April 4, 2007


Have you ever known one of those sparkplug types who seem to do just about everything with pizzazz? They're like displays of fireworks, turning ordinary get-togethers into spectacles. Something about the way they talk - the ideas they get - the way they carry themselves - gives off an engaging glow: They're entertaining, and they can be inspiring too. My friend Steve was one of the Fireworks People.

I'd been trained as a volunteer companion/confidante to a person living with HIV. This was in the years before antiviral cocktails and infected individuals weren't always living the vibrant lives many do now. Some took on buddies to decrease their isolation and otherwise help them through difficult times.

Steve was my first client. I was unsure of myself in this new role, despite the training. I couldn't hide my nervousness.

But we got along famously, right from the get-go: He was amiable, he was bright and he had personality Out-To-Here. I’m more the quiet type, but I’m drawn to flashy people.

On my second visit I realized Steve had picked up on my self-doubt. And I learned just how quirky he could be:

He'd left the front door to his home unlocked. He heard me enter and called out from the bedroom, “Come in here!”

And there he was, laying on the bed, flat on his back. He was almost entirely covered by a blanket, from the top of his head to his ankles. All I could see of him were his bare feet. His toes wiggled rapidly, and he gave them voice, an affected falsetto: “Welcome back Tank! Glad you could come over again Tank! Nice to see you Tank!”

On the underside of each of his toes was written a character: H E L L O T A N K ! ...Hello Tank!!! Hello Tank!!! he squealed.

I convulsed in laughter, as did he, as he pulled himself out from under the covers. The rest of the visit was spent washing the ink off his toes, and a friendship was born.

Now I think I may understand why he concocted this craziness: He was responding to the uncertainty he sensed in me during our first meeting. The buddy/client dynamic was unfamiliar territory. It might get completely crazy, he thought, and he wanted to see if I were up to handling it. And, if i could, he wanted for us to bond. And bond we did. Instantly.

Months pasted and Steve’s health declined. He became increasingly demanding and irritable. But he was surrounded by a large group of loving and generous family members and friends who would do anything for him, regardless.

Steve knew he was loved, but he amused himself by pretending we all hated him for what he was putting us through. As retribution, he decided he would throw what he called "The First and Last Steve L.'s Caregivers Appreciation Party”. His idea was to give 24 of us the opportunity to 'get back' at him for what he perceived as his cantankerous behavior.

The night of the party he taped large photographs of himself onto the walls of his bathroom and stockpiled raw eggs and plastic squeeze bottles of ketchup and mustard. His plan was that guests would enter the bathroom in pairs, recounting stories of his abuse. Then we’d hurl the eggs and squirt condiments on his pictures as symbolic acts of retaliation.

It was a ridiculous exercise. But we did it. We had to.

As it turned out, Steve wasn't feeling well that night. He sequestered himself in his bedroom for the duration of the party and didn't witness the scene in the bathroom. But we went ahead with the 'revenge' anyway, just as he wanted, without question.

Steve passed away a month later, in June of 1994.

Steve was that display of fireworks – loud, colourful, full of surprises. His show was over long before anyone was ready. But he lived his life with panache, touching everyone in its wake. And he goes on living in many of us.


How do you think Steve would feel about my posting his picture online and using details of his final days as blog fodder?

Are you kidding?!?!? He'd LOVE it: Mister Steve, the centre of attention, once again, all these years later. He'd be thrilled to know he’s still very much alive in my life - and now, in yours too, at least for the moment. He was an incorrigible show-off.

And Steve'd get a real kick out of me, his quiet buddy, announcing this story to the world at large. I mightn't have letters written on my toes today, but I may as well have: The blogging phenomena is probably just as wacky. Steve would definately approve.


Anonymous said...

a touching tribute to a wonderful man. beautiful... really. xo.

BigAssBelle said...

what a beautiful tribute to your friend. it is a measure of how much of an impact he had on your life that you're still able to discuss him with such clarity so many years later. i know you had an impact on his life too. what a gift you gave him ~ to be a companion and a friend at such a time. what a dreadful disease. thanks for sharing this, honey.

buff said...

He would have been flattered by the wonderful tribute and the sexy photo. A great blog post.
Big hairy muscle hugs of thanks.

Michael said...

This is a beautiful story. As long as we remember them, they live on and in Steve's case, continue to entertain us with a "fireworks" personality. Thank you for introducing me to him.

Mike said...

Damn, this one snuck up on me. It takes a special/wonderful person to be a caregiver. I knew several Steves, men like him. They live on in memory, in life, in death.
(Now I have to wipe the moisture from my eyes.)

Don said...

I admire you for volunteering your time to care for this HIV+ man. Too many people in the gay community discard their brethren when they age and/or are no longer fashionable.

Paul said...


OMO said...

Thank you so much Tank for sharing that with us. It was beautiful. I'm sure Steve would be so pleased that his memory not only lives on but can be shared with so many others.

Helen the Felon said...

I'm always amazed and deeply impressed by people who maintain a sense of humor in the face of mortality, be it their own or that of someone close. This made me laugh more than it made me sad, and from what you've said of Steve, that's just how he'd want it. Awesome. My cousin did some hilariously rotten things to us when he was dying of AIDS...maybe at some point I'll be able to write about them the way you did about Steve. Thanks for that.

LSL said...

I love this story. Thanks so much for posting a link and a note on my blog. I have a lot to learn and am so thankful the opportunity to volunteer has come up. I hope I can dive in like you obviously did.

The "Hello Tank!" on his toes in the best . . . :)

Anonymous said...

When Steve and I were about 21, he tried over and over to get me to go tobogganing with him in Murray Park. Like on a date. I wasn't interested in him that way: I found him to be too much like me physically. But we were fast bar friends over the next 10 or 15 years. I was always so glad to see him, and we'd often pass the night away leaning against a bar, making each other laugh. He was so funny!
And so real. Years later I was shocked to learn he had died. I hadn't even known he was sick. Thanks, Brock, for bringing him back to my life. It's always the quiet ones you can count on to do things like make this tribute of yours to him.

I wonder what it would have been like to go tobogganing with him.

-- John W