By Jim Geary
In 1978 I made the agonizing decision to separate from my lover of six years. Matt and I had met when we were 20. He was my first love. Matt was finishing his degree in drama at the University of Maryland and I was doing antiwar work for Catholic Peace Fellowship in Washington, D.C. As our relationship progressed we learned that we had attended the same school in first grade and that his younger brother and my cousins were close friends. Matt and I felt we were destined to be together.
In 1973 we entered a Holy Union at the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Community Church, a church that primarily ministers to gay and lesbian identified people. Relocating to San Francisco in 1974, I worked as a nursing assistant with oncology patients. In our six years together we dealt with the continuing disapproval from his parents; our gravitation towards Eastern thought (we were both raised Catholic); vegetarianism; opening our relationship to occasionally connect with others; coping with the loss of 900 Bay Area residents who had followed Jim Jones to Guyana; and the assassinations of San Franciscan Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk –our first openly elected gay supervisor.
Leaving Matt after six years together was painful. I still loved him but our sexual and emotional connection had waned. We worked with a therapist for a while but we continued to hurt one another with our words. I hadn’t realized that you could still be in love with someone but feel that it was for your mutual highest good to part ways.
I channeled my grief into working with Shanti Project. Shanti trained volunteers to provide emotional support to people with life-threatening illnesses and to those experiencing grief. In October 1981 I formed the first AIDS support group. During this time, fear of AIDS was at hysterical proportions. No one knew how the illness was transmitted. Families were abandoning their children, roommates were asking their HIV positive roommates to move, domestic partnerships were breaking up and funeral homes were refusing to care for the deceased. In these early days of the pandemic, life expectancy for those diagnosed varied between six weeks to several years. Death of neighbors and friends became a daily occurrence.
When I first began facilitating the support group I tried to identify behavior patterns in members which made them different from me and therefore more susceptible to the illness. I thought, If I can make them different I will be safe. I quickly realized that group members varied greatly: some had been with many sexual partners while others had only a few; some partook of recreational drugs while others refrained. I began to realize that AIDS could happen to anyone.
In serving as Shanti Project’s executive director for seven years I helped develop and oversee many new programs to assist people with AIDS. In addition to our emotional support program we began a practical support program that trained volunteers to assist clients with cleaning, groceries, cooking and transportation. Our residence program provided safe places for people with AIDS to live and eventually die. Our Shanti-trained emotional support volunteers were hired to work full time on a specially formed 48-bed AIDS unit at San Francisco General Hospital.
We also created a recreation program that provided quarterly weekend retreats in a picturesque setting north of San Francisco. These retreats were safe havens where clients could lessen their isolation and form heartfelt connections with others facing similar issues. People with AIDS were offered a host of workshops that included: intimacy and sexuality, healing touch massage, body painting, and group discussions on coping with issues of fear of dying and acknowledging and releasing grief. Retreat participants also enjoyed soaking in hot tubs, swimming in the pool, stargazing, savoring panoramic views, camping in a redwood grove, talent shows, playing cards and connecting with others who often became their primary support after returning home. These weekend gatherings were immensely healing for all.
During my years at Shanti I met another dear man, Jess Randall. Jess eventually was hired as Shanti’s finance director. We became lovers and formed a very tender and supportive relationship. After leaving Shanti we moved to Florida in 1988. We bought our first home and for the first time in many years began to focus on ourselves.
Jess was diagnosed with AIDS in 1992. After his diagnosis we purchased a small camper and travelled extensively throughout the United States and Canada visiting many scenic areas and national parks. My parents bought a pop-up trailer and accompanied us on our journeys. It was a precious time where we made the conscious choice to fully embrace our remaining time together.
In September 1998 Jess made the decision to stop all food and medications. Jess had run the course of drugs that were available and his body had been ravaged by the disease. During his three remaining weeks Jess began the process of saying goodbye to friends.
Matt wanted to fly out from San Francisco to support me and to say goodbye to Jess. Matt couldn’t come until several weeks later. I was concerned that Jess wouldn’t last until Matt arrived. I could tell that Jess was nearing the end and told him that Matt would understand if he needed to let go. Matt arrived at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, October 3 and Jess passed at 2 a.m. Sunday morning with my parents, our dear friend Chris, and Matt and me at his side. Matt remained another week to support me. Jess and I had been together for 20 years.
After several years of what was at times crippling grief, I met another dear man, Jeff Allen. Jeff like myself was also HIV positive and active in our community advocating for people with AIDS. On a trip to San Francisco five years ago Matt and Jeff met. Matt remains a dear friend and we continue to stay in touch and exchange gifts at Christmas. Jeff and I recently celebrated our 11th anniversary.
As I reflect on the 30 years that I have been involved with AIDS and the passing of numerous friends, I am struck that how in the midst of the worst epidemic of my lifetime I have been supported and sustained by the love of these three men. Their devotion and care has enabled me to live, grow and continue to expand my heart in new and wondrous ways. I have accepted that there is not a need for me to let go of the love I hold for these individuals but a conscious desire and commitment to continue to live life fully.
For those of us who have survived separation, divorce, or the death of a spouse or significant other we can bring forth the best of the past even if it ended in a painful way. We can make the conscious decision to continually embrace and be embraced by all that we remain connected to. We can joyfully commit to living in the eternal now moment, extending a love that has triumphed over fear, anger, death and grief. For this is a love that has manifested itself in ways that forever expands and continually blooms in our hearts.
About Jim Geary
Jim Geary formed the first support group in the world for people with AIDS and served as Shanti Project’s executive director for seven years, where he developed the agency into an internationally acclaimed model of AIDS services. Jim has recently released his memoir Delicate Courage which tells the story of his revolutionizing AIDS care and his poignant crossing from joy to grief as his lover faces his own AIDS diagnosis. Geary’s memoir concludes with journal entries he kept following his lover’s passing which are interwoven with uplifting after-death communications he has shared with his partner of 20 years. Read more about Jim and Delicate Courage on his web site: www.delicatecourage.com.