Letter to Claire
Twenty-four years ago today I watched you exhale your last breath, release your energy, your spirit and your soul into the space of a hospital room. It was the saddest moment in my life. That moment, I was changed. It’s taken me years to fully understand what happened that day, but now I see it was a message, a lesson and most importantly, a responsibility. A responsibility to love and help.
You were twenty-six years old. I remember looking at you, thinking, “How can this be you and not me…how can a beautiful, vibrant, innocent girl die of AIDS after only sleeping with one man. How? Why? I wanted to crawl in that bed and take your place. I wanted to show you I loved you—that much.
In the days before you died, you said you would “haunt” me—not in a scary way, but in a good way. Now, I know what you meant. Sometimes, a song. Sometimes, a scent. Sometimes, when a situation I thought would never turn around, turns around. When things are their worst, I sense your presence the most. I hear you whisper, “Life is a privilege. Live it for us.”
As your body was leaving, your mom and dad invited me to stay with them until the end. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but only in hindsight (and after becoming a parent myself) did I grasp the significance of this invitation. I watched them lose a child that day. My notion of parenting was put into perspective. I did not know it then, but I do now.
When I think back on our time together, I laugh a lot. I suspect because we laughed a lot. I remember the time we went to San Diego to visit my dad. We had fe-mullets and braces and wore heavy cotton Benneton rugby shirts, collars up, of course. We made sure to get a bright red sunburn the first day, wearing, with a false sense of security, pure baby oil “Sun Lotion.” We were introduced to the son of my parent’s friends—the guy that looked like he stepped off a Flock of Seagulls album cover. When he got a glimpse of us, he was less than impressed. Remember when we stopped to pick up his (equally hot surfer) friend? He took one look at us and declined. The Seagull was stuck with both of us all night. He was our lone, shared date. I think we grew on him in the end.
Our trip to Europe in high school was a revelation. I’ll never forget leaving Auschwitz, both of us speechless listening to Howard Jones’ lyrics, “Does anybody love anybody anyway?” on our Sony Walkmans. The world was big. Much bigger than Kansas. It was crazy and unpredictably sad and unfair. We woke up that day. We became more empathetic. We were making our way.
I continue to make my way, with you by my side. I breathed you in that day you died. You became a part of my DNA. You give me the certainty I need to continue this path. I want to help others recognize how fortunate we are to grow older…to AGE, if you wish. Thank you for the gifts you gave me, the gifts you give me, the gifts I can now give to others. Thank you for demonstrating that even tragedy, especially tragedy, can be transformed into the gift of love.
I Love You,