He was beautiful. His face had graced many an ad and magazine. He was a model. Even now as he sat in front of me sick and dying he held himself with erect posture and commanding presence. His outfit was carefully chosen to convey confidence with a little wow factor. His male friend seemed unable to take his eyes off him. Because he had lost so much weight and been through various treatments including radiation which left him bald but had temporarily put the purple splotches at bay; he was broke and had nowhere to live. He was in need of a place to convalesce and get his financial house in order. He looked forty, a good forty, but he was in his mid-twenties. So we took him in at our group home for Persons Living With AIDS.
He was seldom at home. He did the things to prepare himself to move into his own place. He had many visitors and many social outings. He was broke and not always feeling well but he did not miss a moment to live. Slowly his health got better and you began to see the model in him even more. He was nice to his housemates and meticulous in cleanliness, which pleased me but annoyed his housemates. His dress was always perfect and fashionable. His room was orderly but it was not stale. He had colorful fabric swooping from the walls, a modern chair copied straight from the Guggenheim Museum, and not posters, but paintings from real artists, hanging on the walls. I often teased the other residents why couldn’t they make their rooms as pleasant as his. Some tried but lacked Dennis’ panache.
We came from two different worlds but he took time to befriend me. He found everybody interesting. He was not a prima donna as I would have expected but someone who loved the aesthetic. Everything with the right amount of effort could be made beautiful, even awkward friendships.
His life was looking good. His hair had returned. His health was better. He was looking his age again. He even had a shoot by a photographer friend. I envisioned him leaving us soon and reclaiming his old life.
One day he knocked on the door and came in. He shut the door behind him, something he did not normally do. His head was wrapped in a bandanna. He sat down across from me. A tear rolled down his eyes. “It’s back: the Kaposi’s sarcoma (the cause of the purple splotches). The doctor said I may need radiation treatment again.” I could see he was upset. I muttered words meant to console but knew that really was not possible at this moment. He continued, “You know it has never been the dying that has bothered me.” He stopped, looked a little chagrinned and went on. “It is the damn splotches and the loss of the hair. I do not want to look old before my time. I do not want to die ugly. I want to die beautiful.” We talked for an hour. He was right; he should die beautiful. Death should not be a painful and cruel process taking away your dignity. But in the end death ruled and we usually had to accept its terms.
He was to go for his chemo treatment. He was not happy about this. I was concerned for him but also for the house. He had brought a sense of purpose and beauty to the house; if he became angry and disconsolate that would be within his rights, but the house would lose some of the brightness and feelings of hope and promise he had brought. It was with these fears some residents and I waited for him in the courtyard to offer our moral support before he went for treatment.
He was running late, something he never did. I thought he must be having trouble mustering the energy to go. Oftentimes I had to nudge people with words to take their medicines, go to their appointments, or even participate in life. I had never had to do this with Dennis and I was not looking forward to having to do this now.
Suddenly, the courtyard door opened and out pranced Dennis. He was dressed in full safari regalia. Safari hat, khaki shorts and button shirt, with hiking boots and a butterfly net. He was smiling and looked at us all and proclaimed, “I am off on yet another great adventure and the search for places yet not seen and don’t I look fabulous?” He did not wait for an answer that was obvious, on cue he turned around, got in the waiting car and left for the doctor.
The treatments were draining but he came out the other side whole. He left our house soon after the treatments. He moved into his own apartment, where he stayed until he died. I attended his funeral; it was beautiful. You knew he chose the speakers and told them exactly what to say as they read from note cards with what looked like his handwriting. The flowers were beautiful. There were various model photographs of himself around. The casket was closed. The music was otherworldly. I laughed to myself as I sat there in my mediocre suit and realized somehow he had done it. He had look death in the eye and demanded he die beautiful.