Meade Memorial

Eastern Standard Time:
License to Mourn

This column appeared in October, 1992, in The Washington Blade.

By Lawrence Biemiller

It didn't occur to me till later what the earthmover was for. I had flagged down its driver to ask whether there was a directory anyplace other than in the office, which was closed.

"You know which is the section and the grave number?" asked the driver.

"Only the name." Section and grave number? I don't think so. It took me three years just to find out which cemetery to look in.

"There is someone you can call? Because the names, they are all in the office." He was very nice. "That's the only way I can help you, if you call to find out the section and number."

I shook my head. I'd be ashamed to call your mother, sweet as she is. It's always seemed like I have no right to mourn for you, since you died so mad at me. I never even dared ask anyone where you were buried. I only found out because Rich came to dinner here a few weeks ago, and in the course of telling a story about the day of your funeral he happened to mention the cemetery's name. Right away I knew I would go.

Three years ago this weekend. The last time the quilt was here. You died without seeing the column I wrote you that Friday, but then that was a damned stupid trick anyway, even for me. Only I didn't know better then and it appears I don't even know better now.

Covering a conference in August I finally met Comrade Burns, as Rich calls him. Rich still calls everyone he likes "Comrade" -- even you. I suppose he started during some especially Kremlinesque intrigue involving the HIV task force. Anyway, Comrade Burns concocted an excuse to take me to his house, wanting to show off the vegetable garden and the kitchen range, and as he was driving me there he said, "I remember hearing someone talk about you, years ago."

"Oh?" I said. The situation was getting uncomfortable.

But when he said your name I understood everything immediately -- he must have been in love with you too. That's why he wanted so much to talk to me. I guess you never told him how angry I made you. Frankly, I had forgotten that you even knew him, but of course you met lots of people while you were working on the HIV survey. Within two blocks he and I were trading memories of you, of phone calls and restaurants and finally KS lesions and Sibley Hospital. He told me about the last time he had dinner with you -- you were exhausted, he said, and you weren't even hungry enough to order anything, but you insisted that he feast. I knew just how he must have felt: You played out the same dogged scene with me at Le Gaulois on my 31st birthday.

Now and again he quoted you verbatim, and as he did it began to seem that you were close by -- in the back seat, even, slouching comfortably the way you so often did, cigarette in one hand, smile on your face. His memories seemed to refresh my own, bringing back in a rush the sound of your voice, the way you wore turtleneck shirts crumpled at the neck instead of neatly doubled, even the jangling of your car keys.

He asked a number of questions about you, but what he really wanted to know, I'm sure, is whether you and I were lovers. What I want to know is: Why do I remember -- must I remember -- the jangling of your keys? How many of us are there, nurturing sweet memories of you the way Rich and Mrs. Anderson and Comrade Burns and I all do? And: If you had lived, would we have repaired our friendship?

If the answer is Yes, does it license me to mourn?

I always pooh-poohed people who talked about things like "finding closure," but once again it turns out I've been wrong. Rich says there are three panels for you in the quilt, and I don't know how scared of them to be. I guess that's why I went out to the cemetery, to try to find out how I would feel. Instead, I'll find out today.

It was the display of the quilt four years ago that cemented our friendship -- it was that terrible chilly sunrise unfurling on the Ellipse, not yet a month since your diagnosis; it was walking from panel to panel with you, watching you out of the corners of my eyes; it was your crying, and my crying with you, and for you, and your lifting my arm to pull it around your shoulder. By the time that day ended -- late that night we had dessert and coffee and Sambuca at the Tabard Inn, after the candlelight march, and I remember exactly which table we sat at -- by the time that day ended it had changed me, taken a piece of my innocence. The next year I wandered among the panels alone as you lay dying.

We're a strange lot, we Americans -- sworn by our past to Calvin, by our present to Geraldo. We can talk to complete strangers on airplanes about the most unusual things we've ever done in bed, but we can't talk about death, about what the earthmover was for, even to our closest friends. At dinner with Tom and Scott the day after my trip to the cemetery, we started talking about the quilt and its cost-effectiveness as a publicity tool and its design merits as a memorial. I couldn't bring myself to say what was really on my mind -- that I had seen it once with you and been changed, that I'm scared to see it again because those three panels will be part of it, that I needed a hug right then much more than I needed dinner. Any of that would have seemed rudely self-indulgent, would have embarrassed all three of us. Which is, in the end, why we need the quilt -- to license us all to mourn in a country that would rather we didn't.

Copyright © 1992 by Lawrence Biemiller. Published October, 1992, in The Washington Blade.