In December of 1993, we got the news at a Bridges Vocal Ensemble rehearsal: come soon. We had known that call would come eventually, since June of 1992, when Trent had told us between sets at the GALA choral festival that he had AIDS. No matter how much time we’d had to prepare emotionally, no matter how many friends we had lost in the meantime, Trent was the first of our tight-knit chorus.
That evening after rehearsal, we all went over to Trent’s house. All 20-something of us packed into his living room, standing around the chair he never left at this point, singing every song he knew. He mouthed all the words with a half-smile on his face, too weak at that point to vocalize. After an hour or so, we filed past him one by one, shaking his hands, kissing his forehead, saying each in our own way, “Goodbye for now.” Trent died the next day.
The current Covid pandemic is triggering to many who survived the AIDS era. Some younger people have asked those of us who were there, “How did you get through it? What tips do you have for us?” I’ve been asked myself, and have found myself at sea, unable to answer.
Today it came to me why I’ve been unable to answer: because nothing that helped me then applies today. If Trent were dying of Covid-19 today – we would not be surrounding his chair, singing along with him, kissing him goodbye, later all grieving together at his memorial service. Singing. Together. At his memorial service. And, we would not have had a year and a half of watching him slowly decline, wasting away toward an inevitable death. AIDS never took us by surprise, unless a miraculous person survived. The death rate was nearly unanimous.
I accidentally discovered the power choral singing holds for me in 1986, and have never been without a chorus since. One reason GALA choruses are so powerful today, such a presence in their communities, dates back to the AIDS era. Sharing the air through choral singing is one of the most powerful ways in which humans can bond with each other. Sharing the air helped us survive the loss of so many back in the day; today, sharing the air is part of what causes Covid losses.
I have been a member of the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus since 2008. A few years ago, a member died of Alzheimer’s. It hit me then that in the years I’d been in the chorus, no one had died of an AIDS-related cause. Time was, the chorus sang at one or two chorus member memorial services a month. When I joined, the chorus had a tradition: the first rehearsal of each month, those who were celebrating a birthday that month would get up on the stage of our rehearsal space and we would sing, “Happy birthday.” A nice warm tradition. And back during the days of AIDS, a way of saying, “We’re still here…”
Sharing the air is precisely what we CAN’T do these days. We can Skype. Zoom. Talk on the phone. And we can’t rehearse. On occasion someone will post a humorous little questionnaire on Facebook: favorite ice cream? ocean or mountains? morning person or night person? favorite day of the week… Monday. Because chorus rehearses Monday nights. Or used to. In my 34 years singing in GALA choruses, I have never had a concert cancelled. A GALA chorus festival postponed. Sharing the air, music to my soul, isn’t going to be what gets me through this time. So, what will?
I do have a useful take-away from the AIDS era: we are resilient, life will go on, nothing will be the same, but that doesn’t mean there will be nothing. My chorus is going to experiment with remote rehearsals, using available technology, adapting it as we can, doing what we can to stay connected. To see each other through. This, too, shall pass.
The PTSD of the AIDS era is kicking in for many, triggered into reliving the pain of loss. And realizing the old ways of coping aren’t there – hugging, singing together, being together, embracing loss together. All the more bereft. Triggered into the past in a way that might be making it hard to embrace what connection there is available today. And really – if Zoom and Skype had been available to us during the heaviest days of AIDS, we would most certainly have taken advantage of this technology as well. We needed then, we need now, whatever will work.
So – isolated as we may be in our individual spaces, keeping ourselves physically safe – let us keep ourselves emotionally and spiritually safe as well. Reach out with whatever form of technology you have, and connect. Have a virtual party. Cook together each in your own kitchens. Raise a toast to each other from your various dining room tables. Put on a mask and take a meal in a bag, handing it to a homeless person. Feed the crows in downtown Portland, now bereft of much of their usual source of food. One of my favorite spiritual images is that we are all just seeing each other home. That remains the goal, though the means of doing so has changed so much, so fast.