Pandemic Elegy

Houses in my neighborhood were built during a pandemic.

Federally guaranteed loans were easiest to come by in neighborhoods that were deemed desirable (White middle-class) and most difficult to get in other neighborhoods that were rated as undesirable (Black and poor or working class). Many suburbs like mine had language in land deeds that clarified so-called sundown suburb provisions which prohibited Black people from staying the night in the community unless they were employed by a wealthy homeowner. Similar laws were wide-spread in other suburbs of Milwaukee, Madison, across the Midwest, the American South — indeed across the nation.

The pandemic? Structural racism.

While sunset suburbs are not permitted today, their chilling effects persist through limited access to educational opportunities, public pools, private clubs, faith communities, and more. Their perspective shouts, “You don’t belong here!” They contribute to violent decisions that lead to the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery. They persist in the irregular enforcement of license plate violations in which people of color driving older cars are stopped for missing a date tag on their rear license plate while owners of late model Mercedes, BMWs, Jeeps, and others sail by with no front plate at all. The former is asked, “What brings you to this neighborhood?”

This is the racist pandemic into which I was born in 1948 and Paul was born in 1957. I came into Plessy vs Ferguson; Paul, Brown vs Board of Education. Our families knew where we fit in the system. And where we did not. Mine was working its way out of poverty into the working class. His from the working class, into the middle. We all knew the caste system. We just couldn’t have named it. (See Isabel Wilkerson’s book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, to blow your mind.)

Paul was the middle child of five; I am the youngest of four. We saw our mothers’ roles in work, household responsibilities, religion, and community. Paul’s three sisters and my two also reflected the same limitations of access and opportunity. Again, we both knew the systems of sexism, but we could not have named them as pandemic.

Early we also both knew the pandemic of homophobia and gay oppression. While Paul was athletic and lithe, I was deemed a sissy, inept, and obese. Still, neither of us escaped the isolation, bullying, and criticism that was hurled by those whose job it was to enforce heterosexuality: clergy, siblings, classmates, teachers, passers-by.  We knew of the boys who died by suicide. We witnessed their risky behaviors, their ejection from home and family. We retreated into our own worlds out of fatigue and resignation. By age five, I knew I wanted a husband and children, and only later discovered that would not be possible in 1953 or even 2003. By age 12, Paul knew he would not marry and did not want children.

Because of our age differences, Paul and I differently experienced another pandemic, namely poliomyelitis, or polio. In my early years, I recall the removal of bubblers in front of my elementary school during one particularly scary summer. A classmate died. Another was permanently dependent on assistance to walk. Others had fevers and terrible bouts of headaches. On the other hand, Paul was born after Jonas Salk had developed an effective vaccine under the support of the Eisenhower administration. His family likely knew the fear of polio without fully knowing the source of the feeling. Paul could not recall knowing anyone impaired by polio.

This photo was taken a year after we met, but so clearly speaks to our joy.

By the time we met and started dating in 1983, yet another pandemic was scorching our earth. While the earliest cases of AIDS were reported in 1981, it was not until 1984 that its cause — the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) — was reported by CDC. The Reagan administration was not mentioning the rapidly spreading illness, likely because its prominent hosts were gay and bisexual men, African heritage men and women, and injection drug users. Because of the disregard for these lives, many other lives were lost as well. That people like Ryan White were ever called innocent victims (a term decried by White’s own mother) is a testimony to the persistence of the pandemics of racism, poverty, and gay oppression.

Paul and I dedicated much of our lives to the protest of government policy and health care practices related to HIV/AIDS. We bent our time to the pandemic. We chose where, when, and how to volunteer and work based on this disease. We elected to forgo vacations to support AIDS organizations and activism. I wrote a dissertation, chose an internship, took a job, and started an organization to address the pandemic. We spent most holidays for over 30 years with this pandemic on our minds and in our philanthropic decisions. We won and lost friends because of our AIDS-related decisions.

Still, over 900,000 people have died in the U.S. from AIDS, and there are currently 1,100,000 infections here. The fuckers still call COVID-19 “unprecedented” or look to the 1917/1918 influenza outbreak as the last pandemic. Trump’s gang have taken a cue from Ronald and Nancy Reagan, ignoring human suffering while profiting from the lives and talents of the oppressed.

So, it was nothing short of winning a $500 million lottery that Paul and I should meet, decide to love, determine how to be together, and commit to work out differences as they arose. Ours was a generative love. It allowed me to experience for myself what I elected to do with young people in my life as their teacher and mentor — to have in him someone to push up against, who would remain immovable, and stay. Paul was masterful at interdependence; we were both lousy at dependency.

We both acknowledged that we were not the other’s “other half,” “one-and-only,” or “soul mate.” We pledged and liked our fidelity to one another, but we knew that we were each complete and whole within ourselves.

In so many ways, I know that Paul illuminated for me that whoever I am, I am not him. His experience of the pandemics through which we lived was not mine; nor mine, his. As I look over the arc of our lives together, I am reminded of a poem by James Agee that ends

After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.

In the year before we got Buster, Effy won Paul’s heart. Here on a pontoon boat in northern Wisconsin Paul nestled her in his arms.

On this 63rd anniversary of his birth, I salute Paul Mandracchia for being a fierce, determined, solid, human who loved me well. As I approach the sixth anniversary of his death, I believe I can see him more clearly. I miss him, and I am also reminded of my early recognition that I want a husband and children. I have the latter in abundance. I believe I may be ready for the former again. But if I find him, he will need to be sufficiently self-assured to be in a polyamorous relationship with me and my late husband.

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