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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Eight Years On & I Still Miss You

Eight years ago, on July 26th, I sat by the bedside of one of my most loved friends as he lay dying in the scummy, dank AIDS ward in Athens.

David Turner was so lovely, so kind, so smart and funny. He came into my life in the 1980s when I was living in Istanbul and he brought a group of US students over who were studying Byzantine history - he was a historian and a scholar. David was old friends with another friend of mine from my youth, John, who was visiting me at the time, so we all met up. David has spent part of his youth at school in Auckland where he'd met John, but his mother was Greek, and he was always happiest there.

That first day we met we three had an uproarious slightly drunken lunch together, filled with such lewd and vulgar sexual jokes and stories that we actually made a group of English tourists get up and leave the restaurant in disgust.We didn't care. David loved to shock, loved to confront, but tried hard not to hurt. We had a fairly immediate sexual frisson. But he lived in Athens, and I lived in Istanbul, and although we got naked and had fun a few times, we soon decided we were going to be friends, not lovers, but I loved him.

It was a friendship I treasured, because of who he was. He'd stay with me when he could on a his visits to Turkey, and I stayed at his flat in Athens a number of times over the years, and we'd stay up drinking and smoking and arguing, with David excitedly insisting on listening to one more album, one more piece of music. He had a tendency to play Bruckner, very loud. All sorts of people would wander through, Greek and foreign -  theology students, historians, anarchists, guys he had fucked, old lovers, archaelogists and scholars from the British School in Athens who were experts in their areas of speciality, and usually experts at drinking litres of wine as well. It was a fascinating, cosmopolitan and and multi-lingual group, slipping from English to Greek to German to Turkish depending on who was there. We were young, we were living in a great part of the world. We had so much fun together.

David was a strongly believing Greek Orthodox Christian who saw no conflict with that and being gay. He even got us an audience with the Patriarch of Constantinople. We had some great arguments over religion, and he really knew how to argue. And he knew how to laugh. Every time he visited Hagia Sophia in Istanbul he'd make a point of going to the grave of the Venetian Doge Dandolo just to spit on it. Dandolo had led the Fourth Crusade which had sacked Constantinople. The Greeks have never forgiven Dandolo.

I went back to Turkey in 2003, travelled to Syria, and then was going to visit him in Athens, stay again in that familiar flat. He'd been unwell for a long time, with all sorts of strange little illnesses, but no-one thought to test him for HIV, and he never suggested it it seems. That's sad, as he had been  one of a group who had fought  to set up some basic HIV care in Athens. The assumption was that he was so well-versed in it that he would have been testing, but he hadn't been.  By the time he'd finally been diagnosed with HIV, he was incredibly ill. And in a move I still do not understand, even though his Drs knew he was allergic to penicillin, they gave it to him anyway to treat one of his infections. He developed Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a truly horrible condition where your skin peels away from the underlying tissue, even the mucous membranes in your nose and the interior of your eyelids can come away.

I didn't realise just how sick he was till I got there. At the time I was still Chair of the NZAF, and his friends all looked to me as someone who could help, someone who knew more about HIV and AIDS than they did, but as soon as I saw him I knew he was dying.

His body, that beautiful sexy body I'd kissed and held and loved and fucked was doubled in size, thanks to the steroids they'd put him on to counter the Stevens-Johnson. His skin was a mess, coming off in sheets. His mind was wandering, he was confused, but we had stretches of lucidity where he told me how envious he was of me getting to Syria, to Damascus and Aleppo - we promised to go to Mt Athos together. I stayed in his flat, so strange to be there alone, no partys, no loud music, just his books, icons and music all around. Strange to lie alone in that bed where we'd fucked so many years ago. He was surrounded by friends, and that was a blessing. He had an American colleague down the street who was deeply involved, and his friends from the British School, and they were good to me too, but I felt alone, bereft. My trip had so far been full of excitement and renewing old friendships, and here with one of the men I most valued, one of the friends I most wanted to see, I was only in time to watch him die.

Every day I had the routine of going to visit him, to sit by his bed. It was through him I had come to love Athens as a city, but now it seemed hard and unforgiving. The AIDS ward he was in was in a shabby old piece of a hospital, an early 20th Century red brick place is what I remember, with just a few rooms, there was a gaunt African refugee dying in the room next door. It was a deeply depressing place to be. I hope they've changed it since then.

And then he died, as I and his American friend and his girlfriend sat there that evening. I could tell it was coming, I'd seen it before, I've watched enough friends die to know it. He died. And after we sat and gave the Dr on duty the information he needed, he told us we had to help take the body to the morgue.

That was particularly brutal, just minutes after watching him die, to be told in an off-hand manner that we were expected to do this. I remember us using a sheet to move his body onto a gurney, then pushing it through the ward and down a ramp to a strange, cold little morgue with a few icons hanging on the walls. And that was where we left him. It was brutal, but it was also right somehow I guess, that people who loved him helped took him on that journey.

Then there was the aftermath back at the flat. The phone calls from his friends, Greeks speaking in broken English, trying to understand. "Dead? What do you mean - no, he can't be dead!" Their disbelief, their sorrow, his brother arriving from the country, dumb with grief, looking for clothes to dress him in. I got stoned and went out to a gay bar, Aleccos, got drunk and picked a guy up and took him back. It wasn't the best sex, but I guess I needed some skin contact, there in David's bed. He would have understood.

And I couldn't stay for the funeral, I had flights that I couldn't change, had to get back to Istanbul, then London, to get back here. I took one of his icons from beside his bed as a memento, an icon of the prophet Elijah being fed by ravens in the wilderness, and I see it every day and think of him.

But eight years on, and the grief has dulled, but my darling David, you wonderful, funny, outrageous man, I still miss you, I still think of you, I still love you.

1 comment:

JawnBC said...

This is beautiful Michael.