I can’t begin to understand what it must be like to be bereaved in sudden and shocking circumstances like the relatives of those murdered in Tunisia. I was, in that sense, lucky. Lawrence died of AIDS and I had known this was possible, even probable, since very soon after we’d met.
But it was, and remains, a journey that taught me a lot about living with dying and death, both before and after the event. And it’s worth saying up front that one of the things I’ve learnt is that it’s very, very hard. At times, in fact, it’s unfathomably and irresolvably hard. It’s also taught me though that we need, however, impossible it can seem, to find ways of making it less so.
As Chris Deerin remarked in a brilliant piece in the Daily Mail a couple of months back, in modern society ‘we are opening up the once shuttered process of dying.’ Chris was right of course. As he mentioned, we are more open these days and we are fortunate that we can draw strength and courage from those such as Gordon Aikman who talk to us about living with the prospect of death. But his piece made me reflect on my own experience of how that does and doesn’t translate at an everyday, ordinary level.
I make no claim to be an expert or to have dealt with Lawrence’s death particularly well. It was by its very nature a horribly messy business. It was hurtful, enraging and damaging. And terribly sad. But somehow I got through it because I had to. Somehow I ‘moved on’ because I had to. And so did other people around us at the time. But mostly we don’t talk about it and as a result, I sometimes think we don’t talk enough about him. Or as much as I’d like to.
A year ago I wrote a poem, something I’d not done since I was at school (and not something I’m planning to do again any time soon). I cite it here because it captures some of what I’m trying to express about love, memory and loss:
is an odd number.
Is that why
it’s hard to reach
the space between
there and here?
On a stifling night,
but diminished life
to a kind of calm.
But you lived on in us.
remembering and forgetting,
your presence lingers.
but still here.
The reference to the oddness of 19 years is, of course, the artistic device of an amateur poet. But the sentiment remains every bit as true today in an even year. He is still here, in all of us.
That’s because Lawrence was a tour de force. Born to working class parents in Liverpool in the late 1950s, he went to Oxford against all the odds and because of his own single (bloody) mindedness. But he didn’t do so to join the elite. He was a non-conformist who refused ever to be deferential or to be pigeon-holed. He was brilliant and great fun. He could also be impossible, angry, contrary and supremely uncompromising. My life with him was, I used to say at the time, like being on a self-improvement course. Above all he isn’t easy to forget.
We met in the throes of a trade union lesbian and gay conference in September 1985. I didn’t know immediately that he was HTLV3 positive (as it was known in those days). We saw each other again fairly soon afterwards and around three weeks later I had a phone call from him at work. He said we had to meet because there was something he needed to talk about. He was calm but very clear it had to be that day. I had a trade union meeting that evening (and every evening in those days) but agreed to slip out for a while.
The meeting was at County Hall in London and so we met on the Embankment. We sat on a bench looking out at the river and he told me. ‘I’m positive.’ AIDS was still new in the UK at the time and the prognosis for those with HTLV3 was very poor. I hadn’t met many people who were positive at that point but I had been involved in writing a GLC funded publication about AIDS as a workplace issue. Lawrence’s revelation was different though. It was up close and personal. My response, after the briefest of pauses, was that it was okay. I said that what mattered was that we had met each other and clearly liked each other a lot and that it didn’t change anything.
My response was sincerely meant and I’ve never regretted it for a moment. Within a few months that fondness had become love on a scale I’d not experienced before. Years later when we were having a very difficult time, I realised due to a letter from a friend that life with him was, in fact, the first time I had experienced anything approaching unconditional love (not something I’d really experienced in my family growing up). I think my friend was right and I think in part it all stemmed from that moment on the bench overlooking the river. I didn’t walk away. I said it was okay. And he believed me.
But it was also a reckless and hopelessly naïve response as those borne of love so often can be. And when the going got much tougher later it was a moment that I sometimes reflected on. I had entered into a contract which obliged me to stay. I couldn’t walk away now because I hadn’t walked away then. He was almost certainly going to die and I had to stick with it and with him. And I did, though not without a significant and perhaps inevitable fall from grace along the way, for which fortunately he forgave me. I’m not suggesting I really ever wanted to leave him, but sometimes when it was hard I did want to run away.
We had, for me, a wonderful, formative and hugely enriching relationship. But it was one which was always shaped by his probable and increasingly imminent death. It was hard, sometimes unbearably so, particularly when friends and former lovers of both of us died of AIDS along the way. But we were also lucky because friends were prepared to go with us, and with him, on the journey. Yet there were also moments when his illness was a bloody great elephant in the room that no one wanted to go anywhere near.
And to a much lesser degree (with the passage of time) that remains the case to this day. He is enormously remembered I’m sure and will be today especially. But the tragedy of his early death and the painfulness of living with it at the time can get in the way of remembering him joyously and out loud. I speak for myself, not anyone else in this respect, though I’m sure what I say will resonate with others. That’s why, in part, I wanted to write this piece.
I am also as culpable as anyone else of making a ham fist out of dying and death. In the succeeding years, many people I’ve known and loved, some very closely and dearly including one of my sisters, have died. In some cases I’ve gone there, thrown myself into being there, and confronted their dying. In other cases I’ve sidestepped it, sometimes clumsily and hurtfully. Dealing with his dying and death made it possible to deal with some of theirs. But it also made me avoid the dying of others out of fear of the emotional pain that would bring and all the memories it would churn up.
At his funeral, we handed out a card with Christina Rossetti’s poem Remember on it.
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you planned:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
My poem is of course inspired by that poem and by another by Judy Grahn.
This is what is so odd
about your death:
that you will be 34 years old
the rest of my life
We always said we would be around
in our old age
& I still believe that,
However when I am 80
you will still be 34,
& how can we understand
what each other has been through?
Both of these poems capture something for me about living with death and dying, in particular about memory and loss. They tell us it’s not easy but we have choices. They tell us that people stay with us. And they encourage us both to remember and to allow ourselves to forget.
Every year, Lawrence’s mum, who was there with him and me when he died, and I exchange messages on the anniversaries of his birth, his death and his funeral. We haven’t seen each other for a long time and these days they are more often than not in the form of a text. We did so this morning and my response was that his star still shines bright.
For me remembering is mostly not too painful now, though for her I’m sure it’s far more so. Twenty years is a long time. I have some photos but no video or recording so his physical presence is easier to remember than his voice though sometimes I can hear that too. Some of the memories `are of the last few months when his own memory was lost. Some are still unbearable but others, even of that time, are funny and inspiring.
In a memorable remark on one of the bunches of flowers at his funeral, someone wrote that Lawrence was an ‘uncommon friend’. That’s certainly true. Yet this is a commonplace story. I tell it to remember him and in a small way to encourage all of us to open the shutters that Chris Deerin referred to and let the light in on death.