Rich died 23 years ago today.
He died of AIDS.
I remember it like it was yesterday.
His partner Chris died maybe a year earlier. They were a power couple on the rise in the corporate world with that winning combination of looks, brains and drive. Rich was 35 when he died. He was already a Senior Vice President and Associate Creative Director at BBDO. He headed the first team to shoot a television commercial for the US market in Russia. It was a big deal and I still have the fur hat he brought back for me from that trip.
Rich was like an older brother to me. He was 6 years my senior but decades wiser. I admit my twenties were a goofy period in my life and he was one of the people who guided me through the rough spots. The year before Rich died, I was one of the members of his “snap” together family. In the city, you have friends that become so close that they all snap together like family in times of need. In Rich’s case, his snap together family actually included some of his actual family. Lisa, his sister, left her job in Boston to live with him here in New York. His best friend from the first grade, Gary, was also in New York and still very close. Gary’s wife Meg, my sister Colleen, Rich’s friends Ric and James were all members of this family. We made sure someone was on hand if needed. You see, AIDS had a big stigma attached to it back then. People were afraid of people who had AIDS and doctors were only discovering drugs to help. Even the magnitude of the disease itself was a mystery yet to unfold. Having gone to art school in the 1980’s, I lost all of my male school friends and one female friend to AIDS. It was an epidemic and I often rushed from one hospital room to another as my friends died.
There were times when Rich would have to take a drug that we nick-named “Shake n Bake.” On the nights that drug was administered, he would shake uncontrollably in his bed while either sweating or shivering. I was the nurse on hand more than once and as some of you have gathered, that has never been my calling.
Rich was always in bed by the time I arrived. How he got there I don’t even know. He’d already be shaking and I’d warm him up a bowl of soup from the can and bring it to him. I knew enough not to put the lights on and there in the dark we’d wait for the right moment to feed him the soup. He’d have to settle in a bit and the soup would need to cool. Sometimes he’d ask me to tell him a story and that was my cue to pull up a chair, put my feet on his bed and talk. I usually spoke about my dates and told him about the bad ones because they were funnier. I’d settle in and use my soothing voice as I spun my tales with only one goal in mind…
“Well, he was handsome but when we went to a café he started to tell me about the strangest item he had ever heard on a menu. He said the waitress said they had a special that day on Clam Flesh. With a thick Queens accent he railed on about “uppity” New York Restaurants. “De have some nerve…. Who wants a clam after the meats been sucked out of it?”
Somewhere in that conversation, I realized the waitress had said Crème Fresh to him. He heard it wrong but I couldn’t stop his rant. I was horrified and I knew deep down I’d never see him again. I then debated in my mind for the rest of the meal if I should kiss his pouty lips for the fun of it or just M104 him.”
At the time, to M104 someone was my term for ditching a date. If I knew this was my intention, I’d time it so I had to run to catch my bus uptown – the M104. No time to swap spit on the corner. No time to fib about the good time. Rich already knew what “M104 him” meant and burst out into laughter when the mystery of clam flesh was solved. Rich liked these kinds of stories and it was the sound of his laughter in that darkened room I was after. I couldn’t ease his pain but I could take his mind some place else to make it all just a little bit more bearable.
I can’t believe it has been 23 years. I often wonder what he would have accomplished had he lived. Instead, Rich died in a hospital room at 35. I now realize he was so very young. At the time, he seemed so much older.
What a loss.