bed. “Dean’s dead.” My dad, always gentle, rubbed my arm, “I’m sorry.” My mother, sturdy and protective, offered to go to the hospital. She didn’t approve of my lifestyle, nor Dean for that matter, and at best the dynamic between us simmered like a bowl of oatmeal on the stove. What once had been light and airy was now thick, with a bubble here, a bubble there but never a rapid boil and certainly never quite completely cooked. In the future all that would change, from the negative rises the positive, but for now it was sticky. “I’m going with you.” Per usual, her decision was written in stone. I believe my mother feared I may veer into oncoming traffic or hit a tree. What she couldn’t comprehend was it had already happened, two years prior. “Okay…thanks.”
I entered the hospital room. I’d been there just two hours before. The cool fluorescent lighting lent a grey-green hue all around. Dean was lying on the bed, his body ravaged by illness, silent, propped up with an extra pillow from our home. Seemingly he was asleep. I couldn’t cry nor look away but why would I want to? This was a reprieve for him. His lips were dry and chapped– he’d been through so much. Holding his slender hand in mine, it felt slightly warm and his face, through the wrath, was still handsome. When I kissed his forehead, our last kiss, it felt natural, like any other day except this was not any other day. There would never be “any other day” again. It was mind boggling to think a vibrant young man should die for no reason. He did nothing wrong–except play Russian Roulette, making the wrong choice for a one night stand years ago. It was so senseless. Collecting his teddy bear, a few personal belongings and his pillow I left the now cold room and entrusted my partner, the man I protected and loved, to others. Leaving the hospital, my hope was to never return. Of course I would, someday, but not for a very long time.
The next day my jewelry went into exile. I wanted no part of it. Once it represented a modicum of success, now, in contrast, the only thing it represented was my inability to save Dean. I’d run through a small fortune on private pay medical needs such as breathing machines, the latest drugs, contraptions to inject aerosol medication into his lungs and barrages of tests but to no avail. I spent freely to ensure life was good to him though in truth it was not. Our world became an illusion and I was David Copperfield– life was all smoke and mirrors. I was angry for having deluded myself into equating money with power, not social power but Godlike power. For the record that equation does not add up. For two years we’d lived behind the veiled darkness of his disease. “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome”– I say it in it’s entirety because I detest the acronym AIDS. It is difficult to type the words when your fingers recoil from the keyboard. For twenty six years I have retreated from it, putting it out of mind, leaving it behind. His life, lived large, had come to a close. Dean was 33 and I was 31. In his abbreviated life he left no stone unturned except the one he couldn’t push because it’s weight was far too great. And when he couldn’t push it I pushed it for him. AIDS isn’t fair but as my mother told me, “Listen kiddo, life isn’t fair.” There, but for the grace of God, go I. For some reason, perhaps to offer inspiration or simply make someone smile through my work or my words, the universe consciously spared me.
It was time to lose the veil. So now what? I always feared being on a plane jettisoning through the sky only to have that plane crash and burn. Planes were going down all around me. Young men, old men, movie stars and rock stars. Sports figures, women, children and even moms in suburbia were not immune. I had to do “damage control” because the stigma surrounding this particular illness was so great. Immediately, by association, I would be targeted as its’ next “victim” and where would that leave me? Well, that wasn’t an option. I have never been a “victim” of anything; always a survivor. I enlisted what I called “The Untruth”. It wasn’t a lie, it was simply an omission of truth and happens every day in every situation– politics, law, medicine, retail and yes, even hair styling. You tell most of the story but not quite all of it. “He died from Meningo-encephalitis. It came on quickly and the medicines just couldn’t fight it.” It can be verified on his death certificate as the primary cause. The underlying cause, which is secondary on his death certificate, can be verified as well.
With the exception of one, people never questioned me, well, not to my face anyway. I never say yes, and I never say no. But I had to change. I lopped off my then dark, long and flowing hair. It was a Sampson moment but gave me strength rather than weakness. The time had come to reinvent and move on and where better to do so than in therapy. “Therapists are unnecessary,” my mother scoffed, “They take your money for something I could do or our priest could do for that matter. Chip, people will think you’re a nut job and worse he will tell you it’s all my fault.” And there you have it. And therein lies the truth. My mother was terrified my insecurities and worse, my homosexuality, lay at her hands. “Sorry mom, but I think the people who refuse to see therapists because they think they don’t need to are the ones who need to the most.” She turned, sighed and pretended to pay me no mind.
The day after the funeral I called Nicholas Lang, a therapist who dealt lovingly with the gay community and our grief. I’d been given his name by my doctor who thought Nicholas could help and he did, immensely. “Hello…uh… my name is Keith Proto. I just lost my partner and would…uh, well…would like to talk about it.” We set a date and my journey, the everlasting search for Keith began. It was a single exercise, at Nicholas’ prompting, which took me here, to the keyboard, to begin writing the moments of my life–the good, bad and indifferent. I didn’t know where the journey would lead but knew wherever that might be I would go there empowered, with humor and a new perspective. Thank you Nicholas.
Ah…writing I love you. You have unlocked the gates of the prison formerly known as my mind—a tight, twisted little space that obsessed about material nonsense and the trinkets that bore no significance. Now empowered, my mind illuminates and allows me to laugh, yes laugh, even in moments of sadness and despair. I have humility. But it’s a full time job remembering how to laugh especially in moments of despair–and there have been moments of despair. But, conversely, there has been a multitude of joy. The moments between diagnosis and death, what I call “purposeful living”, can be the most important you live. Dean’s illness and death, and my relationship with it, taught me to balance the real with the imagined and gain perspective. But death comes along with life, not exclusively with illness, and so should “purposeful living”. I know.
Admittedly I enjoy the material world of fashion, fine food, accommodations and cars but quite frankly who doesn’t? It would be untrue to deny that. The balance is to never worship or let it define you. Embrace your life and your spirit and I know, firsthand, such energy will never misguide you. Experiences, even the negative, give perspective, empathy, and understanding. Life has taught me to embrace my anxieties and fears, assess them with clarity, grow from them and realize there is always someone better off and someone worse off. And, thank you, it taught me to open up and write, sharing with others while helping to heal. Purposeful living can, at times, teach us to never say never because miracles, or moments just shy of miracles, occur every day. So now, with my own perspective and a bit of humor at my fingertips, it’s time to write. Yes… I started at the very beginning…a very good place to start. Life, in the brilliant sunlight, is expansive and glorious when you no longer exist behind a dark veil–and, my friends, therein lies the truth.