Pavane for a brother stolen by AIDS
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
Maya Martha Drake Spier North
To see the whole panel: http://www.aidsquilttouch.org/