A Friendship Interrupted: Loss During the AIDS Epidemic

As told to Gabrielle Sierra by her mother, Samantha

 

I first met David Poole in 1975. I was 23 and he was 25 and we were both working at the New York Public Library. He sought me out as a friend and I don’t really know why; it felt like we lived in different worlds. He was an openly gay man living in a fifth-floor walkup in the East Village, with a bathtub in the kitchen. I was a Brooklyn hippie commuting to the city every day, balancing work with night classes in community college. But David and I became fast friends and he brought me into his world.

There was so much about David that was unique. He biked everywhere and was brazen too; if a taxi cut him off he’d spit on it. It was David who first brought me to a sushi restaurant and introduced me to clubs like Paradise Garage where we would dance until dawn. He was a great dancer and knew everyone. In fact, it was a friend of his who introduced me to the man I would eventually marry.

David was a true-blue friend and utterly unselfish in his relationship with me. I’d never had a friend like that before and never have again.

David had a tremendous love for exotic plants and he sacrificed a room in his two-room apartment just to grow orchids. He had a complicated lighting and misting system that would go off on a timer. Depending on which one went on, he would either hand you sunglasses or an umbrella. Geckos ran loose in the apartment to eat roaches.

David was a true-blue friend and utterly unselfish in his relationship with me. I’d never had a friend like that before and never have again.

He first had suspicions that he had AIDS in 1985. Many of his friends were being diagnosed and he was right in the thick of the community. There was a lot of promiscuity and drug use; David wasn’t monogamous so the possibility was real. There were so many lies and misinformation surrounding the disease so it was hard to know what to believe. People believed you could get it from spit on the ground, from someone handling your food or touching the poles on the subway. There was a lot of fear.

At first David wouldn’t go to the doctor. He developed oral thrush and even though it really freaked him out he stayed in denial. But as more and more people around him started dying he grew consumed with the idea that he had AIDS. He was eventually diagnosed in 1986.

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David and Samantha


The doctor didn’t flat out tell him he had AIDS; they wouldn’t say it then. They listed ailments related to the disease but never said the actual word AIDS. After that he started to go downhill fast. He grew weaker. The library asked him to resign from his job.

A few of David’s friends and I began a desperate hunt for AZT, a medication used to treat HIV/AIDS. We contacted the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and they directed us to a doctor who would prescribe the medication but it wasn’t available at any pharmacy. We would be told it was on order and to come back tomorrow only to be told the same thing the next day. I went to different pharmacies, all over the city, every day, for nearly a month. They knew he was dying, knew so many people were dying, and they still lead us on. Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow. He didn’t get the AZT until he was too sick.

“They knew he was dying, knew so many people were dying, and they still lead us on.”

We tried to take him to the hospital but they wouldn’t admit him. Multiple doctors literally turned their backs to us. We contacted the GMHC again and they told us the only way to get David into the hospital was to bring him to the emergency room and walk away, because legally they had to take him if he was abandoned and in need of care. Walking away, leaving him all alone and so fragile, was the hardest thing I have ever done.

Once he was admitted, it was the same story. No physician would state that he had AIDS, they would only discuss what was happening to him. Eventually I cornered his doctor in the stairwell and asked him to just tell me off the record if it was AIDS. He said yes and I broke down. I guess I had just been holding on to this scrap of hope that since they never said it, it wasn’t real.

While David was in the hospital I found out that I was pregnant. I was going to the city every day to visit him at the hospital and I had no intention of changing that pattern. People gave me shit about exposing the fetus to AIDS and said that my stress would affect the pregnancy. Their concern was fueled by their ignorance and fear. Most of his friends didn’t visit him for the same reasons.

Before David was admitted, my husband and I had purchased tickets to visit my in-laws in Puerto Rico. As the trip got closer, I became more and more hesitant about going. But eventually two close friends of ours agreed to stay with him in the hospital, so we left. I called frequently.

His struggle with AIDS didn’t end in death.

We were just a few days into our trip when I grew concerned about David’s mental and physical state. Each time we spoke on the phone, he seemed more and more confused, repeating his fears to me, forgetting things. The disease was spreading to his brain and he was deteriorating quickly. I decided we had to go home right away. We bought tickets and I called to let David know I was coming. Our friends answered and said he wasn’t talking anymore. I asked them to put the phone to his ear and I told him I was on my way home and that we’d be back so soon. By the time we landed at the airport David was gone. He was 36. I didn’t get to see him again, I didn’t get to say goodbye.

His struggle with AIDS didn’t end in death. We couldn’t bury him. We went to multiple funeral homes only to be turned away. We would argue or offer more money but they would still refuse. When we asked how they could deny us, they said that by law they could refuse us service. It was surreal and devastating.  

Thank goodness for the GMHC. They instructed us to go to a certain place to cremate him, but then no one would take his ashes. Cemetery owners were terrified to put him in the ground. My lovely best friend.

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David, the author, and her dog Max

David’s life of kindness, easy friendship and love of nature helped us find an answer. He had been close with the groundskeeper for the Quaker cemetery in Prospect Park, a nice guy who used to let him come in and garden. When he heard that we couldn’t find a place for David’s ashes, he came to the rescue. The groundskeeper and I drove out to New Jersey and picked a tree we thought David would love. Then we illegally dug a hole for the tree and his ashes in the hidden idyllic cemetery. The tree is still there. It is amazing looking – a huge tree, beautiful and blue. We had a small ceremony there and a couple of us spoke.

I miscarried the baby very shortly after David died. People blamed it on the stress and all that, but I never thought about it that way. It was just the way things happen.

I was the executor for David’s will and he had a ton of odd and interesting stuff. We donated his plants to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens and divided the rest of his things among friends and various charitable organizations. One day my husband and I were packing up at David’s apartment and we began searching for the geckos to take home with us. We knew there were four but since they were all loose, we were struggling to find them. We finally found three but it just seemed like the fourth was gone. I was extremely upset and I kept apologizing saying, “I’m sorry David, I’m sorry we couldn’t find him.” I was despondent when my husband said my name and pointed as the last gecko found his way onto my shoulder.

I have tried my best to honor David the place he had in my life. In the 1990’s I made a section on The AIDS Memorial Quilt for David and traveled with The Names Project around the country. I protested when children were being kept out of public schools due to AIDS. Through my job I now work with LGBT organizations and am an organizing member of a Safe Zone for all faculty and students at my school. I am proud to say my own children are liberal-minded and sensitive and thoughtful; what I went through with David had a hand in the way I raised them.

My wonderful friend will never be able to enrich the lives of my children as I know he would have.

But the panic I saw in people’s eyes and their actions during that time struck me in a deeply profound way. To see those sworn to protect the public turn their backs on us. To know that if some people had their way they would have left David and the rest of the gay community on an island to weed itself out was heartbreaking. It was murder. My wonderful friend will never be able to enrich the lives of my children as I know he would have.

I don’t think I’ll ever lose my fear and dread: not of Ebola or terrorism or threats to our planet, but the capacity of hate we humans can muster when we are afraid.