Love is amazing. It’s powerful and all-encompassing. As a child, your understanding of love is formed by the relationships of those around you. Your parents, your siblings, your grandparents. You learn there are different types of love—familial, romantic, universal.
I never once doubted my mom’s unconditional love for my brother or me. My father? I’ll skip on by him. As for romantic love? I will never forget the first time I witnessed it—in all its beauty, and then again, even among the ugliness life can bring.
My mom’s older brother was the coolest uncle on the planet. I adored him. He was always interested in what was going on in my life, no matter that I was still in elementary school and probably bored him to tears. I cringe now at the number of times I discussed my Strawberry Shortcake dolls. Somehow he put up with me without making me feel like I was annoying him. Yes, I loved Uncle Damon with all my heart.
In third grade I found a picture of him with another man, their arms around each other, smiling. Even at my young age, I could tell they were more than friends. I placed the picture back in my mom’s nightstand drawer and never told her I found it.
Uncle Damon lived in New York City, but flew back often to see us, although my father refused to spend time with him. My dad hated most people, so that wasn’t anything surprising. We were used to it. But it still hurt my heart that he didn’t like my uncle. When my parents finally divorced, the tension in the house when Uncle Damon visited completely disappeared.
On one visit to town he showed up with the man I’d seen in the picture and introduced him to the family. Mark was enamored with my uncle, and the feeling was clearly mutual. For the first time in my life I witnessed true love. It was in everything they did—the way they looked at each other, their small touches and private words, and how each made sure the other was near. I realize now, that in my young mind I was probably idealizing their relationship, but I had never truly seen that kind of love before and it had a profound impact on me. The idea that someone could love you for yourself—and not because they were related to you—was beautiful to me.
Damon and Mark purchased a house together and we were set to fly out to visit when we got the call. This was in the early 1980s and the AIDS crisis was gaining momentum. He’d been diagnosed with it. We were devastated. Back then, there was still so much not known about AIDS and people around the country…well, they said some horrible things about gay men. It hurt to hear people say these things about the kindest man I knew.
He lost his job and was interviewed on NBC News. They asked him if he “regretted it or if it made him rethink that lifestyle” and I remember thinking what a stupid question that was. Recently I was doing some family research and came across a YouTube video of clips about gay rights from the 1980s and was stunned to find parts of that interview included.
Through it all—the sickness, the loss of a job, the hatred from so many—Mark was there for him. Not once did he leave his side. In all the beauty of love, there is also darkness. I am sure they had many dark days, struggling with the knowledge that Damon was going to die, yet hoping for a cure. They were shunned by so many people, too.
But in that darkness there was even more beauty. Their love stayed strong and they were together until the end. That Mark gave of himself freely, when so many others ran, is beautiful. He was tested immediately after Damon’s diagnosis and thankfully he escaped the virus.
Damon didn’t survive long after the diagnosis. He passed away October 11, 1985. But I still feel a strong connection to him. Through his life, no matter how short, I learned more about love and strength and bravery than from anyone else. He shaped my life in more ways than I can count.
When I was pregnant with my first child, a son, my due date was in November. But the baby came early and he was born on October 11. I like to think Damon was smiling that day.