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Being There

By Larry Gross · August 1st, 2012 · Living Out Loud
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On Labor Day, 1994, I got a phone call from twin brother’s friend in Seattle, Wash., where my twin, Jered, lived. This friend told me that Jered was in a Swedish Hospital in serious condition. He also told me Jered had AIDS. This was the first I’d heard about it.

The next day, I was on a plane to Seattle. Jered rallied during the week I was there, and the day after I left he was released from the hospital. Home for only a few days, he took a turn for the worse and returned to the hospital. I made phone calls almost daily to Jered and his doctors trying to understand what was going wrong. They didn’t know. Finally on Sept. 26, one of the doctors urged me to return to Seattle. Jered wasn’t expected to live long.

I was getting ready to board a plane back to Seattle early the next morning at the Greater Cincinnati Airport. This was during the days before cell phones. I got paged at the gate. Jered’s friend, who had called me on Labor Day, was calling yet again. My twin brother had just passed away.

I spent another week in Seattle cleaning out Jered’s apartment, taking care of his affairs and taking crying breaks when I needed to. I wanted to be there for him. I didn’t want him to die without me. The only comfort I took was the fact he knew I was desperately trying to get there. I just didn’t make it.

In November of that year, I became involved with AVOC — AIDS Volunteers of Cincinnati. I trained in their “Buddy Program,” being a friend to someone living with the illness. I wanted in some way to get involved in helping others afflicted with this horrible disease. It was also my way of remembering Jered.

In January of 1995 and shortly after training was over, an AVOC case worker called me. She had a buddy for me. His name was Mark and he lived in Norwood. She told me he was a bit difficult — had already been through two other buddies that didn’t work out. She said I would have my work cut out for me.

The first few lunches Mark and I had together were awkward. I felt like he was trying to size me up, to see if I could be trusted. I wanted to know more about him but he was silent on the subject. I felt like a talk show host trying to drag him out of himself. Finally, in an effort to start a decent conversation with him during our fourth lunch together, I started talking about Jered — how he had died alone in Seattle and the pain I felt about not being there for him when he needed me the most.

After that lunch, like always, I took Mark home.

When we reached his apartment building’s parking lot, he started to talk, started to really talk about himself and what he was going through.

Sitting in my car in that parking lot, we talked about his family who all live in Virginia. He told me his family didn’t respect the fact he was gay or his lifestyle. He told me who had given him AIDS. He said he felt helpless about what was happening to him, how slices of his life were being taken away. He was scared of dying. Mark told me he wanted to live.

In the weeks and months to follow, I’d see Mark at least once a week. We’d go to the Country Kitchen restaurant in Norwood where Mark would get his bowl of vegetable soup and coffee. We’d sit in his apartment and listen to Alice Cooper records. We’d talk about his family and how he should reconnect with them and make them understand who he was. We went to AVOC buddy dinners together. We laughed while watching old Andy Griffith shows. We become close. And then, suddenly, Mark got sick.

He fell out of bed one morning, which led to a visit to University Hospital where he was admitted. It seemed just like that — in a blink of an eye — he had developed pneumonia. A week earlier, he seemed fine. Now, Mark was gravely ill.

His parents drove up from Virginia. They took an instant dislike to me. I think they thought I, like their son Mark, was gay. They’d allow me to visit him but kept me out of the loop as far as Mark’s health and what was going on with him. His mother would conduct a sort of prayer service over her son almost nightly. This was eerie to me. It was like she was trying to pray the gayness and illness away.

I would visit Mark in the hospital almost every day. My instinct told me he would die soon, but I was wrong. Mark continued to linger.

After two weeks in University Hospital, Mark was transferred to a nursing home in Price Hill. His parents went back to Virginia. For four weeks, I was the only contact Mark had with the outside world.

He was mostly out of it. His speech was slow and dreamy. Nurses would come in every so often and turn Mark on his left or right side. He was developing bed sores on his back — some of them full of puss and blood. He was miserable.

On a warm summer day in mid August, 1995, I went to see Mark again at the nursing home. He was lying on his back in his bed no longer caring about the bed sores. His color was even more grey than usual. He was breathing heavily. 

When he saw me, he opened his eyes briefly and smiled. He then closed his eyes and something inside me knew that his torment was about to end. I held his left hand as I watched his stomach move up and down with his breathing. Within only a few minutes, his breathing stopped. I continued to hold his hand until I was sure Mark had finally left this earth.

Thinking about Mark’s passing now, 17 years later, and after losing him, my twin brother Jered and so many other people I’ve known to AIDS, I wish those new medications and treatments that are available now were also around back then in the ’90’s to help save my friends and loved ones. Wishing can’t make it so. Pictures in my mind and on my walls in my living space are what I have to help keep their memory alive. Maybe this is why my head is still stuck in the 1990s. All that pain. All that loss.

At his funeral on August 22, 1995, Mark’s parents didn’t talk to me, and I didn’t know anybody else that was there. It was OK. I wanted to say goodbye to a friend who I had only known for eight months but who had a big impact on my life.

Often when I would visit Mark in the hospital or in the nursing home, I would envision it was my twin brother Jered I was seeing. No, it wasn’t Jered’s hand I was holding or trying to give comfort to, but being there for Mark helped ease the pain I felt for not being there for Jered. 

When holding Mark’s hand as he was dying, I wish I would’ve thought to thank him for this — for giving me the chance to be there when a loved one is facing death. 

I wanted Mark to know how I felt, but maybe he already knew.



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