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.”

BY

January 22 2002 1:00 AM ET

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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