Living and Dying and Mr In-Between


Queer Heroes

By Robert Locke

Richard as an early AIDS activist

Photo from Time Magazine, July 4, 1983. Richard Locke is holding up #276.

There is a story I cannot tell without choking up, sobbing actually.  My oldest friends who know me well are greatly amused to watch me struggle to tell this story to a new acquaintance to whom I am trying to get across my notion of heroism.  It is the story of the marathon runner at the Mexican Olympics of 1968.  Perhaps I'll be able to write the story without bursting into tears, and in any case the reader will never know.

            I suppose I have many of the facts confused by this time, but I certainly do not have the end of the story confused.  It is as poignant as ever.  I think I remember the runner was from Kenya and he trained barefoot on the lowland savannahs there.  Consequently he was unprepared for the altitude of Mexico City and about halfway through the marathon, champion though he was, he began to flag.  But he struggled on at a painful, limping walk until long after the sun had set, long after everyone had left the stadium and gone home to bed, except for one or two faithful camera people.  When at last he limped through the tunnel and into the arena, he broke into a run for the last lap.

            That's on film.  So I know it happened.  And, yes, after all, even just writing it down makes me weep right here and now over the sheer heroism of that act.

            I have another story, now, to tell of heroes and heroism.

            On Labor Day 2007, I attended a retreat at a beautiful rancho along the Cosumnes River.  My brother Richard had attended a retreat at this same place on Labor Day eleven years earlier just a few weeks before he died on September 25, 1996, of AIDS-related lymphoma.  But at that Labor Day he was bent on not dying; he was struggling to go on living. 

            This rancho is a rugged place with a dirt road leading miles down the canyon to it and gravel paths descending steeply to the grassy bank where guests rest under a canopy of trees.  Attendees at this retreat held "heart circles" in which they bared their souls to each other in mutual, ritual confidence.  Richard joined such a heart circle and spoke of AIDS heroes, those who had fought openly against the dread and formerly secret disease through the years that our government steadfastly ignored its disastrous advance, those who struggled, and died, bringing the disease to the attention of the public.  Richard, of course, was one of those heroes, and I've learned since that the guests listening to him in the heart circle understood that.  Once so muscular and handsome, Richard was a wraith at this time.  That basso of his was weak and almost lost under the gurgling of the river, but still he spoke, and the guests listened quietly, and were moved.

            This past year a man named Wessie wrote to an email listserv that is still distributed among many of the guests who were there that Labor Day, asking whether anyone remembered how Richard Locke had reached this rancho, and how he had managed to get from his cabin to the heart circle.  I had driven him there; but I did not realize until this past Labor Day how treacherous the terrain is and how daunting it must have been for Richard to get down there to that grassy flat to tell his story of the heroes.  I wrote an email to Wessie, whom I have never met, to tell him about my part in driving Richard to the retreat.  I remembered it being hot and dry, with shady paths leading downward, but that is where my own memory stopped.  My father had made the trip with us, his two sons, and I could not leave him alone in the car in the sun; so I supposed I must have left Richard in the hands of these strangers who conveyed him, somehow, the rest of the way down to the river.  Now suddenly I was worried that I had abandoned my brother there.  Wessie was gentle in his email reply, assuring me that Richard had been safe and cared for.  I do remember Richard's ebullience when he came home from that retreat, shortly before going into the E.R. that last time, because he felt he had shared comradeship with goodhearted people.

            Shortly before this past Labor Day I learned from an email to the same listserv that Wessie was himself in the hospital where he had contracted one of those exotic viruses that hang around hospitals and that he was suffering greatly, losing weight rapidly and was perhaps near death.  The email suggested visits and cards, and so I wrote Wessie a card thanking him again for his concerns over Richard at the rancho.  A woman on the listserv who was visiting Wessie in the hospital had been given the honor that day of reading the cards to Wessie, and she wrote to me that when she read him my card, Wessie was moved to tears, took the card from her and held Richard's name against his forehead. 

            Richard must have meant a great deal to Wessie.

            At the rancho myself this Labor Day I sought out this woman to learn if Wessie was doing any better.  She said she thought so but he was still very weak.  I told her about my mother's death, just two months earlier, and how I had witnessed what I believe was an out-of-body experience for my mother shortly before her death, being pulled out of her living body to meet with her Lord but explaining to Him that she could not yet cross over, that she had to stay on for the sake of my sister.  "Hold on!  Hold on!  Hold on!" she cried.  Then after a few moments she murmured in a bewildered tone, "I can't, I can't,"  then softly added, "It's touch and go with Janet." 

            A few days later Janet was at my mother's side holding her hand during the hours before my mother died.  I hope and believe that my mother, her struggles over then, passed in peace.

            This woman listened intently to the story of my mother's passing, then replied quietly, "That's just what Wessie told me:  'I can't die.  I have to stay on for Goat.'"  Goat is Wessie's partner.

            And into the panoply come ever more heroes.

The End


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