A death in An American Family

By

Originally published on Advocate.com 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.

Part I: Winter ’01
Is There a Michelin Man in My Family Tree, or What?

Last winter,
’01, was typical of any year in recent times for me.
Six years earlier, my gig writing a regular column for
The Advocate had to, regretfully, be put
out to pasture thanks to a full-time career as a
crystal addict. I’d finally rehabbed from the drugs
and drink, and I was a lonely hermit, presiding over
my nine stray cats in a small one-room kingdom on a
hillside in Los Angeles’s Echo Park, where I took
many naps and read English rock magazines. I was not in
great health—big shock. But I was feeling well
enough to still say yes when a girlfriend asked me to
accompany her to the University of California, Santa Cruz,
in the spring to move her 18-year-old son for summer
break.

Shortly after the
three of us set upon his dorm room to dismantle it, a
small but sharp twinge of pain registered just under my left
kneecap. And it would not stop. In fact, it got worse.
For the duration of the weekend and through the trip
home, it got worse and worse. Damn my friend, I said
to myself as it throbbed away. How could she have forced me
into so much work? But on returning to L.A. and going
to the doctor that following Monday, I found out it
had little to do with a twisted knee. It was a septic
infection that had settled under my left knee. But I still
believed I was invincible and continued my old lifestyle.

However, it was
only a couple of days later that I awoke one afternoon in
Cedars-Sinai hospital. I don’t know how the day
started out, but I had been found in a mud puddle near
Echo Park Lake at 4:30 in the morning. At the
hospital, I had accosted the nurses and doctors. I ripped
out the I.V. needles leading into both my arms. Blood.
More blood. Then there was my left leg. Sometime
during the previous 48 hours, it had swollen to at
least four sizes larger than the right one. The skin was
shiny and tight. God was partway through inventing a
new Pokémon—me. Though doctors told me I
should stay in the hospital, I was having none of it. I
returned home; me, the cats, and my little wooden
house in the wilds of Echo Park. Ready to stick it out
to the bitter end, little did I know, in terms of my
domestic setup, that finality was about as close as the
nearest Starbucks.

Part II:
The Summer of My Incontinence.

Actually, bona
fide incontinence waited until fall to make itself known.
Still, as we passed the halfway mark of the year, I was not
without plenty of disillusion. But as we crawled
toward that final quarter of the year, waves of human
degradation began breaking over my body. Daily bouts
of catastrophic diarrhea suggested my intestinal tract was
undergoing some sort of Chernobylish meltdown. My
belly—for that is the only word with which to
adequately describe my stomach—had grown taut as a
kettle drum. My leg was now not only swollen and
unusable but had developed a needles-and-pins
sensitivity that completely obscured any other feeling.
While my leg still tingled constantly in a most
uncomfortable manner, I could be standing on a tack
and not notice it. All this plus the fact that it
seemed I was now racing to the hospital every couple of
weeks for a six-hour transfusion session to replace
the blood my body was not replenishing. This was
leaving large gaps in my energy and hollows where my
cheeks had once been. I was, in short, beginning to look a
little like a WeHo version of the Crypt Keeper. After
a few haunted weeks spent lurking between the sheets
in my mother’s bedroom, it was decided to get
me back into the hospital.

Part III:
Waiting, waiting, waiting…

I thus spent
August and part of September in hospital rooms about town.
Perhaps there is no agony worse than the tedium I then
experienced waiting for Something to Happen. I should
say that when you’ve grown sick of reading and
bug-eyed from watching TV, when your friends are all
visited out and there’s nothing else to do, no words
can adequately praise the link to the outside world
provided by your parents and family. I was going
insane. There was no exact diagnosis. The unspoken one,
everyone knew.

Suddenly…news. Word came along the hospital jungle
that they were booting me out. With the newfound gusto
that a minimum-wage earner gets shortly before his
work day ends and his allotted amount of work still remains
to be finished, I was packed up and told I had to find
myself a rest home to stay in. They did not tell me
what was wrong or what could be done about it. Suffice
it to say that this did not give me much hope.

Part IV:
Revelations, Anyone?

You know those
people who tell you they’ve forgotten how to cry and
that they can’t anymore? I was one of
them—until I crash-landed at the Carl Bean
hospice facility on the northern tip of south-central L.A.
It’s not because the facility is bad—on
the contrary. The food is the best I’ve had in
an institution—and believe me, by the end of the
summer I had become quite the hospital food gourmand.
The nursing and doctoring staff? No words can do
justice to their efficiency, thoroughness, and all-around
human compassion above and beyond the call of duty.

But what I
learned in this situation is how easy it is for me to cry.
Having been one of those who didn’t cry at anything,
I am now faced with mortality, finding myself on a
deserted beach on the brink of a saline washout. And
forget about my family; just a sidelong look at my mom while
visiting her home and watching her prepare dinner struck a
gusher. Or my giving a toast at a dinner for my
brother and sister: Halfway through, yours truly
simply kidnapped the situation by bursting into a massive
crying jag that left my sisters frozen, silent, and with two
long tearstained trails on their cheeks. Definitely
not the most generous move to inaugurate a
“happy occasion.”

Epilogue:
This is the end, my friend

I recently read
that “a sentence of death concentrates the mind
wonderfully.” True, but you’ve got to be able
to excuse yourself from what you can and can’t
concentrate on. Beware flights of fancy. Surely it
sounds great to finally envision the perfect rock band, the
script that is right in front of your nose, the
inevitable volume of memories that the world must see.

And you must be
prepared to handle those “What to do?”
moments. My doctor told my already-hysterical mother,
“Pat, you’ve got to face it. You’re
going to outlive Lance, so you may as well get
prepared!” Neither of us felt good about that
moment. Or the fight between friends when a dear pal
blurted out to me that he’d speak well of me at my
wake.

When will it
happen? That’s certainly got to be number 1 on the
most-often-asked-questions-of-myself list that I usually
break out at 4:12 a.m., when no one’s around to
answer. All I can hear is my own breath pulling like
cotton through my nostrils. Now that I’ve gotten up
enough nerve to ask the kindly doctors and nursing staff for
some illumination, most likely they’ll turn
such queries back on me, asking how long I think
I’m going to live or telling me it’s all
relative.

Still, I got the
truth, though it came in a variety of vague replies. And
the truth was not pleasant. After the question “Am I
dying?” was met with responses that ranged from
“What do you think?” to “Lance,
everybody dies sooner or later,” salty tears
were running down my cheeks.

Such attempts on
my part to sleuth out a departure date are suddenly
replaced by one of the staff breezily telling me that my
liver has completely stopped operating. The ammonia
now racing around in my body (which must be urine,
though I haven’t got the nerve to clarify that
salient point) is causing me to have memory lapses, and by
that time I’m about ready to get back to
discussing the food, the weather, anything, as long as
it is superficial.

Oh, yes, it has
been a year full of dark revelations, but without the
fame or glory they might help offer someone else some little
shred of solace if they are on the same road.