My friend David Moebs, an exquisite classical musician, passed away from AIDS-related complications in June 1998. A year later, I was in Tuscany and still very deeply mourning the loss while working on a writing project that never saw publication. But this particular story is one that is as fresh to me as the day I originally wrote it.
I suppose that being in Siena made me begin the piece with the admission that I am drawn to laughter as swallows seem drawn to bell towers. My closest friends are those whose laughs are infectious, all embracing, capable of washing away whatever sorrow or frustration which might be plaguing me. Those laughs are musical, symphonic in nature, boisterous, full of life--invitations to celebrate all that is festive. The most devastating aspect of a friend’s death, therefore, is the realization that I will never hear that laugh again. I don’t regret the absence of a recording of the laugh; it would simply be a hollow simulacrum, an obscene low quality imitation of the original’s spontaneity.
I mourn the loss of David’s laugh. It would sometimes erupt from the depths of his very being and explode uncontrollably like the music he so dearly loved to play and sing. At other times, it would resemble a signature theme, a veritable leitmotif, which would begin on a low note, quickly race up an octave or two, and, just as quickly descend the same musical path. He would quickly cover his mouth as if that would somehow stifle the exuberance which was too dynamic for him to confine within his soul. His efforts were to no avail. His light complexion would blaze red, his eyes would seem to dance with hedonistic glee. His body would shake rapturously. This was not a man who was supposed to die at the age of 39.
He was a brilliant clarinetist, a dreamer, a dedicated friend, a prankster, and one of the most altruistic care givers any of us have ever met. He performed regularly as a member of the Sacramento Symphony until its demise in fall 1996; served as a substitute with other regional orchestras around the San Francisco Bay Area; and had a passion for chamber music. He was enrolling in a Ph.D. program which would have prepared him for a career as a professional counselor, and he intended to turn his talents towards helping gay teens avoid the pain he had experienced as a teenager growing up in upstate New York.
David learned he was HIV-positive in 1985, but suspected he had actually acquired the virus a few years earlier, while people were still whispering about “the gay cancer.” He had taken precautions in his sexual activities as soon as he heard about the plague which was spreading, but obviously changed his habits too late. What finally took him away in June 1998 was a statistically rare and brutally cruel virus known as PML--Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy--in plain English, rapidly growing brain lesions which relentlessly strip the victim of communication and motor skills and almost always lead to death within three or four months of the onset of the syndrome. There were and are no known treatments which halt or reverse the process; those rare survivors seem to undergo varying levels of spontaneous remission. David was both lucky and unlucky; he lived with PML for approximately 21 rather than three months, but the life he cherished changed inalterably during those first three months and left him seeking replacements for everything he lost during the remaining 18 months. He was never successful in that search.
He’s gone, and he’s not gone. He left his body several months before his heart stopped beating. Those of us who loved him stayed with the shell until it no longer functioned. I still think of him. I feel his presence as I sit in the courtyard at Palazzo Chigi Saracini just after the first anniversary of his death. Then I notice what I hadn’t seen before this moment: that the palazzo houses the Accademia Musicale Chigiana , and remember that we first met while working at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
He seemed to touch everyone he met: prospective students who enrolled at the Conservatory, the Preparatory Department students he taught, his colleagues on staff. I admired him for many things, not the least of them being his ability to engage in the most diabolical of pranks without the slightest hint of remorse. And he got away with it! You couldn’t remain angry at someone with such deep blue eyes and such a vibrant laugh. Like the time he convinced me he had purchased a sofa identical to one I had just obtained, but for $100 less. So convincing was his performance that I contacted the salesman and angrily asked why my friend had received a deal better than what had been offered to me. Only when I lied to David and said I had received a $200 rebate did his facade begin to crumble. “ I didn’t get the discount,” David admitted, his body shaking with that most musical of laughs as we stood in the parking lot at the Conservatory. “I didn’t buy it.” “ Jesus, David,” I responded, enjoying every minute of the payback, “You better not answer your phone for a few days. I gave him your number when he said he couldn’t find any record of it. And one more thing: don’t you feel bad about this?” “ Why should I? Didn’t I get you a discount? What do you want from me?” “ An apology would be a good start,” I insisted with all the indignation I could muster. “ I’m sorry,” he finally offered. “I didn’t know it meant so much to you.” “ Gotcha,” I yelled in triumph, and we both burst into laughter.
Later, the laughter disappeared. A tingling in his fingers was interfering with his ability to play the clarinet in August 1996. AIDS was finally taking its toll on his body almost a decade after he had been told he was HIV-positive. “ PML,” the doctor bluntly-coldly-cruelly told him in September. “Nothing I can do.” It seemed to progress on schedule; he lost sensation in his arms and legs, his speech patterns slowed, and he remained hellishly aware of his condition as the end drew near. My wife and I, along with several of David’s other friends, took every possible opportunity to help him. A half dozen friends did what others have done and will continue to do for dying friends and relatives: bought and cooked the hot dogs, hamburgers, and hamsteaks he loved so much while growing up near Buffalo, New York; cleaned his soiled sheets; spent nights in his home so he was never unassisted; rubbed his back as his muscles deteriorated and stroked his head as his hair grew more sparse, more whispy. None of us ever recoiled in horror; we cherished every opportunity to feel his skin against ours in spite of the devastation it revealed.
Then came an apparent miracle. Remission, beginning on Thanksgiving Day, 1996. Anticipation of a return to performing. And an emotionally devestating end to hope when his recovery stopped at the midpoint six months later and never resumed. A year of watching half a friend hover between life and death, hope and despair. Then, the worst: the mood swings which announced his lesions were growing again. The decision, at David’s request, to hire full-time caretakers to relieve his friends of his increasingly difficult day-to-day care. The decision to move him from his wonderful forest-green and sunflower-yellow cottage in the Oakland hills overlooking San Francisco Bay to a hospice in San Francisco’s Castro District. “ I think it’s for the best,” I whispered to him the day we dressed him for one last drive across the Bay Bridge. My heart broke as my now-blind friend struggled to say “I’m glad you think so.”
The angels at Coming Home Hospice in the Castro said he sometimes would reach into the air and flutter his fingers during these final twelve days. “ Was he a musician?” one asked. “It looks like he’s trying to play an instrument.” We held his hands and still rubbed his back long after he stopped giving any sign that he knew we were there. His eyes stared blankly up toward one of the corners of the ceiling. “ We call it ‘watching the angels,’” one hospice worker told us. “It’s very common when the end is near.” I read him passages from his favorite books even though there were no visible responses, and I didn’t care whether he was trying to communicate with me or was simply displaying reflex actions when I felt his hand squeeze mine twice a couple of days before he died.
I suddenly stop writing the piece I’m preparing for my writing workshop in Tuscany. Tears once again are flowing from my eyes, and I’m unwilling to push myself any farther. Stumbling out of the courtyard in Siena, I can barely able to see the streets of Siena through my tears. I blindly follow several sparsely populated narrow alleys, always going downhill, until I find myself in an open piazza whose name I can’t find. Behind me rises the Mangia Tower; before me is a tree-lined ravine with stone buildings the color of terra cotta, and they look as if they have been growing out of the earth for centuries. The tower bell rings. Swallows fill the air like tiny souls. I can almost hear David singing one of his favorite arias, “Chi i bel sogno di Doretta” (Doretta’s Beautiful Dream) from Puccini’s opera La Rondine ( The Swallow ). And I know he is with me still, for I can hear his laughter among the swallows and know he would never have settled for one comforting rondine when he was capable of filling the sky.
But the story doesn’t end there; no, that would be too easy for a story involving David. Nearly a decade later, I started my Building Creative Bridges blog, and one of the first pieces I wrote was about David and all he did as a volunteer. The piece attracted a few readers, and then I moved on. At least I thought I moved on. But no, that’s not the legacy that David left. Every once in a while, someone who knew him and still thinks about him after all these years decides to look him up. They find that piece online, send me a note to ask whether it was the same David Moebs they knew—and invariably it is—and they thank me for having captured a little of his essence. The latest one came less than a week ago--more than 14 years after he died. I wasn’t expecting the note, but it really didn’t surprise me because it arrived on what would have been his 54 th birthday. The writer and I exchanged a couple of notes, and I couldn’t resist asking whether she had been looking for information about him because it was his birthday. “ No,” she replied, “I didn't know it was his birthday, but am so happy to hear it. I just had a random thought pop into my head about him and thought I might find more about him online. “ Which, for me, captures the spirit of the friend so many of us still hold so dear.
David: A Digital Story By Paul Signorelli Writer/Trainer/Consultant Paul Signorelli & Associates email@example.com Prepared for #etmooc Digital Storytelling Module February 2013
Digital Story Prepared by Paul Signorelli & Associates 1032 Irving St., #514 San Francisco, CA 94122 415.681.5224 firstname.lastname@example.org http://paulsignorelli.com Twitter: @paulsignorelli http://buildingcreativebridges.wordpress.c om
Credits & Acknowledgments (Images taken from lickr.com unless otherwise noted): Swallows: From Kenneth Cole Schneider’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/rosyfinch/5271353055/sizes/m/in/photostream/ Campanile, Siena: From Blugia_Pablo’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/bluguia_pablo/2810868709/sizes/m/in/photostream/Clarinet: From Allen Holts’ photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/allenholt/4746582582/sizes/m/in/photostream/ Solitude: From Dr. John2005’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/dr_john2005/5630601383/sizes/o/in/photostream/ Palazzo Chigi Saracini, Siena: From G. Clark’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/bluguia_pablo/2810868709/sizes/m/in/photostream/ Sofa Bed: From Sasoriza’ photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/sasoriza/5663623752/sizes/m/in/photostream/ Swallows: From Kenneth Cole Schneider’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/rosyfinch/5271353055/sizes/m/in/photostream/ Campanile, Siena: From Blugia_Pablo’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/bluguia_pablo/2810868709/sizes/m/in/photostream/Clarinet: From Allen Holts’ photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/allenholt/4746582582/sizes/m/in/photostream/ Solitude: From Dr. John2005’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/dr_john2005/5630601383/sizes/o/in/photostream/ Palazzo Chigi Saracini, Siena: From G. Clark’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/bluguia_pablo/2810868709/sizes/m/in/photostream/Sofa Bed: From Sasoriza’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/sasoriza/5663623752/sizes/m/in/photostream/ Hands: From Hapal’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/hapal/3892070960/sizes/m/in/photostream/Clarinet: From NDRW FGG’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/ndrwfgg/100402638/sizes/m/in/photostream/Angel, Siena: From DiKol’s photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/web_diko/622604401/sizes/m/in/photostream/