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Rob Watson Headshot

Brotherly Love, AIDS and the Quest for a Miracle

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Often the love between gay men is not romantic or sexual but the love of brothers. I have had that many times, and in one case in particular, it was with a man I consider my twin brother.

Mark was not my biological twin but my spiritual and emotional twin. We met on March 9, 1982, in a room up a narrow wooden staircase in an old brick building in the center of West Hollywood. From the window I could see men quietly slipping into one of the area's most popular gay bars, the Eagle. The other men in the room we were in were familiar with that bar but were no longer patrons. This was a meeting for recovery, and the first thing that Mark and I found out about each other that night was that both of us had been sober the exact same amount of time: four days. We were the same biological age of 24. We each had our stories, but one thing was certain: We were both ready for our rebirth into recovery. And we got it.

Our bond was strengthened by little signs that we were meant to stroll this distance together as brothers. My last name is Watson and his was Holmes, so our deep friendship had the added charm of a literary allusion. But we were never romantic; in fact, the idea never even occurring to us, as we were too focused on establishing our new lives in recovery. In today's terms we were BFFs.

After meeting, we were in constant contact, talking about our moods and sharing about our sober adventures, our hopes, our crushes, life. I remember the day I stayed at his house before we were to attend our first sober convention, an event full of workshops, socialization (a challenge for newly sober alcoholics) and meetings. We sat quietly that morning, sipping tea, peaceful and content. I had never felt so safe and grounded in my life.

Bliss was not going to be a long-term condition for us, though. Shortly after our third sober "birthday," Mark went to Palm Springs. Before I expected him to return, I got a call. He was in the hospital with some strange virus. I rushed over and was horrified to see the setup outside his room: coverings and masks and rubber gloves. I was being asked to "hazmat-suit up" to enter. I walked in and ripped the mask off immediately.

"They think it might be AIDS," he said.

I stood in the middle of his hospital room, shaking, angry and adamant. "God did not get you sober to let you die," I declared. "That is not going to happen."

Physical medicine at that time was not offering much. Years earlier, when I was taking a brief sojourn from my bath in alcoholism, I had been deeply impressed by deep faith in spiritual means of healing. Now I was certain that someone somewhere had to be addressing this disease in that way. Certainly, if someone was looking to perform miracles, the opportunity was here.

There was someone who had taken up that mission. Her name was Louise Hay, and she had been documented in our local gay paper as hosting six men with AIDS in a prayer group in her living room. When Mark left the hospital, we joined them. By then the group had grown to about 40. Soon hundreds were flocking to see Louise at the local community center, where she called in many alternative healing visionaries to speak. Regardless of what failed to occur in that throng in terms of successfully conquering AIDS, Louise was able to offer a new hope, dignity and peace of mind that no one in Mark's situation could have envisioned.

That was true for Mark and for me. We stayed away from what Louise called the "ain't it awfuls." Mark grew strong and confident, got a boyfriend and continued to live his life. He bridged the gaps with his family and carried hope to the newly AIDS-diagnosed as he did to the newly sober. We would meditate at the meetings and envelop ourselves in the mutual love and support we felt all around us in the room. It seemed to me that our spirits left our bodies and danced and intermingled in the air -- two little boys at play, running up and down the hillsides -- before returning to us, leaving us calm and serene.

I remember sitting in his car one night after our weekly meeting with Louise Hay. It was many months after his diagnosis, and things were going well. He looked at me and said, "I am so grateful for how well I feel right now, and I often wonder what has allowed me to stay here. I honestly think your love has kept me alive." I was blown away by that statement. It came back to haunt me later, when no matter how much I loved him, it was not enough to keep him here.

There were also times when we had to deal with the horror of the situation. Late one afternoon he called me over to his house. "The doctors have given me a choice," he said. "I have an eye condition that is going to lead to blindness. They have a drug to cure that. They also have a drug that may save my life, a new one called AZT. The problem is, my body can't handle both. I have to choose."

We sat quietly looking at each other. Which would be sacrificed: his sight or his life? Mark came over to where I was sitting and turned on the light, and then he went back to where he'd been sitting. He sat and stared at me. I realized that he was memorizing my face. It was then that I understood which option he was going to choose.

One of Mark's big life dreams was to go to Hawaii. He went in the late fall, and when he returned, I noticed a change in him. Some of his drive was gone. I got the sense that he had worked his way through his "things to do before I go" checklist and had finished. From then on, he was in decline. A kind of senility started to set in, and he became increasingly feeble. On our outings I felt like I was guiding around my grandfather. Mark was 28.

In early December Mark was again in the hospital at the UCLA Medical Center. I went to visit him, because I was about to leave on a quick business trip. He was sitting up in bed and seemed fully there: no dementia, and with his youthful glow almost intact. We'd been sober for almost five years at that point, with our "birthday" only a few months away. We were planning to mark it by "taking cakes" at meetings in Los Angeles and speaking about our milestone.

"I need you to do something for me," he said. "And I know it will upset you when I ask you. You hate it when I talk about it."

"Go on," I answered.

"I need you to dedicate your first cake to me," he said quietly. "I have worked so hard for my five years of sobriety, and I really wanted to make it to take that cake."

"I was going to do that anyway," I said, "whether you were there or not. But you will be there."

He and I looked at each other for a moment, both of us knowing that he would not be there.

I kissed him goodbye and went out into the night. I walked around Westwood Village for a while rather than hopping right into my car. The night was cold, crisp and wintery, yet there was something almost magical, a spirit, in the air.

I never saw Mark again. The next day, as I left the city, he left the planet. I did dedicate my first cake to him a few months later, and since then I've dedicated many more cakes and many acknowledgments of my -- our -- sobriety to him. He is in my soul, but there will always be a nagging pain over the fact that he could not continue on as a part of my life. That was 26 years ago exactly.

Last week the world reflected on AIDS and the depths to which it has taken us. Mark was one of over 40 close friends I lost to that horrible scourge, and despite medical advances, the disease is not finished yet. Those of us who survived need to remember. Those of us who were not even alive during the worst need to imagine what it was like. AIDS affected us in many ways and brought both horrors and the miracle of community. We never hurt so badly or loved so deeply.

There was great cost. This disease has not yet left us, and it has left hundreds of thousands of broken hearts in its wake that still need to be healed. Mine is just one of them.