Yesterday, I told the story of the chalk portrait of Spencer Cox, drawn with such skill and love by Jose Luis Silva. I’d tell you where to find it so you can see for yourself, but it’s already gone.
Why sweat over art that will be washed away before you lie down to sleep that night? Why write stories and fling them into the digital winds? What remains of the work we do?
I am a storyteller (genetically, historically, unabashedly) so I tend to attach roles to the people in my life. (You’ve met Fartbuster, right?) Spencer was “the AIDS activist.” I know other people who are HIV positive or who have AIDS, but Spencer was “my friend who lives with AIDS.” I remember where I was sitting back in the early 1990’s when I heard the news that he had the virus. I was sitting in a dainty mahogany armchair with Queen Anne legs, mother of pearl accents and a pink taffeta seat that my mother had covered with scraps for my graduate school apartment. That was the same year that Arthur Ashe revealed he had AIDS. So Spencer was dying, then. I filed that away. I hadn’t seen him since college. I didn’t see him again for years.
Then came the 20th year since we all met at the Governor’s Honors Program in 1985. We had email by now and a reason to get back together. I had a freshly broken heart from the death of my husband from leukemia. Spencer knew a lot about watching people die, so we began to talk about grief and surviving and getting back to living. I remember a time when he compared grief to the silt at the bottom of a lake–sit still and it will clear, let it sift down and you will see the glints of gold. Grief will rest after a while. Mud distills into gold. He didn’t make it back to Georgia for the 20th reunion, but we were connected again and I was grateful for his wisdom about dying. And I was grateful that he was still alive. I had no concept of how much he had done to make life available to people living with HIV. Really, no idea. I thought he was a fundraiser or something in New York and wore an ACT UP t-shirt on weekends.
Then came Facebook. The years collapsed into nothing and we were all back together again. My Vivi stories convinced Spencer that they were soul mates and he looked forward to serving as her Auntie Mame. We got together a few times and I joked that he was the only friend of mine who doesn’t get a lecture about quitting smoking. He barked out a sooty laugh and said, “The cigarettes will NEVER have time to catch me!” Oh, how we laughed. Twenty years and he was still here. I told him that he was the most interesting person I knew and he snarled, “Jesus, I’m a 40 yr old man who lives with my mother.” He was 43, by the way. What a luxury, to outrun AIDS long enough to lie about your age!
We did get to praise Spencer’s work before he died–there was the movie, the Oscar-nominated documentary “How to Survive a Plague.” We who had loved him at 16 began to learn what a giant contribution he had made to the fight against the plague of AIDS. Spencer had always been larger than life and now he was getting to tell his story on the big screen. He changed his Facebook name to “Spencer Squeaky Cox” after meeting Sarah Jessica Parker at a showing of the film and deciding that he needed a catchier triple moniker. He was so alive in those heady days of interviews and panels and premieres.
I knew it was bad when I didn’t hear back from him for a week. Then I got two phone calls at work within minutes–Bryn and Debra. I answered the second one because I knew. He was gone. I didn’t have a “friend with AIDS” anymore.
At the memorial in New York, the eulogists spoke in chronological order: his brother, his GHP friends, a college buddy, early NYC friend, ACT UP comrades, his ex, his broken-hearted and furious apologist. Spencer’s magnificent work unfolded before us. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. The video tributes from Anthony Fauci, Anderson Cooper, Larry Kramer–talking about that boy I met in Valdosta. Tony-winning composer Tom Kitt played the piano as his sister, Katherine, sang “I Miss the Mountains” and I sobbed.
It began to sink in that even as Spencer was gone, there were people in that theater who were alive today because of him. The face of AIDS that I had attached to one person in my life was all around me. Many men who sat there in the light from the stage and nodded with an understanding that glowed from their sharp cheekbones and careful eyes. Spencer’s drive. His passion. His pig-headed genius. He did it. He got protease inhibitors pushed through. He found a way to fight the plague.
I heard the eulogists say “eight million people are alive because of Spencer,” several times but that number is so large that it is impossible to envision. Then the man sitting beside us turned and said, “I’m one of them.” Eight million people living. One man, living. I could touch this man. I did. Not a handshake or even a hug. With some reflex that came from deep in my heart and overrode all my polite training, I reached out and stroked his fine cheekbone. I cupped his aging face like I was his mother. I wanted him to know I was happy he was here. Eight million….to one.