If I have any excuse at all for posting these memories of my friend Larry two days after the passing of World AIDS Day, it can only be that Larry himself rarely showed up on time. At his funeral the minister joked about this: “Today we truly have a right to speak of the late Larry C_______.”
Larry always ran late because he had so many friends and so much to talk and laugh about with them. And he had friends all over the world since, before he became an elementary school teacher—adored by children too young to see anything suspicious in his flamboyance—he worked as a travel agent, devoting more time to finding good deals for himself than to racking up commissions. Yet even though he died before Marianne and I discovered our interest in Tanzania, I doubt he ever would have volunteered for Karimu. Larry would have donated generously, but he prized comfortable travel and gourmet food, neither of which our trips to Tanzania involve.
He suffered a slow, lingering death which nevertheless took his friends by surprise, because news that he had AIDS got out just a week before he died. People loved Larry’s relentlessly upbeat nature—which had not permitted him to let out the bad news about his illness. During his last couple of years he missed more and more dates with friends and parties and workdays, so that many of us started to worry. I remember that Marianne wondered aloud more than once whether he had AIDS and that some of his friends put the question to him directly, but Larry insisted he had nothing more serious than overwork to deal with. He taught fulltime while studying for his Master’s Degree in Education and keeping up a busy travel schedule, so we took him at his word. Then a friend irritated by unreturned phone calls stopped by Larry’s house and found him in a filthy bed, too weak to feed himself or his cat.
In the next few days, before his death, some of us complained that Larry’s silence about his illness had cheated us out of the right to bid him an adequate goodbye. The grumbling petered out, though. You couldn’t stay angry at Larry for long and you couldn’t dislike him. No one possibly could.
Anyway, that’s what I thought. I used to marvel that this flamboyantly gay black man who grew up in the American South would insist that he had never experienced racist or homophobic bigotry. Finally, after many years of knowing Larry, I managed to explain this great wonder to my own satisfaction. I decided Larry’s goodness was such that one could grasp it instantly, just as one instantly perceived his color and his homosexuality. That goodness, furthermore, was so complete and so pure that it disarmed racist and homophobic prejudices in the instant of their arousal. One might despise gays and blacks in general, I thought, yet not this gay black man, whose goodness simply shattered the mold.
I can’t imagine now what benefit this idea would have brought me if I had subjected it to critical analysis. Obviously we want to see ordinary people as well as paragons not targeted by bigotry. However, I think my belief that Larry’s goodness had enabled him to avoid bigotry pleased me because it hinted at the goodness in everyone—goodness which Larry called out to and awakened.
A pretty idea, but one whose naivety crashed down on me as suddenly as a mountain storm a couple of years ago. I was lucky not to be on horseback, like Saint Paul, when I realized that the same fiercely positive attitude that propelled Larry to hide his AIDS also moved him never to admit that bigotry had hurt him.
If my understanding of Larry came late, so too was he always late, in meeting friends and ultimately in warning them of his impending death, and so was development of the treatments that could have added decades to his life. And in way too many places, Tanzania included, availability of those treatments will arrive late.—Don Stoll