Kitsilano – Summer 2015
The small plain stucco box of a house has little Kitsilano charm; unlike other houses in this Vancouver neighbourhood, with their gabled roofs, bright wooden shingles and Craftsman detail. Drawn white blinds neatly cover the windows, indifferent to the street’s colourful gardens and diverse canopies of trees. Though there are solid new trellises rising above the backyard fence—someone in residence making improvements, intending to stay put.
One basement window blind is half-open. Down in the dark I can see the glimmer of a small computer screen—like some underwater alien.
Kitsilano – January 1990
On the phone David matter-of-factly gave me his address and the bus number for Broadway West. A warm and foggy winter day, I decided to walk over the bridge from Vancouver’s West End. Twelve blocks up from the beach, the mountain and ocean had disappeared from view. Approaching the bland-looking house I thought, an unlikely home for a gay man.
I knew little about David. The buddy program coordinator only told me that he was very active in the community. He then hesitantly added, “David can be difficult.” Inside the house was more welcoming. The living room was comfortable, conservatively furnished, with tasteful art prints on the walls. Evidently David was someone with resources. You heard the generic stories back then, AIDS victims isolated in welfare hotels.
A stocky man in his late 30s, David sat in front of me pontificating from a leather La-Z-Boy chair. He wasted no time; he had an expansive life to share. David told me he was a former professional counselor and businessman from San Francisco. A pioneer of the epidemic, in the midst of it from the early eighties, he had counselled some of the first AIDS patients. He also told me I was his third Buddy volunteer, “I fired the other two.”
David had a very poor opinion of the organization that sent me. A former board member at AIDS Vancouver, he quit in anger, becoming a director at the BC Persons with AIDS Society (BCPWA, now known as Positive Living)—two organizations with a once shaky relationship. AIDS Vancouver had, however, made every effort to prepare me for my volunteer role: two weekends of core training, exploring empathy and the vocabulary of the epidemic (avoid the word victim); we must have played some sort of stigma game. Conversations about dying. The HIV/AIDS continuum in those early years: from infection to death, one to five years.
Not what I expected. Nothing about David was. Just before I left our first meeting he threw me the bit of information that he planned to kill himself once he became too sick.
Montreal – June 1989
Montreal helped, something to talk about. I’d relocated to Vancouver only months before and my last job was at the 1989 Vth International Conference on AIDS. David had paid close attention to the media reports, certainly would have liked to have been in Montreal when ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) stormed the convention centre’s gates, placards reading SILENCE=DEATH. Not able to pay the registration fees the activists demanded future participation of people with HIV in all conferences, as well as government commitments to research and care.
David knew Randy Shilts, author of And the Band Played On, and media star of the Montreal Conference. The journalists fed on his Patient Zero conjecture that a “promiscuous” gay Québécois flight attendant, Gaetan Dugas, brought the epidemic to North America; all to do with gay blame and stigmatization—a local guy, yet!—and little about good science. I’d read the book; there was much more to it, after all, an insightful account of the epidemic’s early days during the grim Regan era. David loved the media. And controversy.
The end of the conference left me fatigued with the world stage hoopla; also unsatisfied as a non-contributor to the rising tragedy of the day. One evening I was on the outside terrace of a downtown gay bar, a conference closing event. A young man was sitting alone beside a fountain throwing coins into the water. I knew his name, Yvan Paradis. Days before I’d cut his picture out of the newspaper, part of the media roundup to the conference: he was crouched on the floor under the headline, The agony of living with AIDS—the classic “victim.” I decided to become an AIDS volunteer, once my other plan was put into motion, my move to the West Coast.
Kitsilano – February 1990
My first winter beside the Pacific Ocean, enjoying the fresh rains, I observed the early spring growth, first the daffodils, then soon the blossoming Japanese cherry and plum trees. I was, however, disappointed with my volunteer assignment: what could I contribute to the life of a well-off—and arrogant—professional counselor, who counted politicians among his friends? A busy guy, David allotted me an hour a week. Always passionate, he had his rants against governments, doctors and individuals working in the field. A phone call from David delivered the effect of an electric shock. It appeared my one and only task was to listen. But David also took an interest in my life, as someone new to town. I planned to buy a bicycle and asked for advice. He recommended a bike shop on Broadway nearby.
A few months before I had grandiosely written in my journal: Is the monster within? I was in excellent health but had never been tested for HIV. And there was that one strange incident, being hospitalized in Montreal’s castle-like Hotel Dieu in 1984 for a viral infection. The masked hospital staff treated me like a pariah, hours forgotten in a wheelchair beside a Christmas tree in an abandoned ward. Mysterious, inconclusive, the extreme fever resolved itself. I shared this with David and he encouraged me to set up an appointment for an HIV test. The day before the results he took me to lunch, making it clear only steak or ribs and fries would do. My own private counselor, giving him something to do and he enjoyed every minute. He would expect a phone call with my test results. I made a plan, whatever the next day’s news would bring, I would afterwards head over to Ace Cycles, a few blocks from David’s house.
The next day I bought a black ten-speed Raleigh for $299. Then a fast ride home. David got his phone call, my news about the bike, and that I was HIV-negative. He was genuinely pleased.
San Francisco – March 1990
My first visit. Five months after the magnitude 6.9 earthquake the damage was still evident: the Viaduct, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, cracks in the walls of the Museum of Modern Art.
In the gay Castro district, a greater devastation: the faces and bodies of young men. People were counting. Nearly twice the number of Americans had died of AIDS as in the Vietnam War; the year-end statistics would show 120,453 dead, 30,000 more than the previous year.
I attended Outwrite, the first National Lesbian and Gay Writers Conference. A packed room listened to a writer denounce Robert Mapplethorpe—who had died of AIDS the year before—for his objectification of black males. Keith Haring (I grabbed one of his large IGNORANCE = FEAR posters from the Montreal Conference) would soon have the same fate.
Back home, the details of my life: I cycled to the UBC campus at the far end of Point Grey. I watched the film, Bad Influence, starring Rob Lowe. Not so much contact with my buddy, David, still quite the lively guy.
Berlin – April 1990
David talked about Berlin the first time we met, the recent chipping away of the Berlin Wall; citizens and souvenir hunters with their hammers, the city no longer split in two. David wanted to witness this, and he put together his travel itinerary with little trouble.
I received two postcards.
Alexanderplatz: Here’s something you don’t get everyday … a postcard from West Berlin! Tomorrow I go to East Berlin for the day. See you. Love David
Brandenburg Gate: Hello from FREE East Berlin! Last time I was here it was oppressive. Now it is festive! It’s hard to believe, but the Wall really has come down. The “border” is practically invisible now. Love David
He brought home photos of a lovely young man in leather. I wasn’t sure about the tactile connection—it was Berlin after all.
Richards Street – May 1990
Our Buddy support group was held at the AIDS Vancouver Richards Street office, a low former architect’s firm on two levels. There was no street sign, the entrance obscured by tall bamboo. The group, a range of men and women of all ages, told their stories with great circumspection. We gave no names—with a brutally stigmatized condition confidentiality was of the first order. The volunteers were dealing with housing issues, hospital visits, the difficulties of maintaining relationships. Often enough there was grieving. I couldn’t say much, except that my buddy was mostly too busy to need me. We all knew that could change in a heartbeat.
I did share that my buddy and I always found something to talk about. We were both avid readers and I lent him Alan Hollinghurst’s Swimming Pool Library. Anything connected to the British aristocracy amused David, in particular the antics of Prince Charles. A theme of the book was how the oppression of the elites can destroy natural love and sexuality—we both appreciated the narrative power in all that.
Point Roberts – June 19th, 1990
It was Jimmy’s day. David drove us over the US border to a small pastoral cemetery in Point Roberts, Washington. I didn’t note which of David’s two matching fat black cars we were in, fairly new Buicks, one each for Jimmy and David. They were distinguished only by their license plates: perhaps Jimmy1, Jimmy2—a significant detail I have lost after twenty-five years.
The simple gravestone reads: Jimmy Landsdown, May 13 1958 – June 19, 1987. Jimmy died only a year after his AIDS diagnosis, a year of David’s constant care.
“If I’d known for certain I could follow him to another place on that day I would have taken my life then.” David has his spot reserved beside his long-term companion. “Perpetual care paid for.”
Jericho Beach – July 1990
I managed to transport my home-baked cherry pie on the new Raleigh, a contribution to our volunteer picnic. A beautiful day and an extraordinary view of downtown Vancouver and the North Shore Mountains. I watched my guest pull up in one of his cars. Walking towards me I could see David was prepared to enjoy the day.
I wondered how many there would recognize David. The day before he was a front-page news story: AIDS counselor in media whirlwind for aiding suicides. David had gone public, announced that during the past nine years he had assisted eight friends with AIDS to commit suicide. He told reporters he placed overdoses of the needed drugs within reach. “It’s immoral and unethical to not help someone die if that’s what they want.”
A story he would now repeat many times; one that I had kept in confidence—part of my quietness at the buddy support meetings. David had global interest at his doorstep, and he loved it.
We had a fine time at the beach. Though, as I watched David head back to his car, there was some hesitancy in his walk, some difficulty he was managing to overcome. That night in my journal I wrote that I had a strong sense of when David would die. Meaning that I thought it would be soon.
The Basement – July 1990
A week later I received a phone call that David was in St Paul’s Hospital. He had partial paralysis and other slight symptoms of a stroke. I made a quick visit—there was quite a crowd in his room. I returned the next day for his diagnosis. Toxoplasmosis. But David was radiant and funny, loving the attention—as if his predictable decline in health and evident CD4 count was almost a relief.
The next week he was back at home; a friend was living with David, and he could afford private nursing care. When I phoned he spoke slowly and belligerently, like someone very drunk, making it clear he didn’t want to see me. Though David was obviously still quite occupied. He had put an ad in the BCPWA newsletter: an open meeting for the formation of a Vancouver chapter of ACT UP, to be held on the following Saturday, David’s Kitsilano address and phone number listed below. I heard he was managing to whip angry faxes all over the world. He also fired one of his nurses.
When he finally allowed me to visit he was in the basement, a bedroom he’d set up in his dim ‘60s era recreation room. He told me he thought he had a brain tumour. Captive of a dying man’s anger for 45 minutes. Angry at the doctors and politicians. Angry with his drugs, the AZT. Angry at the AIDS service organizations. Probably angry with me once I left the house. On my way out I caught a glimpse through the front basement window, a reporter approaching the doorsteps.
In a few days David returned to hospital and surgery was scheduled. He had lymphoma as well as the toxoplasmosis, and understood the prospects: paralysis, dementia looming. I made my quiet hospital visit, took my turn with the many others in the room. Afterwards, an older women shared the elevator down to the street. One of us had pushed the wrong button and we made a detour to the entrance of the basement morgue. The soothing sound of an old lady’s laugh.
A tough time to be in the hospital, Vancouver was hosting Celebration ’90, the third International Gay Games. Magnificent men everywhere. David’s surgery was inconclusive and he went back to the basement one last time. He took all the time needed to explain to the world his plans, a promise to take his own life. The media loved it.
The Backyard – August 19th, 1990
A few steps up from his basement back door, David’s backyard was quite bare, just grass and a few bushes. Up high the kitchen door opened onto a covered porch, with an old clothesline attached to a post. At the bottom of the yard the two-car garage provided shelter for the two Buicks. With the surrounding fence, it was a private enough space.
David chose a Sunday afternoon for his farewell barbeque. Invitation-only, and the media were not included. We were instructed to bring our meat of choice to cook on several ugly, presumably borrowed, metal barbeques. Fifty or so friends showed up, among them one federal Member of Parliament. An afternoon of quiet conversations. David in obvious pain. He didn’t stir from his lawn chair in the shade under the kitchen porch. His guests came forward one by one.
David gave me a few moments. Not much small talk—when did we ever have that? Rather a few soft blunt words telling me he would kill himself on Friday night, August 24th. I received no further information, no assigned role. A few very old friends would gather for the event. I hoped I would be able to come back to the house sometime and say goodbye.
Two days later my phone rang; David’s caregivers needed a night off. I prepared David’s favourite desert, chocolate custard pie with whipped cream. Another perilous bike ride.
David told me to put the pie in the fridge. Not so easy, it was crammed beyond capacity; but I somehow tilted the pie inside—envisioned a possible middle-of-the-night chocolate and cream disaster on the floor. David wanted to watch a movie, chose Three Fugitives, a recent solid crime-comedy. He was transfixed.
Afterwards I helped David to his basement bed. He talked about his death, his terror. What to have for his final meal. Vomiting was his greatest fear. He held my hand and told me on Friday he would be hooked up to an IV of saline solution. At 8 p.m. the IV bag would be switched for another: 80 Seconal dissolved in morphine, “My sleeping potion.”
As I left his doorway I heard his second, softer, “Bye, bye.”
David’s House – Friday, August 24th, 1990
I saw David one more time. Riding my bike over the Burrard Bridge, approaching downtown, down below on a Hornby Street rooftop, it was unmistakably David seated imperious in a chair. He’d rallied for one last trip outside. Up above the BCPWA office, a circle of people surrounded him, most likely listening to some version of his words that we could read in the newspapers: “Not suicide! … I don’t want to die. I have to die. All I am doing is adjusting the time of my death a little so that I can die with dignity. This is completely different. We should have a different word for it.”
A beautiful summer Friday night, Second Beach at sundown, I watched Kitsilano across the water. Later at home I lit a candle, hoped that it was over and that David was somewhere else.
Wide-eyed for AIDS suicide. The weekend story of the hour, David peering from front pages in the local newspaper boxes, accounts of his death inside: AIDS activist Lewis died peacefully, surrounded by friends and family who fulfilled his last request and toasted his life with champagne.
At the capacity First Memorial service on Vancouver’s Kingsway one of David’s friends read his rude, but so typical, request that any members of the clergy in attendance should leave the premises—they would have no role in his life or death.
Returning the loan of my book, The Swimming Pool Library, was not part of David’s final plans.
Today, medications could have changed his death sentence to a manageable condition. The older activist in residence, perhaps with a new interest in gardening. In the basement, a desk, and a world of internet images at his fingertips: the 10-mile stretch of 8,000 illuminated balloons, the Lichtgrenze art project, following the same path as the Berlin Wall, marking twenty-five years since its fall.
I have my two postcards sent just months after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. As the borders of David’s life drew closer, he desperately needed to go somewhere hopeful. And it was important for him to send messages from each side of a wall that was disappearing—bits of rubble quickly being enclosed in plastic to sell to those eager to own a piece of history.
Berlin was David’s last trip, and he would soon know for certain where his life would end: his basement bedroom in Kitsilano, a saline-seconal solution dripping into his body. Such a dark room below ground, the panelled cinder block walls a last protection from an intrusive boundary-making world: gay and HIV+, shifting yet pervasive margins of stigma that still accompany the great medical advances.
“Where was the Wall?” Apparently, it’s one of the questions most frequently asked by visitors to Berlin. Some portions of the Berlin Wall remain, with new meanings, spaces for memory, connection, perhaps of transformation. What David would have wished. Yet, I can walk by David’s house, that appears pretty much unchanged, and hear his apoplectic voice: if he could witness our present era, those people in power attempting to build new walls.