Mark was not my biological twin brother, he was my spiritual and emotional twin. We met on March 9th, 1982. The room was up a narrow wooden staircase in an old brick building in the center of West Hollywood. From the window, you could see men quietly slipping into one of the area’s most popular gay bars, The Eagle.
The men in this room with its red brick mortar 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 we both 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 highlighted by little signs that we were meant to stroll this distance together as brothers. My last name is Watson, his was Holmes, so our deep friendship had the added support of that literary allusion. We were never romantic, 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, checking our moods and sharing about our sober adventures, our hopes, our crushes … life. I remember the day I stayed at his house when we both attended 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 never felt so safe and grounded in my life.
But bliss was not going to be a long term condition for us. 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 set up outside his room: coverings and masks and rubber gloves. I was being asked to “hazmat” 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,” I declared, “did not get you sober to let you die. That is not going to happen.”
Physical medicine at that time was not offering much. Years before, 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. The group had grown then to be about forty.
Soon, it escalated and hundreds were flocking to see Louise at the local community center. Louise called in many alternative healing visionaries. Whatever may or may not have occurred in that throng in successfully conquering AIDS, we at least met a new hope, dignity, and a peace of mind that no one in that situation could have envisioned.
That was true for Mark and myself. 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 he carried hope to the newly AIDS-diagnosed just 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 the hillsides before returning to us, leaving us calm and serene.
I remember one night sitting in his car after our weekly Louise Hay meeting. 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.
We also had episodes where we had to deal with the horror of the situation. He called me over to his house one late afternoon. “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, turned on the light, and then went back to where he was sitting. He sat and stared. I realized he was memorizing my face. I understood at that moment 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 down his “things before I go” checklist, and he was done. From then on, he went into decline. A kind of senility started to set in, and he became increasingly feeble. Our outings felt more like I was guiding around my grandfather. Mark was 28.
In early December, 26 years ago, Mark was again in the hospital at the UCLA medical center. I went to visit him, as I was about to leave on a quick business trip. He was sitting up in bed, and seemed fully there—no dementia, and almost with his youthful glow intact. We were both almost 5 years sober at that point, with our “birthday” only a few months away, which we planned to celebrate 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 5 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.
I kissed him good bye and went out into the night. I walked around Westwood Village by the medical center for a while rather than hopping right into my car. The night was cold, crisp and wintery, yet there was something almost magical with 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 many cakes and acknowledgement of my—our—sobriety ever since then. He is in my soul, yet there will always be a nagging pain that he does not continue on as a part of my life.
Mark was one of over forty close friends I lost to that horrible scourge. Today, having HIV is no longer a death sentence. Advances in medicine have lowered the cost of lives among our friends and loved ones. Our community seems filled with excitement, vitality, and energy, no longer shrouded in the cloak of death. But despite the advances, this disease is not done yet. Infection rates are still too high. Please stop today and think about it a bit. Be safe. Protect yourselves and those you love.
And take a moment to remember—or if you weren’t alive during those days, try to imagine. Send some love back out into the world. Just as this disease has not yet left us, there are still hundreds of thousands of broken hearts that still need to be healed. Mine is one of them.
“Near a shady wall a rose once grew,
Budded and blossomed in God’s free light,
Watered and fed by the morning dew,
Shedding its sweetness day and night.
As it grew and blossomed fair and tall,
Slowly rising to loftier height,
It came to a crevice in the wall
Through which there shone a beam of light.
Onward it crept with added strength
With never a thought of fear or pride,
It followed the light through the crevice’s length
And unfolded itself on the other side.
The light, the dew, the broadening view
Were found the same as they were before,
And it lost itself in beauties new,
Breathing it’s fragrance more and more.
Shall claim of death cause us to grieve
And make our courage faint and fall?
Nay! Let us faith and hope receive–
The rose still grows beyond the wall,
Scattering fragrance far and wide
Just as it did in days of yore,
Just as it did on the other side,
Just as it will forever-more.”
A. L. Frink
[box type=”bio”] ROB WATSON is Director of Partners and Alliances Communication for Hitachi Data Systems, and blogs at evoL= . He has served as the president of the board of directors for Santa Cruz AIDS project, is a dedicated activist for the LGBT community, and a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post. He was a foster parent and became the adoptive parent of his two sons. They reside in Northern California.