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A childhood friend dies of AIDS


ONE OF the last times I saw my friend alive, he was tethered to a contraption that pumped essential nutrients directly into his bloodstream.

Every day, for a period of about six months, he would insert ""TC needle into his chest and watch the yellow liquid slowly drain into his body. Then, because it was a portable system, he was free to walk around the house while he received his 12-hour dinner. For all the technical triumph the device represented, it had the look of a bloated cow's udder attached to a hat rack.

It must have been a colossal nuisance, as well as a sickening reminder of how vulnerable his system had become, to participate in this daily ritual, but the choice was, as he put it, "the bag, or death." He required this nutritional delivery system because his digestive processes had been rendered dysfunctional by an intestinal parasite. He was dying of diarrhea.

The particular parasite that was killing him would represent a minor discomfort to a person with a normal immune system, but my friend had AIDS. During the two years prior to his being ravaged by this parasite, he, like other AIDS victims, suffered a number of maladies, but none had been life-threatening in the way this was. It was, therefore, a horrifying reality-check to see him in this condition.

Despite the fact that his nutrient pump was keeping him alive, there was very little of my friend's physical aspect that spoke of life. Only his eyes, which shone like animated jewels from a canvas of cadaverous flesh, appeared to have been saved from the choke-hold of disease. His terrible appearance, however, belied a mind that seemed even more focused than the one I remembered from earlier times. Somehow, the energy that would normally have been devoted to maintaining a healthy body had been given over to his mind for his final days.

As if to confirm what my head knew -- that this might be the last time I would see my friend -- my heart brought closure to our friendship by conjuring up a blizzard of memories as I made the long drive home from his house in a snowstorm. As the snow beat against the windshield, I recalled events that spanned the length of my memory, for we had known each other since I was a young child.

It was an unusual friendship in that I was several years his senior, and there were plenty of same-age playmates available to both of us in our densely populated neighborhood. But despite our age difference, we had lots of common interests and thus spent many a day together. I could recall, for instance, how we got our allowances on the same day and, steeped in the psychology of immediate gratification, headed for the candy store. The old proprietor got so used to seeing us every Thursday that he came to know our particular preferences for sweets and would have the bags of candy prepared in advance. I remembered, too, that when my friend began to get chubby, he would hide the candy for fear his mother would make good on her threat to ration him.

The falling snow reminded me of a near tragedy that happened to us on a sledding expedition about a mile from his house. The sled I was piloting, and upon which we both were riding, careened off its path into a tree stump, badly cuting my friend's lip and nose. I was so shaken when we arrived at the house that his mother didn't know which kid to attend to first (or so she told me later).

As with all friendships, I was able to recall times when I was especially disappointed or proud of my friend; like the time he quit the Little League, embarrassed because an errant pop fly landed unceremoniously on the nose that had only the winter before been distorted in the sledding accident; or the time he was chosen valedictorian of his class.

We maintained our friendship through our adult lives, and I had memories from this period, too. I remembered his coming out of the closet about being gay, and how deftly he handled that difficult situation at a time when there was little precedent for doing such a thing. What I remembered most about my friend, though, was how much he cared about people. His many phone calls and letters of support during the period immediately after I learned that my child would be handicapped stand out in this regard.

Others who knew him shared similar stories about his willingness to make personal and professional sacrifices in order to help others. Judging from the reactions of those he'd worked with, I knew him to be one of those rare creatures more interested in populating his resume with acts of kindness than in dressing it up for his own gain.

Standing next to his mother at the funeral, I recalled that my friend was part of one of my earliest memories. I was a little preschooler, and he was just a baby, when his mother brought me up to his room right before bedtime. She placed him gently in the crib and looked lovingly into his eyes. Then she smiled down at me and picked me up so that I could look into the crib, too. As she reached down to pat him, she whispered to me, "Say good night to your baby brother."

"Good night, baby brother."

Craig B. Schulze writes from Silver Spring.

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