Opinion
5 min

Our dying time — again?

Our sunset years seem more and more like a replay of the AIDS years

(We are dying,” writes Still QQ columnist Kevin Dale McKeown. “The companions of your misspent youth, and your equally misspent middle age, are leaving the stage with increasing frequency.”/Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock)

I’m not usually given to acts of vandalism, but quite a few years ago I had a moment.

I was living in a commune on Graveley Street, just off Commercial Drive, and one day there appeared a large bit of graffiti on the exposed brick side of a building.

“Nazis Must Die!” it proclaimed.

Late one night I crept up to the wall with a can of spray paint and added “Alas, So Must We All!”

And now we are.

It is undeniable. We are dying. Even knowing that we have always been dying, it still comes as, if not exactly a shock, at least a jolt to find, in your 60s, that the companions of your misspent youth, and your equally misspent middle age, are leaving the stage with increasing frequency.

In childhood and adolescence, death is a whispered rumour about ancient relatives, often in distant places. “Your great-aunt Sarah died yesterday. I guess you don’t remember her. She was your grandmother’s favourite sister. Pass the potatoes, dear.”

Only what seems a year or so ago we’d have that “have you heard about old so-and-so?” conversation. Hushed commiserations that the booze and the blow had done for another weekend warrior.

But somehow, without any major announcement or warning, Charon has started to pick up the tempo and it is more often every month or so that the phone will ring, or a Facebook post will be posted, bringing another farewell message.

This year, my 66th, there have been six already, with more expected momentarily.

I may have to set writing this piece aside for a moment to take a call from my goddaughter, shockingly transformed from a darling child who would snuggle up with me to watch Sesame Street while we waited for her mom to come home from work, into a 40-something mother herself. She’ll be calling with news of her mother’s deteriorating health, her time now passed in a hospital bed she may never leave.

Her mother and I met one night in 1970 at Champagne Charlie’s. She was drunk, I was high on LSD, and that night Dee Dee Ambrose, Charity, and Sandy St Peters high-kicked their way into our hearts.

We’ve been the best of friends ever since.

But let’s face it. While many of us rejoice in long-lived parents (mine are in their mid-90s) those survivors of a war and a depression didn’t do to themselves what we did to ourselves in the riotous ’70s and ’80s.

What were we trying so hard to escape that we seized on slow-motion suicide in the form of every mind-altering substance on offer, from alcohol to crack, with such fervour? I wish I could tell you. It might be useful information for today’s post-lumbersexuals, emo boys and party queens. Though probably not.

This sense of thinning ranks and failing vigour comes to every generation in its own time, and clearer-minded writers than I have commented on the fact. But a cruel irony for my cohort is that we have been here before. Our sunset years seem more and more like a replay of the plague years.

Do you remember when “I haven’t seen Eddie around for awhile, have you heard from him?” was a chilling question that we feared to hear answered?

In our 30s and 40s, when others were raising families and building careers, we were eyeing our drinking companions for unusual sores, dealing with a dying roommate’s hysterical (or, worse, uncaring) parents and siblings, and becoming much too well acquainted with the rules and regulations of British Columbia’s funerary rites.

Nobody should have to write an obituary for a beloved friend before the age of 35, and certainly not two or three in a year.

So we’ve been down this road before. Did we learn anything that will be helpful in getting through this next round of deaths, which none of us will escape?

We were a bunch of fags, dykes, trannies (that was our vocabulary), and other scared-shitless folks faced with something far more threatening than having rude things said about our politics on Facebook.

One thing we did then was come together as a community, in a way that the current squabblers over pride of place in the Pride parade, the appropriate markings on washroom doors, and the acceptable way to speak of someone who eschews the available pronouns, may not quite understand. Can we reach back to those days, forgive old foes, and hold each other’s hands again as we did during the plague years? Can we learn again to give unconditional aid and, even more difficult, to ask it for ourselves?

Some are trying.

Gay and Grey, a regular meet-up and conversation group focused on the need for elder-care in the gay community, seems to have run its course as its founder, Alan Herbert, needs more time to tend to his own health and enjoy the comforts of his family. But a core still meet regularly for coffee and something more may come of that.

Prime Timers have been meeting regularly for 25 years, providing a comfortable social environment, guest speakers on a variety of topics, and companionship to break down the silos of loneliness that often trap seniors of all genders and persuasions.

Qmunity’s rather awkwardly named “Senior Sessions” likewise offer opportunities for socializing as well as workshops and other help with some of the more practical aspects of aging. Stuff like wills, powers of attorney, end of life directives, and other topics we never contemplated back when all we cared about was the next tea dance at Faces.

Simon Fraser University’s gerontology department is studying us, academic papers are being written (oh joy!) and, as with the wider community, there’s a bright future in the end-of-life field.

I guess I’ll be writing more about these efforts in the near future. It’s not what I signed on for in 1970 with my first gay gossip column at the Georgia Straight, but it’s where we are now.

In the meantime, here’s a thought I shared with a friend who has been conducting workshops for seniors at local community centres. She asked myself, and several others, what our best piece of advice to our peers would be at this moment in time.

Mine was to seek out and cultivate the company and friendship of youth. For every dear friend of decades who we must say goodbye to, make friends with someone young enough to be your own child or grandchild. Real friends. Don’t patronize them. They’re smarter than we ever were and are creating a future for themselves that we cannot imagine.

Whenever a younger person invites you to join in on an activity, attend an event, or a share in a conversation that is slightly outside of the familiar, say yes. Travel frequently outside your comfort zone. 

Continue to live. It’s a good thing.

(Kevin Dale McKeown was Vancouver’s first out gay columnist, penning QQ Writes . . . Page 69 for the Georgia Straight through the early 1970s. Contact him at stillqq@dailyxtra.com.)