I’m writing this just a few days after my city’s Pride celebrations have wrapped up. You might not be familiar with Pride in Toronto, but let me tell you: It is huge. People travel from all over to be here for it.
I used to go every year with friends. We would watch the parade, party. Pride in Toronto lasts all week. We would at least make a weekend out of it.
I would also make a point to visit the AIDS Memorial in Barbara Hall Park. Sometimes, I would bring flowers and tuck them into the plaque that holds my uncle’s name, Douglas “Dougie” Cherry.
People had started creating temporary memorials in the park in the ‘80s. A permanent memorial was created in 1993. Every year, the names of Toronto residents who have died of AIDS are added to the memorial.
Things change, as they always do. Regrettably, my tradition of taking time to visit the AIDS Memorial fell away several years ago.
Why? I don’t know. Sometimes we just let things slip through our fingers. Sometimes life moves too fast and you realize another year has passed and there are things and people and places you just haven’t managed to make time for.
And Pride gets so busy, so crowded. I used to love it but now I find it overwhelming.
So I waited until it was over, and then, a few days ago, I paid an overdue visit to the AIDS Memorial.
Uncle Doug died of AIDS in 1996. He was my mother’s brother, the youngest in a family of nine. My mother is the oldest of the bunch; there was a 27-year age difference between her and her youngest sibling.
My mom was born in 1936, Uncle Doug in 1963.
My mom was 45 when she had me in 1982. Uncle Doug was only 19.
He would be dead 14 years later.
Both of my parents come from large families, but like many relationships, things were complicated. Not everyone was tight with each other. Not everyone got along.
My mother told me bits and pieces of Uncle Doug’s story when I was younger: That when he was growing up, my grandparents had put him in conversion therapy to change his sexual orientation.
He moved out of their house as soon as he could.
It was not okay to be gay in my family. I know there are many out there who can probably relate, no matter their sexual identity.
That is a topic all to its own – one too sprawling for the story I am telling about my uncle. (British writer David Hudson covers it well here.)
For now, I will simply touch on the messages I took from my family when I was younger: That love was conditional. That my identity had better fit pre-determined expectations, or else.
Despite all that was said and done, my mother maintained a relationship with her youngest brother. I remember he invited us to come for lunch at a restaurant he was working in downtown. He’d been working at Cultures before, a health food chain.
I remember thinking that that’s what it was to be an adult: Working at salad bars and waiting tables. Outside of that, Uncle Doug also did drag. I don’t know much about that part of his life. It wasn’t something that got talked about much within my family. But it’s also something that my uncle probably didn’t feel he could really share.
To me, his life seemed so…cool. Glamorous. Exciting. Different. As an only child living in suburbia on the verge of teenage-dom, l needed to know that someone, somewhere in my family, was out there living a life on their terms.
I can’t remember when Uncle Doug was diagnosed with HIV. When you’re a kid, time seems to stretch out a lot longer. What I do recall is the day my mom told me, and how it felt a line had been drawn: There was life before HIV, and life with HIV.
I also can’t remember that it was talked about much at family gatherings. In looking for photos to share here, I noticed his absence from many family gatherings.
Eventually, my grandmother moved from the suburbs to a house up north. Uncle Doug has visited her up there sometimes, to stay for a few days. Later, if he’d been feeling sick, my mother would get wind of it. “It’s really not fair for him to do that your grandmother,” she would say.
In the final days of Uncle Doug’s life, I went with my mom to visit him in the hospital. HIV/AIDS were widely talked about back then. It had been six years since Degrassi High introduced the topic in a two-part episode called “Bad Blood” in 1990.
Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, had been released in 1993, one of the first mainstream, Hollywood movies to tackle HIV/AIDS.
The phrase, “No glove, no love,” seemed to ring out from our TV on a weekly basis with a PSA about safe sex.
Despite the attention and education around HIV/AIDS, people were scared. I’d heard stories about healthcare workers who would refuse to work with HIV/AIDS patients.
At the hospital, the nurses made us put on gowns, gloves, and masks just go into my uncle’s room. I wasn’t sure if it was meant to protect him, or us, or both.
A couple of his friends were there at the same time. “I think this is a bit much,” one of them said, leaving his mask on the windowsill.
Uncle Doug had been given just days to live – another week or two and he would be gone. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I do remember how small he looked. He kept spitting something into a tissue. I wasn’t sure where to sit, or where to look, or what to say.
Writing this out, I realize my uncle was 33 at the time, two years younger than I am now. I always remember him as a little bit older than he was.
When we were leaving, one of his friends walked us out. I think the man’s name was Michael. When we got into the hallway, my mother said something that has haunted me ever since.
I won’t repeat it – it’s too callous, too cruel. It came out so casually, a remark about punishment and illness, one that you wouldn’t make if you were talking about a heterosexual person.
Michael was gracious. I’ve played that scene over so many times in my head as the years have gone on and am always saddened by his calm reaction, as though he’d heard it all before. I know I can’t speculate on this man’s experiences, but it’s hard not to wonder what kind of thick skin you’d need to develop in order to stay poised, respectful. Maybe he had thought, “This is Doug’s family. I’ll leave it alone.”
I’ve also gone back and wished I’d said something. I was so young then; it was about a month before my 14th birthday. I was a shy kid, but I wanted to be brave, bolder. I wish I’d had the courage to tell my mother why she was wrong. Or to at least apologize to this man who’d only wanted to talk to us.
Michael spoke at my uncle’s funeral. I don’t know if they were lovers or roommates. I remember he made a joke about Uncle Doug leaving globs of toothpaste in the sink, about how it used to bug him, and now how he would miss it.
The funeral itself held tension. Before it began, Uncle Doug’s friends had put a display of photographs. Some showed him in drag, looking beautiful, perfect.
A couple of my uncles took issue with the drag photos. They made his friends take them down.
One of those uncles made a point to be the one to write the obituary. He didn’t want anyone to know his brother had died of AIDS.
He didn’t want people to know his brother was gay. So he said Uncle Doug died of cancer.
I’ve thought about Uncle Doug a lot over the years. I wonder how his life would have unfolded if he’d been around longer. I wonder what kind of relationship we might have formed.
I like to think that we would have been friends. I like to think, too, that he might have found even more freedom, and more love, and more acceptance as he got older. Even if he had to seek it out beyond his immediate family. Even if he had to create his own community.
He was so young.
I’ve wondered about his friends, too. How it felt for them to be asked to take down those photos that they had so carefully chosen and assembled into a collage.
I’ve wondered if Michael was sick, too, or if he is still alive and if he is, does he ever think of those green gobs of toothpaste?
I’ve wondered if any of Uncle Doug’s friends are still living in Toronto and holding onto memories of my uncle, things that they might be willing to share with me one day.
I’ve imagined going for coffee with someone and learning things about an uncle who didn’t have the space to be who he was at home. I would like to know who that person was, who he might have been, what his ambitions were and what he had wanted for himself for the future.
At the AIDS Memorial in Barbara Hall Park, people’s names are listed by year. I counted 209 names listed under 1996.
Someone wrote “I <3 U” beside one name. It’s faint now, but it’s there.
Another name was rubbed out in an orangey-red smear. Traces of a lipstick kiss, or was it an attempt to hide something?
A man sat nearby, under some names from earlier in the ‘90s. He stayed a long time, looking up at a name on a plaque. I wondered what kind of memories he held. I wanted to talk to him, but decided not to interrupt.
On my way out, I saw a piece of graffiti on the park wall: “You will not erase us.”