“Don’t be sad,” he told me.
It was World AIDS Day 2018. I was attending an event in the National AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park. We were there to honor not only those lost to AIDS but also the children left behind.
A member of the Grove’s Board of Directors sat next to me. I turned to him at the end of the emotional ceremony. On my mind was an antique carved wooden bench that sat in my foyer. It had been owned by a man who died of AIDS in the late 1980s, the terrifying early years of the epidemic.
“It’s beautiful,” I said. “But I must confess that I have hard time looking at it.”
A gay couple living across the street from my parents at the time had turned their home into a hospice for men dying of AIDS. My father and I visited them one day when I was in my early 30s.
I was horrified.
The dying men were slumped over in wheelchairs against an eerie backdrop of antiques and artwork stacked floor-to-ceiling against each wall in the house.
Carved oak dining chairs at bizarre angles piled on top of black lacquered Asian end tables and handsome mirrored armoires that were themselves turned on their sides.
I wanted to flee. But my father, then in his early 60s, was a calming force. He spoke softly and lovingly to the sick men while gliding from room to room.
I’d later learn that as each man died, there were no family members to claim their furniture. Many if not most of the gay men had been shunned or abandoned by their families. With more sick men quickly taking their spot in the hospice came new furnishings, too. Pretty soon the hospice couldn’t hold any more. The owners gave things away. They held sales. My father asked me if I’d like one of the pieces.
And that’s how I ended up with the beautiful wooden bench that has broken my heart ever since.
At the end of the event in San Francisco on Dec. 1, 2018, I confessed my negligence to the boardmember. I didn’t even bother trying to blot the tears streaming down my cheeks as I revealed the story long buried inside me.
Society shunned the dying men. I in turn had shunned the furnishings of one of them.
“I’m so sad walking by it,” I said.
The Boardmember’s exuberant response surprised me.
“No, no, no! Don’t be sad,” he said. He placed an arm on my shoulder. “Think of the bench as an altar, a way to celebrate him.”
That’s all it took. In that moment, I shed my guilt that had spanned nearly three decades. I am now able to see the details of the bench, including the palm tree carved into the back. Palms, I found out, are a symbol of celebration in many religions.
Now when I pass by, I celebrate a man society discarded before his time. And I celebrate a beautiful part of himself he left behind.
I no longer turn away. I feel like I’m finally getting to know him.
Read more in Laura Hall’s My Dad’s Closet: A daughter’s memoir, coming eventually to a bookstore near you. Laura and her husband live in San Francisco.