Randy Shilts was having a big breakfast after a bad night. "I dreamt I died," he said.
"But I came back to life."
"For three days, to attend a funeral."
"Anyway," he continued, shelling an egg, "somehow I end up in a doctor's office, and he tells me, 'While you're here, why don't you let me fix that cancer on your jaw?' I say, 'Didn't know I had one.' He recommends radiation immediately. Then he says, 'But there is a long line and you'll have to wait.' 'Wait?' I say."
As impatient dreaming as he was in everything else, Randy renegotiated the scenario so that suddenly he was waiting in a short line at a deli, buying gum and chatting with Mario Cuomo.
Randy was a master of dissociation. He had learned it early, one of six boys in an abusive and alcoholic family. Nearly every day his drunken mother forced him into the bathroom, made him take down his pants and then whipped him, and if he cried, whipped him again. He taught himself not to cry, so effectively that for many years he forgot how; to go to school and pretend nothing had happened; to sit through suppers where no one ever mentioned the violence.
Randy recounted these memories in the same bright, even eager, way he told any story, as though it were something he was reporting. Each brother, he explained, had absorbed the suffering differently. One decided to have a vasectomy while still a teen-ager. A second was institutionalized and a third ran away.
And then there was Randy, who, after years of migraines and multiple addictions, had concluded that writing was the only way out, or, at least, the only anesthesia that lasted. He was overcoming his final dependence, on sleeping pills, while he finished "And the Band Played On," his account of the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.
Yet no sooner was he in the clear, and in love, than he fell ill. I recall one visit after a long spell of blood draws and biopsies. With a lopsided smile, he pushed his glasses up the ridge of his nose and lowered his voice confidentially. "You realize the only reason I didn't become an intravenous drug user was that I was so afraid of needles," he said. "Now look."
I met Randy Shilts in San Francisco, when we were both covering AIDS. Over time we exchanged our work, helping each other call the shots as we saw them -- and we never saw them the same way. I was studying medical history, searching for clues to the epidemic. Randy focused on politics. He had a prodigious memory for obscure legislation, but also for the silliest cultural trivia. A few notes from any golden oldie and he could identify the month and year of its release.
"How do you remember this junk?" I asked.
"What you are to syphilis," he said, "I am to mid-60's music."
Randy covered AIDS as long as he could endure it. But one day in the spring of 1989 he called from his car phone after visiting Stanford Children's Hospital, where he was researching an article on hemophiliac AIDS. "I can't do this anymore," he said. "There were these tiny little chairs in the waiting room, Garfield posters everywhere, this enforced cheerfulness . . ." Soon after the article was published he decided to take a year's break, but within months he was planning "Conduct Unbecoming," a history of gay people in the armed forces.
Pentagon documents preoccupied him. Sometimes he traveled to military bases to do interviews, but he was budgeting his energy, calculating each trip in terms of forfeited T-cells. During the gulf war, I asked him if he wished he could go.
"Just what I need: anthrax," he said.
Friends had warned Randy off the topic of homosexuals in the military as being overly specialized. But he persisted and was proved right. As the issue advanced from back pages to headlines, his efforts to finish the manuscript strained his frail resources.
Almost done with the book, he entered a hospital for surgery. When he could no longer write sitting up, he wrote on his back. When he could no longer write at all, he dictated. We spoke briefly once on the telephone. He was quiet for so long I thought he was asleep. "You know," he said, "I think the book is curing me."
He was frustrated by his inability to follow the news after his operation; he liked to have clippings read to him, but also passages from books. One he asked to hear again in the months before his death, even as he was contemplating his next project, came from Henry James's "Notebooks."
"The way to do it -- to affirm one's self sur la fin -- is to strike as many notes, deep, full and rapid, as one can. Go on, my boy, and strike hard . . . . Try everything, do everything, render everything -- be an artist, be distinguished, to the last."
Randy did, and so he was. The book may not have cured him, but I have no question that writing saved his life.