So, with all due respect to June as the month that’s “busting out all over,” for me, April easily eclipsed June in both volume and significance. April 2013 was particularly portentous because of all the milestones it would mark. I felt extremely lucky to be alive, but I wasn’t quite sure how to mark these major life benchmarks. Perhaps with some type of combined celebration? As I thought it through, it just seemed comical: "Hooray! I’m 50 years old, 10 years sober, have HIV and a tube in my arm, and can’t have even one drink! Lets have a party!"
Having had so much sickness, death and grief over the past year, I drifted deeper into the darker existential side of my nature. What if that infection I got in the hospital had gone unchecked and killed me? How long would my loved ones live? When was the last time I told my friends and family how much I loved them? Or my beloved, who has walked through all of this with me, shoulder-to-shoulder, and moment-by-moment, with neither expectation nor demand? How much time is left for us? What can we do with the time we have?
Maybe someone could throw a birthday party for me so that I can humbly express how much I appreciate all the support and love I’ve received over the years, and in particular the last six months? Although it sounded like a great idea, I quickly remembered I can be difficult about details, and if someone did volunteer to throw me a party, there would be so many chances for them to get it all wrong, you know? Maybe they would not pick the music I like, or they wouldn’t get the right food, or wouldn’t invite everyone I wanted there (or worse, would invite those I didn’t want to celebrate with). And I repeat: I am difficult. I am exacting. And I can get very picky about details. And who wants to provoke a pissy 50 year old gay perfectionist, who has been newly diagnosed with HIV and who hasn’t had a drink in 10 years? I can’t put anyone through THAT.... Yes, it became quite clear I had to throw this party for myself.
Yet... it always seemed strange to me when people throw parties for themselves. My therapist (who has officially earned a special place in heaven for listening to my inner angst for more than 15 years ...) suggested that it would be good to celebrate both my birthday and my triumph over recent health challenges. She said it was a positive expression of self-love, and personal growth. In other words, she gave me a green light.
Yet, I worried how this might appear, so I confided to my best friend that I was afraid it would seem self-indulgent. His reply? "Charlie, these are your closest friends and family - they KNOW you - they EXPECT you to be self-indulgent. It would be disconcerting to them if you were not..." I have to admit, he’s right about that. So, eager to avoid disappointing anyone, I started planning the most self-indulgent celebration of mid-life imaginable.
“Mrs. Dalloway said she would pick up the flowers herself...” And like Clarissa, I would do this myself. But not just the flowers -- I would do it ALL myself. Throw myself a a big (sober) birthday and anniversary bash. This was important.
I began looking at venues and menus, flowers and photographers, music options, and lists of people I wanted to invite. After much deliberation, I decided to have my party in the penthouse suite of a nearby boutique hotel in midtown with outdoor space and a spectacular view. I planned the event timing so that the sun would set exactly half way through the evening, providing a spectacular sunset. I thought about what i should wear, and decided that even if the catheter were removed, i wouldn’t do short sleeves, because of the scar and atrophy to my bicep. But despite my prolonged recovery, I would probably look great in the pictures due to a 20 pound weight loss caused by the intravenous antibiotics. Hooray!
I arranged for penthouse suites for me and my partner, and for my family from Boston. I decided I did not want presents, so created the event as a “Phlanthro-party” and suggested that in lieu of gifts, guests could donate to one or all of my three favorite charities: Stonewall Community Foundation, my late sister’s Breast Cancer Awareness Fund, and/or GMHC.
For the next month or two, there was unending drama about everything to do with this party. And with only days remaining, I got the good news that the catheter would be removed from my arm. I was very happy indeed! That was the best birthday present ever!
But in the days preceding the event, my partner inexplicably pulled away. He didn’t recognize or articulate what was going on with him right away. As it turned out, he was pretty nervous -- understandably so. It was the first time he would be meeting my family and friends - More than 50 of them at once, in one compact three-hour block (including all the funny-accented Boston Irish Catholics!). The poor guy was overwhelmed. I thank God that I had the good sense to focus on his needs that day. The lesson was take better care of this wonderful and precious person, this is hard for him too!
I had invited 50-60 family, friends, teachers, colleagues, classmates, mentors, and allies. And I was trying to write remarks that sounded both sincere, loving, and witty, but it kept sounding like an awards acceptance speech. Yuck.
I realized that part of the difficulty in addressing this group of disparate individuals, was because up until this moment, my life was extremely fragmented. There were many different compartments where I kept people I’m sure lots of people experience this. I presented a different “self” to family than I did with friends. A different face for colleagues than for gym buddies. The only thing most of the people had in common in that room was...well, me. The opportunity before me was to integrate. To claim all of it, to be all of it, to show all of it - every facet of me. Boston, Irish, Catholic, first generation American, City College graduate, Red Sox fan, sensitive, funny, clean & sober, HIV+, athletic, sentimental, musical, gay and proud, hopeful, and always grateful. And because i am in a place where i am learning to be accepting of self and grateful for all the relationships and roles, I am in a place where i can let my guard down and allow these worlds to collide. And in doing so, I threw a great party.
Despite a few logistical glitches, the evening was terrific. It was truly overwhelming for me to see and hear such expressions of love and caring. And so touching to see all of my “significant others” meeting my “other significant others.” Some had only heard of each other until now. It was infinitely amusing to watch my therapist meet guests, and see the wave of recognition wash over her as it registered that she already knew a lot about these people even though she’d never met them. Priceless. Also loved watching several ex-boyfriends of mine whispering conspiratorially, and then erupting into laughter about some idiosyncrasy about me or horrible habit I’ve never let go of. I truly enjoyed having those closest to me roast me mercilessly.
And beaming with pride, I watched my beautiful nieces glide through the room with an astonishing poise and grace beyond their years, sharing stories about their enigmatic Uncle Charlie. My siblings (including my twin sister who was also turning 50) were reunited at this event, and that meant so much to me. At one point, we all donned Red Sox baseball caps in tribute to our Boston heritage, and shouted down the New York Yankee fans in the room. Representatives from my three favorite charities spoke briefly about what they do and why these causes were important to me and important to support. It was a sublime celebration.
And when the lights went down, and the Sally O’Mally (“I’m 50!”) cake appeared, I looked up to see all of the people I love most in the world singing to me. And although it sounds cliche, I felt the presence of departed family and friends: my parents, my sister, all those I had lost to HIV in the early days. I was holding it together pretty well up until now, but as the cake came to a stop in front of me, I glanced up and crumbled at the sight of my partner’s beautiful face aglow in the golden light of the candles. We made it. We’re here. This is love.