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Mary Caplan, 60, interviewed by her friend Emily Collazo, 41

Recorded in New York City

Mary Caplan: My brother Tom and I were very close. He was around a lot. He was a godfather to my son Michael. Tom's partner— We didn't call them partners then. Tom's friend got what was then called "gay cancer." He called me and he told me that Bruce had it, and he said, "Do you know the survival rate?" I said no. He said, "It's zero." I said, "Tom, I'm a nurse. There's no such thing as zero survival rate even with the worst cancers. There can be a one percent survival rate." And he said, "With this, there's a zero." I remember frantically calling everyone and trying to get information. I can't even explain what it was like, because all of a sudden someone would say, "Don't ask that person. Don't let them know that you know someone that might have this." Tom was always deathly afraid of hospitals, but he went. He was with Bruce the whole time. He never left him.

Tom and I used to meet every Tuesday night for dinner. I was at school. It was winter. He had a stocking hat on, and he looked thinner, and it was cold. He sat down at the table. He had the most gorgeous eyes and eyelashes. I looked at this eyes and I said, "You're positive, aren't you?" He said, "Yeah." I said, "Are you frightened?" He said, "Yes." I said, "Tom, I'll stay with you all the way, and we'll do everything we can." He said, "I don't want to take any treatment, because there's really nothing there." We talked some more. I don't remember what we said.

I hugged him good-bye, and I took the elevator up to my class, and I sat down. And then all of a sudden it hit me. I was in class about five minutes, and I got up and left. I call my husband, Dick, and I was hysterical, crying. He said, "We'll do anything. We'll do anything." But there wasn't anything to do except be there. So I called Tom. There was some talk of something in Israel, something in Mexico. I couldn't rally the family around, because people were so afraid of the disease, and he hadn't come out to my mother. It was like the plague. I remember someone in my family being particularly afraid that a mosquito might bite Tom and then bite him, and then he'd have it. No one understood how it was spread. I called Tom, and I asked him what we could do. And he said, "I don't want to ever go to the hospital. I don't want to die in the hospital." And I said, "I promise you, you won't."

He got sick very quickly. I was going to bring him down to the shore for the summer, thinking that would be good for him. He always dressed really nicely. He wore blue oxford button-downs. So Friday I got to his apartment, and his blue shirt was on the floor, and he was just lying there like in a daze. I knew he was dehydrated because his eyes were sunken in. He said, "Don't panic." I said, "I'm not the panicking kind, Tom." Inside, I was panicked.

I had made a bed in the back of the car to take him down to the shore, and I went and I got his friend to help me get him out to the car, because I knew I couldn't get him out alone. He said, "I don't want to be in a hospital." I said, "Tom, I'm going to stop at a hospital just to get you something to make you comfortable, but I promise you I'm not going to leave you there. I'm going to bring you home." So I took him to New Jersey to the hospital.

It was the end of June 1986, and it was very hot. I went into the emergency room and said, "I need a stretcher. My brother's outside. He's sick, and he needs something for pain." And they said, "What's wrong with him?" And I said, "He has AIDS." They wouldn't come out and get him. He was out there, and it was 99 degrees. By this time he was starting to get comatose. I said, "if you don't come out and get him, I will pick him up and carry him in here and sit in the waiting room with him on my lap." That's what I was going to do. Then they scurried, and they all donned those suits—like in E.T.—and they came out.

I remember one nurse said to another, "Is he dead?" I just wanted to smash her. And they took him in, and I kept talking to him, and a doctor came down, this very nice woman doctor, and she said, "I can give him IVs and bring him back to consciousness, but he has meningitis and parasites, and he won't live long." I said to the doctor, "No, he doesn't want IVs. I'm a nurse, and I can take care of him at home. I think he needs some morphine, and he's going to become incontinent, and he's going to need some other things." I knew the things he would need and asked her for them. She was very good. She gave them to me.

I had to get a private ambulance to bring him home. The minute they moved him over to the ambulance everyone started running in with disinfectant and masks—as if he wasn't even a human being.

I brought him home, and the children were there. We all took care of him. I promised him I wouldn't leave the room, so they would bring me up sandwiches. I had to call my mother. I had to tell her he was gay, that he had AIDS, and he was dying—all at once. I sat with Tom, and I said, "You know, whenever you want to go, it's okay. I'll take care of Mom, and I'll take care of everything." And then he didn't go, and then I said, "Tom, I don't want you to think I'm rushing you, so you don't have to go."

I can't sing, and everyone knows I can't sing, and it was a big joke in the family. But I found myself, like I did with my children, singing lullabies. And I sang, "Tura, Lura, Lura" to him one time, and I was so off-key, and when I finished, I kissed his forehead and I said, "I'm sorry. I know that wasn't very good." And then I went into the bathroom. And when I came back, he wasn't breathing. He died the moment I left.

Grief is when you get up the next day and you see the sun, and you say, "Will I ever think the sun is beautiful again?" And all the normal parts of grieving. But the other parts that were so hard was I had this very educated woman come up to me and say, "Well, don't you think maybe God is telling us something by letting homosexuals die by this disease?" I wanted to slap her around. I wanted to physically harm her. And I just said, "No, I don't think so."

One day I went to a card shop, and there was a gay young man who worked there. I was buying a sympathy card—another sympathy card—for one of Tom's friends. And this young man said something, and I said, "Well, I take care of my brother's friend. My brother died of AIDS." I said it in a whisper. He said, "You don't have to whisper to me." And he came around the counter and hugged me.

And I didn't know him, but I loved him.

March 3, 2004

Excerpted from Listening Is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the StoryCorps Project. Edited and with an Introduction by Dave Isay. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) November, 2007.

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