Being Alive 1995 Feb 5: 10
I think I just may be a very lucky person. A friend of mine
up in San Francisco has been telling me for years that I lead
some kind of charmed life. And for just as many years, I have
been heartily denying that it's true. But now I'm not so
sure-maybe I am very lucky.
In looking back on the last five and a half years, I realized
that I have been very lucky indeed in the people I have
known. Special people, out of the ordinary people, people who
have indeed made a difference. Some of these people, I am
happy to say, I still see regularly; some unfortunately are
now living at a distance-and some have simply vanished,
vanished to I certainly don't know where.
One of the truly special people I have been lucky enough to
know is the man whose life I am remembering here, my good
friend, Gilbert Cornilliet. I first met Gilbert in the late
summer of 1989 at the old Being Alive offices on the wrong
end of Santa Monica Boulevard in Silver Lake. My good friend
Emily had convinced me that I ought to be working on the
Being Alive Newsletter and Gilbert had started in being the
Newsletter's resident computer genius just the month before.
From that first day, I knew Gilbert and I would be friends.
There was a kind of instant rapport and I knew we'd work well
together. He smiled at the things I said and laughed at all
the right lines.
It didn't take long for Gilbert, Emily and I to form a strong
team. We were all amateurs; we really didn't know exactly
what we were doing. But we learned pretty quickly. And the
Newsletter soon took on a kind of professional sheen-thanks
in large part to Gilbert's virtuosic computer skills and
Emily's unflagging perfectionism. A few years back, my doctor
was trying to produce his own small quarterly newsletter, and
I remember him asking me in some amazement how Being Alive
was able to put out a monthly Newsletter of such high quality
with only volunteer help. And I told him the answer to that
was simple: you just needed the right volunteers.
Over the years that I have worked on the Newsletter, many
people have helped and I remember them all today. We
certainly missed Emily when she moved to the East Coast.
Though we understood why she left, Gilbert and I both felt a
bit bereft. But we carried on.
Even as his health deteriorated, as it did over the last
couple of years, Gilbert was there at his post one weekend a
month. I often wondered how he could sit in front of a
computer for hours on end, but I was sure glad he could. Some
months with his condition so precarious, I thought we just
weren't going to make it. But we did. Not an issue was
missed; not an issue was late.
Finally, with his brain surgery last June, Gilbert just
couldn't go on with his Newsletter work. I remember him
calling me and saying, "Jim, I don't think I will be able to
do the June Newsletter. They are going to open up my head."
I think maybe he thought he would be back with us some
weekend, but it didn't happen. Nonetheless, he remained
involved. I would discuss with him what we were doing,
because he was genuinely interested, and I would ask his
advice about things-not as a courtesy, but because I needed
The weekend before Gilbert died, we were working on the
January Newsletter. Mark, who appeared somewhat miraculously
and took up being our computer genius when Gilbert was forced
to retire, was having some problems-what I don't know-but I
figured if anyone would know the answer, Gilbert would. So I
got him on the phone and he said "let me talk to Mark." He
knew I wouldn't know what the hell he was talking about. With
Mark sitting at the computer, Gilbert walked him through step
by step and in about five minutes solved the problem. That
was less than a week before he died.
I think of the friendship that Gilbert and I shared as
something new, unique, special for these plague years.
Certainly, we grew close over the five and a half years we
knew each other. Those two days each month weren't all spent
focused on the Newsletter. We had our laughs and our lunches.
We had our occasional social evenings too-Gilbert was the one
person I could always get to go to a French movie. But
mingled with our personal relationship was our common cause.
We were comrades, as well as friends. And out of our
relationship we were able to produce something that was of
value to the larger community -our community, the infected
community, the diseased pariahs.
Our friendship was not only about him and me, it was about
the work we were doing, it was about trying to make a
difference. In some ways, you might say, we egged each other
on. Gilbert's dedication kept me going, kept me focused on
the fight. And I would hope that I might have, at times, kept
him going too. Perhaps, that is what friendship is all about
in this Age of AIDS.
Yes, I am a very lucky person. That Thursday night, the night
before Gilbert died, I went over to DeLongpre for a visit. I
knew deep down that the end was close, though I hardly
realized how close. When I got there, things were pretty
chaotic with Robbie Jenkins stopping by, and the nurse in to
do her number, and equipment being delivered. Gilbert's room
was stifling and stuffy with the humidifier whirling. But
finally things settled down. Chris had taken a break and gone
out to dinner. Walt was busy on the phone in the dining room.
And we, my friend and I, were alone and quiet. At some point,
Gilbert said to me, "Well, Jim, what have you got to tell
me?" And so I told him. I told him essentially what I am
trying to tell you here. How deeply grateful I am for his
friendship-not only for what it means to me personally, but
also because we were able to make something of our
friendship, because together we were able to do something for
others-so many others we don't even know-others, like us,
caught up in this plague. I told Gilbert that last night that
we were a great team, he and I. And he agreed.
Finally, I have to say that watching a friend die brings on a
jumble of thoughts and feelings. And one thing I am feeling
more and more is a deep-seated anger. It is just not right
that so terrific a human being should die so awful a death,
that a person who had so much humanity to contribute should
have his life ended far too soon. But we know this-we've
heard it before, we've said it often. There has been way too
much dying in our community-and we fear there will only be
Gilbert and I would, from time to time, talk about the last
issue of the Newsletter. "Cure Found" screams the headline,
with the subhead saying "Newsletter Ceases Publication." I am
afraid we are far from the last issue. Right now, I would be
extremely happy to see "Way to Manage Virus Discovered" with
the subhead "Newsletter Readership Drops Off Dramatically."
That would definitely be OK. But at this point, even that
seems but a pipe dream.
So, despite all the death or maybe because of it, we have to
continue the struggle. We have to pick ourselves up and keep
on going, difficult as it may be in this now colder and
emptier world. Today we need to rededicate ourselves to the
fight against HIV, until those Newsletter headlines become a
reality. That, it seems to me, is the finest tribute that we
can offer our fallen friend and comrade.