• author
    • Maya Spier Stiles North

      Columnist, Copy Editor
    • December 1, 2018 in Columnists

    Pavane for a brother stolen by AIDS

    Dear Steve,

    And then we were two

    And then we were two

    Fifty-five years ago tomorrow, plus two weeks, they sat me down on a comfy chair (upholstered in plaid – why do I remember that?) and gently laid your warm, soft, surprisingly heavy little body onto my lap and said, “Martha, this is your brother, Stephen.”

    I looked down at your beautiful, unfocused baby blue eyes, gently stroked your squiff of golden blonde hair and I was lost to you forever.  You weren’t just any brother.  You were my brother.   Even when I came to understand the concept of adoption and knew we weren’t biologically related, it made no difference at all.

    How on earth were you so ROUND?

    How on earth were you so ROUND?

    You were the fattest baby.  Given that you grew up to be a skinny kid and a lean and muscular young man with the body of a young god, the fact that you were round as a butterball turkey as an infant made little sense, especially as your butterball turkey sister was a long, scrawny baby.  Go figure.

    I loved you so much.  I would’ve taken on the world for you, even at 3 and a half.  You were fascinated by big me, capable of doing so much.  Babies know perfectly well they’re kids and they can’t wait to get there themselves.

    I hadn’t yet discovered that I had just been deposed from my throne as the precious child and that they would hand you the crown forever.  I was well grown before I discovered the Drake sisters’ family dynamic that children were a competition and that boys automatically won.  It also did not help my case that you were that much prettier than I was – for your entire life – with your huge blue eyes and half inch, black eyelashes.  It took quite some time for me to I realize that being the favorite child came with its own brutal price.

    MY brother -- that bedspread was dark green

    MY brother — that bedspread was dark green

    All I knew, by the time you were 2, was that there wasn’t enough love to go around and that you were winning that battle.  Our fights were bitter and your strategy far superior to mine.  Years later, when we had reconciled many of our differences and were struggling toward closeness, I commented that I thought I’d imagined you painting me in the worst possible light to the family.  You shook your head ruefully and admitted that I had not imagined it at all.  “I knew there was nothing wrong with you, and that I would never survive what they did to you, so I made sure you got it all instead of me.”  When I was a kid, that would have infuriated me; as a grownup and a mom, it just broke my heart.

    Cheeky little snot

    Cheeky little snot

    You were so vulnerable and so small – yet spritely and mischievous with a pixy sense of humor, sassy little thing.  You probably had Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome – you had the hyperflexibility and stretchy skin – and when you felt vulnerable, you would twine your limbs together what seemed like one time too many to be physically possible, then bring your clasped hands up to your chest.

    You stood that way in my apartment when you came to visit and had your first sign of the AIDS virus – an agonizing case of shingles that stretched from your eye all the way down to the back of your head.  We poured you into bed and tended you – our parents were there, too .  My daughter, called Nicki then, gave you her bed and perched on the side and kept you company.  She loved her beautiful uncle even as you dazzled her with your courtly grace.

    That was a Snoopy sweatshirt; it was your favorite

    That was a Snoopy sweatshirt; it was your favorite

    There were signs along the way that you were gay, but you used your architectural skills to design a stylish closet that fooled even relatively savvy me – being rescued by drag queens as a street kid had given me decent gaydar, but I didn’t catch it.  I asked you if you were dating, not picking up that you had never mentioned a woman – even once; you informed me that you were seeing a six foot tall basketball player.  I imagined a glorious Amazon woman, silly me.

    I figured it out when you visited for Christmas (long before I converted to Judaism) and we went shopping. Watching the young saleswomen practically crawling on all fours to get to you, your gracious indifference pretty much gave it away.  I resolved to badger you (gently) until you told me the  truth.

    You said of your Homecoming celebrations in high school "there were TWO queens in that parade."

    You said of your Homecoming celebrations in high school “there were TWO queens in that parade.”

    It took an entire year for you to fess up.  It was Christmas again and you’d strung me along since about August.  You were all of 23 years old, so it would have been 1982 – so long ago now.  You had taken over my childhood room (it was bigger and I had been gone a long time).  I asked you once again, and in answer, you brought out a picture of you with two other young men and the sister of one of them, all bronzed and in swimsuits.

    My brother, his true self finally revealed

    Your true self; it was so wonderful to meet you

    I had never, ever seen you smile like that.  I hadn’t realized how guarded you had always been until I saw the open radiance, your face relaxed.  You were at home and happy and feeling safe and entirely yourself.  I remember looking at you searchingly and saying “Are you sure?”

    “Yes,” wary, a little worried.

    “Are you happy?”

    “Yes,” still guarded.

    “Cool, then give me a hug.”

    You were incredulous.  I told you about my drag queen mommies and you said, “You mean I could have told you when I was 17?”

    Even Dustin Hoffman thought you were beautiful

    Even Dustin Hoffman thought you were beautiful

    Yes, sweet brother o’ mine.  You could have.  You could have told me anything, asked for help and I would have navigated the waters of discovery beside you, as much as I could.

    Nowadays, children know what gay is, by and large.  In 1966, we had no real clue.  You had no idea why you got crushes on your buddies and fell in love with the cowboys in the movies, not the cowgirls.  When I put my long fall on you and you made a far prettier girl than I did, you gave me an ironic look when I commented on it – it was years before I understood why.

    “Have you been tested?” I asked you.

    Yes.  You had.

    And so, the waiting game began.  When you told me you had tested HIV positive, I thought I would die from grief on the spot.

    I grieved – hard – for the next 12 years as you fought for your life with a ferocity I had not realized you had.  You fought it even as you worked for Tiffany’s, then Harry Winston – putting jewelry on the stars for Broadway galas, then began to get jobs as an architect.  You fought it through beautiful boyfriends you never loved enough, because our childhood had taught you to guard your heart so – until you found your love, Ric.

    AIDS had hollowed out your face. You had four years left.

    AIDS had hollowed out your face. You had four years left.

    I grieved even when, after you came out to our parents – and told them that (by then) you had AIDS, all in one brutal swoop – you immediately reverted to the cruelty of our childhood.  I was your ally and champion up until then.  After that, I was the safe place to put your rage against dying.  You knew that no degree of cruelty would make me stop loving you, so you poured out your fury on me, using my imperfections as an excuse for your excoriations.  By pouring your rage out on me, you could make sure the people around you never saw it.  People’s memories are of your sweetness and grace – both of them true.

    Did you know that I got it?  That I knew why, and that still, I just loved you?

    Do you know that I still do?  That after you died, on March 10, 1994, four days after your 35th birthday, with me prevented from being there for you after promising you I would be, I wanted to call and say “Oh my God, Steve!  The most horrible thing happened!  Steve died!”  And that I did call for a week or so after, just to hear your voice on your answering machine?

    I hope, wherever you are, you have forgiven my failings as your sister and that the love I steadfastly carried for you counts more.  I hope that you have moved on to the next stage of your journey – or you’ve simply found peace – whatever your philosophy was.

    I still miss you.  Every day.

    We all do.

    Your sister,

    Maya Martha Drake Spier North

    Made for you by Janet Leuthold and her mom -- it perfectly captures you

    Made for you by Janet Leuthold and her mom — it perfectly captures you

    To see the whole panel:  http://www.aidsquilttouch.org/panels/03392-3/79362

     

     



    • Such a beautiful tribute. I lost a dear friend who was only in his 20s, in the days when we were all still learning what AIDS was. Such a tragic loss. How wonderful that you have cherished memories of your brother.


        • Maya North

        • March 6, 2014 at 9:55 am
        • Reply

        Thank you, love. It never really stops hurting, even as the joy of remembrance returns. ♡



    • Beautiful tribute.


        • Maya North

        • March 6, 2014 at 9:53 am
        • Reply

        Thank you, dearheart. ♡



    • Oh, Maya. I had goosebumps reading this and a huge knot in my throat! He knew. He knew you loved him unconditionally. I am so sorry he died that way. Why were you banished from his funeral service? How traumatic for you! You are such a survivor, Maya Martha Drake Spier North! Thanks for sharing this beautiful tribute.


        • Maya North

        • March 6, 2014 at 9:52 am
        • Reply

        Thank you, dearheart. It was, hus deathbed, I was kept fron, which was, far, worse. They believed I would behave horrifically. They never saw past 15 year old me, even all those years later. They didn’t really know me at all. ♡



    • Our first friends, Our first rivals, our first enemies, our first true love, they are our siblings. We carry the deepest love, regret and guilt because we practice life skills on each other. The saying” I can beat the crap out of my sibling, but, you dare touch him! I reflected last night and it must have been around the time you wrote this, on the pain of life. There is nothing more anguishing than mental solitude. Feeling alone, not mattering, etc. Steve was forced to live a lie, inner turmoil, shame for the feelings that made him “alive”. During a time when being “gay” was taboo. You gave your brother the release to share the complexity of his soul and life. He was “alive”. while he lived. I know so many who are blessed with longer mornings and moonlights, who never experienced the beauty of living. You are a beautiful person, perhaps an old soul, Maya, who has touched so many lives with her own compassion and ability, regardless of how much it hurts, to truly be “alive”.

      Happy Birthday Sweet heart of Maya, wherever you are ,Steve, I know you shine the brightest.


        • Maya North

        • March 6, 2014 at 9:47 am
        • Reply

        Yes. You brought such tears to my eyes, but oh, they were good ones…


      • April

      • March 6, 2014 at 10:16 am
      • Reply

      oh my dear friend. my love to you & your wounded caring soul.


        • Maya North

        • March 6, 2014 at 11:22 am
        • Reply

        Thank you, angel. ♡



    • So touching Maya and not the least so because it captures the complexities of our relations to our siblings.


        • Maya North

        • March 6, 2014 at 7:11 pm
        • Reply

        Thank you so much, love. Sibling relationships — family relationships — are absolutely primal. All vestiges of civilization can be stripped away, sometimes for long periods, sometimes in flash moments of brutality. You love them hard, and hate them just as vehemently. You’d die for them; you want to kill them. For us, it was never anything in half measures. And when he died, because I was just his sibling, the worthless one who lived on the coast and lived a messy, imperfect life, so my grief and anguish was trivialized and diminished. I have read that this happens with sibling grief a lot. Everybody else’s anguish is recognized so much more. Another grief ignored is the grief of friends, as if the fact that you’re not “family” means you don’t and/or shouldn’t really care that much, when, in truth, you can care as much if not more. <3



    • having lost a sister (though not to AIDS) I stand beside you in compassion and with deep understanding of what it’s like to lose a sibling. to grieve. Big hugs……..


        • Maya North

        • March 7, 2014 at 4:18 pm
        • Reply

        Thank you, angel. Does she still live in your heart? Is there a chamber there where you can visit her? I have a place like that for Steve and I can still hear his laugh. He was in some ways the sad and angry child that hid behind that mischievous elfin face; his laugh always had that note of surprise like he could be startled by his own hilarity. I hear it still. Big hugs back… <3



    • Maya – Thank you for sharing. Wonderful, touching story.


        • Maya North

        • March 7, 2014 at 4:19 pm
        • Reply

        Thank you, dearheart. Now other people will know a little of him, too, and in that way, he lives still. <3


      • Beth Dunnington

      • March 7, 2014 at 10:31 am
      • Reply

      Maya… I read this in an airport at a Starbucks, sobbing over this green tea. You are such a wonderful writer, and boy did you capture both the relationship between a sister and her younger brother (I have one of those), and you also painted such a fine picture of Steve. I feel that I know him from this single column. I lost so many friends to AIDS in the 80’s, in New York. So hard… But to lose a brother. Well… if words are what we have left at the end of the day, the words you used to tell his story, to tell the story of the two of you, were exactly right. Brava, my friend. Just beautiful. Thank you.


        • Maya North

        • March 7, 2014 at 4:23 pm
        • Reply

        Thank you, love. I am so glad to have given you the opportunity to meet him. You would have adored him — people did. In fact, when he passed Dustin Hoffman on the street and whipped around to gawp at him, Dustin had whipped around to stare right back with the same air of startled awe. Sean Strub told me he helped organize a fundraiser that was basically semi-casual; Steve had the idea to have the organizers dress in tuxedos for the occasion. In my mind’s eye, I can imagine him, gorgeous, elegant, smiling radiantly, floating beautiful in a crowd of folks in jeans and khakis. We had such a powerful relationship — full of fierce love and deep rage. The day he died, I got lost in the town I’d called home for 21 years and drove away nearly blind with weeping for an hour before I remembered my way. Hold your loved ones close…but then, you already know that. <3


      • Tom O'Leary

      • December 22, 2014 at 8:23 pm
      • Reply

      Hello Maya, Someone posted your wonderful remembrance of Steve on my friend (and Steve’s friend) Timothy Joslin’s Facebook Page. Timothy and I both knew Steve through the Manhattan Center For Living. I only knew Steve in the last year of his life. Tim and I spent a weekend with Steve and Rick at Rick’s family home on Buzzard’s Bay in Mass. Steve was such a caring and beautiful man. He once told me that I needed to learn to be “gentle” with myself. Steve also had the ability to be a bit mean out of the blue. Not mean. Cutting. Whatever it was that he had said would be quickly forgotten, but at the moment he said it it was sharp. What I remember most is how heroic your mother was when Steve was in the hospital in those last months. She was fearless in jumping in what he needed help. At the memorial for Steve at Manhattan Center For Living I spoke of the Eastern philosophy that we choose our parents before we come here. Thank you for bringing Steve back in such a vivid and moving way. I am so grateful he graced my life. Thank you.


        • Maya North

        • March 23, 2015 at 10:09 pm
        • Reply

        Oh, Tom I just saw this! yes, he was every bit of that caring and wonderful man and his advice was right on the money. And yet, that cutting edge could be so cruel it stole my breath and rendered me speechless while I floundered about for a response. He was my mother’s soulmate. Much as she adored my father, it was Steve who had held her heart from the moment they brought him home. She told me also of ward after ward of dying young men, thrown away by their families and she and I raged over the phone about it. There was no way her beloved Steve would spend a moment untended and unloved. She died five years and one day after he did (perhaps to the day if you adjust for time difference) — her heart had been broken by his loss and she never really got it back again. Big hugs…



    • […] really, except I do know I’m not stuck here. The first time around, when AIDS took my brother (http://ipinionsyndicate.com/pavane-for-a-stolen-brother/ ) and then my unborn son, grief of that magnitude was uncharted terrain. I had to learn the skills […]


      • Terri Connett

      • March 23, 2015 at 11:11 am
      • Reply

      Maya, Maya. I’m so happy you decided to re-post this. I somehow missed the original column. What a tender story. You were/are the best sister Steve could ever hope for. Thanks for telling this story. Your beautiful words, along with the great pics, shared him with all of us.


        • Maya North

        • March 23, 2015 at 10:13 pm
        • Reply

        We had such an intense relationship — fierce love, fierce resentments. I remember he told me he loved me and I replied “No, actually, you don’t. You love the sister you wish I was, but I am not that person. I’m not perfect enough.” His eyes widened in startlement and he went quiet for a moment, then said “I’m afraid that’s true.” After that, he was still ambivalent, but I sensed that at least now and then — until his rage grew too huge and he needed me as a place to put it — he would look at *me* and see *me* and love the person I was — imperfect, sometimes foolish, sometimes trivial, but always trying. He came back to me in visit dreams, though, and through those, we healed more than I’d been able to hope we would. I hope, wherever he is, that his next life is far gentler with him than this one proved to be… <3



    • Thanks for your post. I did not know that Steve had Ehlers Syndrome. In my adoption work, I placed a baby whose birth mother was adopted and she had no background health information. The baby she placed was diagnosed with Ehlers and when I contacted the birth family to see if there had been any family history found in the two years since that baby was born, the birth mother’s adopted mother told me that she was raising another child of hers (her grandson) who also had Ehlers. I connected the two families (although the birth mother had wanted a closed adoption, as she had). I think the families drew strength from each other.


        • Maya Spier Stiles North

        • March 9, 2016 at 8:21 am
        • Reply

        He was never formally diagnosed, but he had every symptom. Hyperflexibility, extremely stretchy skin — he said, laughing, “look at this!” and pulled the skin of his face out a good 3 inches. Classic Ehlers-Danlos. It was the milder form as his vascular system was just fine and he did well as an athlete. ♡♡♡


      • Hank Fradella

      • December 2, 2018 at 7:25 am
      • Reply

      A beautiful and moving tribute, Maya. Thank you for sharing this with the world.


        • Maya Spier Stiles North

        • December 2, 2018 at 9:51 am
        • Reply

        Thank you. I miss him terribly and always will. ❤



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