“I Won’t Be Able to Tell My Neighbors” An AIDS Story. Part IV final

EnnDeathCover7inches copyJohn’s mind started to cloud and I didn’t trust his driving so I started using my car for outings. He was always asking metaphysical and other kinds of questions. “What’s the worst sound you ever heard?” when he couldn’t stand the noise my windshield wipers made any longer.

John could neither tell his mother he was gay nor had AIDS so she didn’t have the chance to nurture him in his last days. I’m a mother of four and would want that opportunity for myself, so finally, close to the end of his life, I begged him to tell her the truth. He said, “I will tell my mother not for her, but for me. I don’t want the dishonesty of sudden hushed extinction or secrets opened after my death, like trunks of obscene jewels. I want to be proud of my life, to celebrate my destiny, whatever it is. I want to lay down my head in peace, not in squalor and hysteria and infamy.”

It turned out badly. The first words out of her mouth were, “I won’t be able to tell my neighbors.” He had predicted as much. She didn’t come to be with him. His sister came from Wisconsin for a visit, though. After he died she wrote that her closest friends knew and were understanding but she preferred to keep the reason of his death a secret. 

John ached to be fully alive during his last weeks. “I want to take the train forever. I want to ride through the guts of every back city, every mountain canyon, every forest and field. I’ll see lots of junked cars and old wooden buildings, the country 100 years ago, 70 years ago, 40 years ago. And I’ll speak to no one. I will be the one who nods his head, reads his Hemingway, eats peanuts and stretches out with hungry eyes, starving to live just one more day, just one more day.”

Knowing John satisfied my need to be, as well as to have, a reliable friend, as this note attests: “Elizabeth! Thank you for being my perennial, conscientious and loving friend. It is wonderful to walk and talk with you—to investigate the labyrinths of existence—and sometimes just to bitch about life. But let’s hope there are more ordeals in the fog like in Point Pinole, the cold chill of truth sweeping in across the bay, and the eucalyptus friends catching the meanings in their silver leaves and scorched arms.”

This was the last installment of an expanded story from Chapter 4, The Enneagram of Death.

Read reviews of The Enneagram of Death – Helpful Insights by the 9 Types of People on Grief, Fear, and Dying and Elizabeth’s other books and CD. http://www.wagele.com

Also, Elizabeth will give a talk on The Enneagram of Death May 25 at 7:30. East West books, 324 Castro Street, Mountain View CA 650-988-9800 http://www.eastwest.com

John Herlin

John Herlin


“I Won’t Be Able to Tell My Neighbors” Part III

ImageLiving a Productive Life While Coping with AIDS

John had fierce itching nothing would stop. It would get so bad he tried to kill the bacteria on his skin by taking baths with large amounts of Clorox added to the water.


When he regained some strength, he set up his will and durable power of attorney, bought a new dishwasher though the old one still worked, and volunteered to visit men in his AIDS support group in the hospital or at home when they became ill. This gave him goals and the sense his life had hope. He found joy every day and lived by “Do not possess what you can never really own.”


John improvised on the piano to work out his complicated relationships. He photographed patterns in the sand and in eucalyptus bark. Once we took a walk deep in the woods near St. Mary’s College in Moraga, hopped on a lone picnic table, and shouted the lines of a play we made up to the attentive oak and bay trees. After John quit his job as an English teacher at Monte Vista High School in suburban Danville, he wrote me a note, “I know everyone around school is going to be talking about me in hushed tones. I’m irresistible gossip. Students too. God, what a choice bit of rare flesh to sizzle on the grill of public discussion.”


As a teacher, his goal was to instill a lifelong appreciation of literature in his students. He would occasionally show them movies, too. Hopelessly playful, John threw little pieces of liver at his students one day. They were watching “The African Queen” and he wanted them to know what leeches were like.


We formed a support group of about 12 friends, AIDS volunteers, and medical volunteers to fill John’s needs. He named us the Herlinettes. My main job was to take him on adventures, the scarier the better, to cheer him up. Sometimes he surprised me by wrapping my head in a large towel and driving me around in his car, it seemed in circles. After he took the towel off, the schoolteacher in him would charge me with telling him where we were. Once we were parked on a corner facing a house about three miles south into Oakland, and I was completely disoriented. Another time we were near a reservoir in the middle of a herd of goats. Sometimes we’d take the train to San Francisco and go where we weren’t allowed in the Transamerica Pyramid Building or wander about in Chinatown’s darkest alleys.


This is Part III of an expanded story from Chapter 4, The Enneagram of Death. Part IV will appear on April 30. Read reviews of The Enneagram of Death – Helpful Insights by the 9 Types of People on Grief, Fear, and Dying and Elizabeth’s 6 other books and CD: http://www.wagele.com


Also, Elizabeth will give a talk on The Enneagram of Death May 25 at 7:30. East West Books, 324 Castro Street, Mountain View CA 650-988-9800 http://www.eastwest.com


“I Won’t Be Able to Tell My Neighbors” Part II – AIDS and Music

ImageJohn and I had not yet spoken to each other in the series of barrelhouse-blues-and-free-improvisation-classes we both attended in 1980 with about twelve other students. One evening, our teacher improvised a beautiful and mysterious piece, then asked if it reminded any of us of someone in the class. I raised my hand right away and said John. I was right.

A few weeks later, I defended John when the teacher forgot he had promised to play a recording John had brought of piano improvisations he had made at home. There was just enough time to hear them and they were interesting. After class, John came up to me, threw out his arms, and shouted, “WOW! YOU REALLY SAVED MY LIFE!”

He asked me to teach him classical piano shortly after that. After a few months, we developed a friendship centered on listening to his vast collection of music. One time when I was visiting, he asked me to play food on the piano—popcorn was easy enough but pears flambé, beans, and milk were challenging to say the least.

As our friendship grew, I enjoyed interacting with this probing individual. A few years into our friendship, I told him I had a private problem I needed to talk to him about. He opened his big eyes wide, stepped back a couple of steps, and exploded with “WOW! TELL ME ABOUT IT!” John was kind to me when I moved out of my home for a few months.  Most of the people I knew projected simplistic explanations on me that had little to do with my situation. John showed compassion, however, by listening attentively and giving me his honest feedback. That he was so supportive during this difficult time for me added to my motivation to be helpful and loyal to him when AIDS struck him.

When John contracted AIDS, I visited him in the hospital often. He was so weak he could hardly stand up. Even though he was anguished about his condition, he would take care of his friends who visited, giving them grief therapy.

I didn’t mind talking about death, unlike some of his friends who were terrified they could come down with the disease. AIDS was a death sentence then—in 1986-88. Some of his best gay friends were so scared they abandoned him. When a straight couple, dear old friends of his, was told by their evangelist minister to stay away from him, and his dentist, also a good friend, refused to treat him, he felt as though they had pounded a stake in his heart. “I’ve been surprised that some friends and acquaintances have withdrawn and avoided me after my diagnosis,” he said. “Do I remind them of their own vulnerability to illness, of the thin line between life and death? It is a shock when people disappear. One never likes to imagine one’s friends as inconstant…”

Once home, the fear John had suppressed during his life-and-death struggle in the hospital surfaced. He would wake up in the night shaking from macabre nightmares. He struggled with not yet being finished with life, with the injustice of it all. One night he tore up every shred of newspaper in his house in a rage.

This is Part II of an expanded story from Chapter 4, The Enneagram of Death. Read part III here on April 23. Read reviews of The Enneagram of Death – Helpful Insights by the 9 Types of People on Grief, Fear, and Dying and Elizabeth’s 6 other books and CD: http://www.wagele.com

Also, save Saturday May 25 for my talk on The Enneagram of Death at East West books in Mountain View CA at 7:30 pm. 324 Castro Street,  650-988-9800 http://www.eastwest.com

An AIDS Story from the ‘80s. How far have we come? Part I

John Herlin

John Herlin

About a week before John died, he demanded I take him out for a drive, against doctor’s orders. The nurse who came to his house every day to administer an IV drove him nuts, he said, by being overly polite and tiptoeing around his room in her red high heels. He couldn’t wait to get away from her and experience real life. As I drove on an overpass on our way to 4th Street for coffee, he ranted about how he craved the truth. Then his voice became serious and gruff. “Elizabeth! Tell me something you don’t like about me!” I recoiled from the challenge, but this could be John’s last request and so fervent, I felt I had no choice but to squeeze an answer out of myself. “You’re too opinionated sometimes, John… And what don’t you like about me?” I asked quickly to change the subject. “You’re too naturally conciliatory,” he said. “I can’t get you to argue with me.” (John was a type 4 on the Enneagram – a Romantic.)

That stung. Just what I most didn’t like about myself in 1988. Why had nobody ever said it before? Painful as it was, John really saw me. Damn! The one person who perceived my private hell was going to die any minute. I parked, and we sat on the sidewalk, leaning against a building for about 20 minutes, while John gathered his strength to cross the road to the café. He insisted on fetching his own coffee. Then he took the most agonizing steps of his life, he told me, yet he was exhilarated to be out one last time.

In June 1986 John Herlin was weary from twenty years balancing being the best teacher he could be with taking nature photographs, writing poetry, debating friends, hiking the regional parks around Berkeley, California, and traveling the world. So he took a vacation in Hawaii. Two weeks after coming home early with what he thought was the flu, he was still sick and short of breath. His lungs contained 48 percent of their normal oxygen and were clouded. Doctors diagnosed him with pneumocystis pneumonia, which could only mean AIDS, and kept him in the hospital for 18 days. Eighteen months later he died in the AIDS epidemic at almost 48.

John was one year younger than I was and one of the best friends I ever had. I admired him for demanding authenticity in himself and his friends. The conscience his rigidly religious mother instilled in him drove him to do good deeds, such as taking elderly neighbors grocery shopping regularly. At the same time he rebelled from her teachings. He was a maverick and flirted with the dark side—a trickster with a smile to match.

John told me he had a repressed childhood. He suffered angst over his sexual identity, and tried to resist being gay in his home state of Wisconsin. As a young man, he moved to Berkeley, where he found a sense of belonging and freedom. He joined a gay support group and felt at home. Years later, he plunged into helping others with HIV-AIDS, volunteering to answer phones at the AIDS Project and speaking publicly on the epidemic. He used himself as an example of a person with AIDS to help educate health workers and those vulnerable to getting the disease.

This is Part I of an expanded story from Chapter 4 in The Enneagram of Death. Part II will appear on April 9. Read reviews of The Enneagram of Death – Helpful Insights by the 9 Types of People on Grief, Fear, and Dying and Elizabeth’s 6 other books and CD: http://www.wagele.com