A death in An American Family

Just days before he passed away on December 22, Lance Loud completed an essay about his life for The Advocate’s year-in-review issue, written from the hospice in which he lay dying. “For years I had told myself that all my unbridled drinking, drugging, and unsafe sex were going to lead exactly here,” he wrote. “But I’d never really believed it.”

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Photo by Christopher Makos
Photo by Christopher Makos

Lance Loud was an Advocate columnist for many years during the 1990s. He was already a legend in the gay community for revealing his sexuality in the revolutionary 1973 PBS documentary An American Family, and his voice was always insightful and humorous. Then, slowly and tragically, he participated in the loss of his own talented life. As we go to press, Lance is dying in a Los Angeles hospice. In the following essay — which comes amid filming for a new documentary on his famous family — Lance struggles to tell us the hard truth about the life he says he “wasted.” While we disagree in principle, we offer you his last “cautionary tale.”—Judy Wieder

Preface: Why Me? What Did I Learn Last Year?

When The Advocate invited me to participate in its roundup of people sharing accomplishments in 2001, guilt bubbled right next to the pride I felt to be included in such an honor. Who was I to be included in an issue where everyone else presumably would be expounding about triumphs won over the past year? But my triumph came completely by coincidence. Like the recognition that had given me a voice in the public arena in the first place (I was in An American Family — PBS’s controversial l973 TV documentary in which, still a teenager and more out of laziness than activism, I made no secret of my homosexuality, a “feat” considered brave at the time), this recognition is coming to me completely by accident.

And so I rationalized that in a sea of Advocate winners, some loser’s musings on his own mortality might just provide a fitting reflective glory to further flatter our issue’s winners. I don’t mind that; I am glad to help out. I have a lot in common with Lewis Carroll’s Alice (my favorite female literary heroine, besides Becky Sharp). I’ve been sent on a journey to places even bleach can’t reach. I know that I shall be very lucky indeed if Death looks like the Cheshire Cat, and even if I lose contact with my audience before his entrance, my audience — such as it is — will get as much death dirt as possible. I was, after all, a gossipy old pencil pusher in the bloom of health; no sense in letting that strong suit go.

So for a short part of this journey, you are there.

This year, you see, I not only got diagnosed with terminal hepatitis C but got checked into a local men’s hospice to await its final curtain. Though for years I had told myself that all my unbridled drinking, drugging, and unsafe sex were going to lead exactly here, I’d never really believed it.

But when the big showdown came, instead of laughing maniacally and swigging my tequila from one of my old Beatle boots, I had a response that was 180 degrees off. When I was told in the early summer that it was indeed just such outlaw ways that had been responsible for bringing me to my knees, I crumpled without any “damn the torpedoes” tribute to Billy the Kid or Bonnie and Clyde. I became a shadow, hunched over, round-eyed from fear, shuffling as I took my place in the long line of customers who are gathered here, part of a group with the same things in our mind, each of us grimly waiting to be served.

The bulk of my learning — if I may call it such — has come within the past three months, after I became a part of the fragile body of patients who make up an AIDS hospice. Here, surrounded by teams of supportive nurses, attentive doctors, and interns, one gently comes upon his own strengths and shortcomings.

So what was my “triumph” this past year? As with my “feat” on An American Family, I was, once again, merely myself. But over the course of 2001, my dormant hepatitis C and my HIV — both “silent partners” in governing my health till now — suddenly decided to step out from behind the curtain and take the spotlight. I lived 18 years with HIV and 10 with hep C with very little more than a fleeting case of thrush. Now I find myself in a hospice with a limited-time warranty on my life.

“Dubious achievement,” anyone? Till now, yes. But the hep C–HIV numbers among gay men and women look to be far larger than originally expected and are rising every day. The fact that many gay men who carry the dual diagnosis are feeling fairly great, not feeling or showing signs of illness thanks to their drug cocktails or gym regimens, misleads many of those infected. I don’t know if hep C is called “the quiet killer,” but it easily could be, so unnoticeably does it nestle into your body before crankin’ up the screws and letting you race to figure out what’s going on.

Now I’m asked to put pen to paper and, in so many words, take you on a brief tour of the Rabbit’s hole that is swallowing me up. A peep into my own private dying process and what I’ve noticed over the past year as my surroundings get curiouser and curiouser. It’s not wild, but it is mysterious, and you’ll encounter some of the strangest thoughts en route to the main tunnel going straight down.

My “accomplishment” of being one of the first wave of gays to deal with the messy last stages of this dreary road to death speaks for itself. Despite this writer’s basic clumsiness and dull-wittedness, I will now tell the tale. Let’s break my list of “accomplishments” down into the four seasons, shall we? Think of it as a cautionary tale.

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