A Bittersweet New Year’s Memory

Dec 2020
Posted by

     “Kal! We’re going to Disney World for New Year’s! And we’re staying at the Grand Floridian! I won’t take NO for an answer!” I could almost feel Aston’s excitement crackling through the phone lines. “I’ve not seen you in years,” his voice pleaded, “Please go with me.” It had always been hard to tell him no. I granted his request, making a joke about pulling my Louis Vuitton steamer trunk down from the attic. Alas, it was not meant to be. Aston did not live to dance in the New Year or taste its bubbly champagne.

       We knew each other from church. We sang in Youth Choir together. We went on more Mission Trips than I care to remember. Somewhat reserved in a crowd, Ashton’s warm, inviting smile always lit up the room. And once his reserve melted, his wit and humorous stories brought forth laughter from even the most stubborn of old codgers. He moved from Gulfport in the mid-80s and bought a Victorian house in the Old Sixth Ward section of Houston. He was employed by a company that other companies hired to save them from bankruptcy. He flew all over the country in the process, admitting those companies into his ICU program, as he called it. The more companies he helped save, the more in demand he was. He once told me that he felt uncomfortable telling men, who were old enough to be his father or grandfather, how to save their businesses. But his gentle demeanor, flashing eyes of blue, and award-winning personality always saved the day.

        As the years passed, months and months would go by without a word from Ashton. Then the phone would ring. His deep, cheery voice would regale me with stories about scary plane rides and angry clients. How he trained for and won 10K races. How he felt when he won the “Best Employee of the Year” award for the third time in a row. When his mother called late one night, telling me that Ashton had collapsed at the Houston airport, I was stunned. The reason for his collapse stunned me further. “Cancer? What kind of cancer?” I asked in amazement, knowing how healthy Ashton was. His dear mother’s voice, always soft and reassuring, answered, “The doctors don’t know. It’s a rare cancer…” Her voice faded.

         In the weeks that followed, her calls were my only connection to Ashton. He had lapsed into a coma, a coma that lasted for three months. He told me later that he could, at times, hear the conversation around him. It echoed, he said, as if the person was speaking down a long, metallic tube. Lying lifeless in his bed, had it not been for a visiting doctor, who, by accident, read his chart instead of the patient next to him, Ashton would have died. “This man doesn’t have cancer,” the doctor said. “You need to test him for HIV/AIDS.”

        In the late 80’s, AIDS was a death sentence, not just physically but socially as well. Like the abject fears that the COVID-19 virus conjures today, the AIDS virus was that, but so much more. Once a person was diagnosed with it, like Biblical lepers, that person was banished into the shadows of life. Ashton was no exception.  When he moved back to Gulfport due to his declining health, and word got around that he had AIDS, family and friends rejected him. His father and two older brothers, along with their wives, would have nothing to do with him; only his dear mother was there to comfort him. She never asked how he contracted AIDS. She only loved him.

      Not long after he moved home, Ashton called me. Even though his voice was healthy and robust, I instantly knew something was amiss. After some pleasantries, he hesitantly said, “Kal, I’ve got AIDS.” I was taken aback. I’d never known anyone with the disease. But, unlike so many, I had read enough to know how it was contracted, no fears there. Having seen horrid pictures of Rock Hudson, I was pleasantly surprised when Ashton opened his apartment door. He was just as dashingly handsome as always—smile warm, eyes sparkling blue.

Talking with Ashton brought tears to my eyes, not tears of sorrow but joy! We howled with laughter over old times, just as old friends should. Knowing Ashton as I did, I knew he would not live in the shadows long. And he didn’t. He contacted Coastal High Schools, asking if he could speak to the students about AIDS. Most declined, a few accepted. Ashton invited me to hear him speak. And although that speech was over 30 years ago, I’ve never forgotten.

On the day of his speech, I slipped quietly into a seat toward the back of the auditorium. The lights dimmed, Ashton and the Principle walked on stage, and he was introduced. There was my old church chum standing there, resplendent in a tailored Brooks Brothers suit, looking every bit the charming executive, he had become. As he spoke about AIDS—how it was contracted and that he had it—his Senior audience was attentive. But I did notice some of the football team making faces at one another, sniggering. It did not go unnoticed. Suddenly, Ashton stepped from behind the podium, walked to the edge of the stage, looked at two sniggering Senior boys, and said, “Listen up, you two!”  His voice was civil but intense. “I’m only trying to warn you guys. There’s something out there that will kill you if it infects you. You will graduate in May. Most likely…I’ll be dead by then.” The silence that followed echoed around the room.

Unfortunately, Ashton’s prediction came true.

In the last weeks of his life, I often visited Memorial’s 4th floor, then the infectious disease ward. This once powerful, energetic tower of a man had been reduced to nothing more than bones covered in rough, scaly skin. And the smell, oh my! However, Ashton never lost his sense of humor. Seeing my facial expression, which conveyed what my nose was smelling, he chuckled and said, “I’m obsessed with inventing something stronger than Calvin’s Obsession? What ‘ja think Kal?” His smile dimmed somewhat. “Wanna see what’s causing this awful smell?” I winced but said yes. As he pulled the sheet from his legs, I could barely look. His skin appeared to be covered with minute fish scales, each scale oozing yellowy pus. 

The night Ashton died his dear mother had called me. She told me the doctors said he would not last the night. “Please come sit with me,” she said, her voice trembling. “My family might come, might not.” “I’m on my way,” I said. Entering the hospital room, I was shocked at how quickly Ashton had wasted away since last I saw him. I hugged his mother. She sat to his left, and I sat to his right. We each held a hand. Ashton’s breathing was labored, a distinct rattle in his throat. It was a miracle that his once-muscular body, now like a rotting piece of material, held together at all. In the unforgiving hospital light, Ashton looked like the skeletal bodies seen in pictures from Auschwitz–eyes coated with the sheen of death, face chalky, mouth ridged, opened, and drawn to one side. The nurse came into the room and took his vital signs. “It won’t be long now,” she said with a kind smile. It was then I remembered what Ashton had told me months before…Kal, even in a coma, I could hear people talking. I told his weeping mother that we should tell him that we love him. I whispered it first, then she did. Ashton didn’t respond. Then, as his breath became more and more shallow, he breathed his last and was transported Home to Glory.

I noticed his passing first. I stood, walked over to his mother’s chair, hugged her, and said, “He’s gone…he’s gone Home.” Holding my hand, she looked up briefly at her dead son, then broke down, weeping in great, heaving sobs. The nurse alerted the family. After what seemed an eternity, father, brothers, and their wives appeared at the door. Father embraced mother, brothers just stood staring at the carcass of their once beautiful, once kind, and loving little brother. I knew their dark secrets. I could only imagine the thoughts racing through their minds. Grief? Remorse? Fear of the truth? To this day, I still don’t know.  I quietly made my way out the door, and there encountered one of the wives. “Is he gone?” she asked, nursing the mushy stub of an unlit cigarette dangling from her lips. I nodded in the affirmative. As I walked away, she mumbled to the other wife, “Just another dead queer.”

But Ashton was much more than just another dead queer! He was someone who had pulled himself up by the bootstraps, as the old-timers say. Ashton had made something of himself and had made the world a better place in which to live. He had struggled with who and what he was. In a time that was viciously unaccepting of those who knew firsthand about “the love that dare not speak its name,” Ashton never repaid hate with hate. He loved his God and his Savior, Jesus. He loved his family, even when they didn’t love him. And because of that and so much more, I will always be proud to call him…my dear friend!

Filed Under: Articles