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In memoriam: remembering Ken

Monday, 02 February 2015 Written by // Matt Levine Categories // Gay Men, Living with HIV, Population Specific , Matt Levine

Matt Levine and a story of two friends - himself living with HIV for nearly thirty years and Ken, the spouse of an AIDS research veteran, who was battling a cancer that we never knew existed.

In memoriam:  remembering Ken

Time exists just on your wrist so don’t worry. 

Moments last and lifetimes are lost in a day 

Travis, Indefinitely 

In August 2014, ten months after he was diagnosed with nasal cancer, and a few days before his 53rd birthday, my friend Ken died.  I shouldn’t have been surprised as it was clear the end was near, but when I picked up the call from his phone and heard his wife’s voice instead of Ken’s it hit me like a sledge hammer. 

We met at our junior year in college in 1981, students in the Williams College Mystic Seaport Maritime Studies Program. We became friends quickly, talking long into the night, smoking weed, sipping scotch or drinking beer.  He was the first male friend I told I was gay and his reassurance that it didn’t matter was, in retrospect, like the way he lived his life – both Gentle and Strong.  Our relationship was my first and only bromance. 

Instead of doing homework or reading Moby Dick we’d walk into town and play Phoenix at the video arcade for hours, the loser buying drinks or a bottle to bring home for later.  We befriended old Mrs. Scussel, mowed her lawn, loved her cookies and pies, learned celestial navigation and how to handle a sextant and snickered every time the word "seaman" was mentioned in class.  The semen-ic pun was always fresh, always hysterical. 

He helped me learn how to sail (or tried to – I was never very good) and loved to crash the museum’s Boston Whaler headfirst into the waves because he knew it scared me, but that good kind of scary.  Sometimes we took out the Whaler to collect water samples for our science class research project, examining jellyfish in the Mystic River.  Other times we lied, broke the rules and took it out just to goof around. 

Ken moved to San Francisco a few years after me.  We became roommates, found a great place on Guerrero between 18th and 19th Streets, long before it became the trendy neighborhood it is today, but felt lucky nonetheless. We were living there when he met his future wife. Elizabeth was a scientist, brainy and beautiful a dry-witted scientist who had just arrived in San Francisco to further her research into AIDS. 

It was a classic San Francisco summer day, twenty-one years ago. The weather in Golden Gate Park was foggy and cold until the early afternoon.  Around 1 o’clock, per usual, the wind blew in from the ocean and kicked out the fog, letting the sun shine bright, making you sweaty if you still had on your layers.  Later in the afternoon the wind brought back more fog, which settled in, becoming almost too chilly for another beer. 

It was the first annual (and what turned out to be the only) BarbraQue.  For those wondering if the copy editor was on vacation, hold your grammatically correct horses. Because, you see, my English major friends and spelling bee champs, there are no spelling errors here. A BarbraQue isn’t just your humdrum grilled meats, potato salad, California weed, cookies and pie kind of outdoor food orgy.  It’s all that but this is an orgy with a distinct musical beat - Barbra in the boom box, all Streisand all the time.   

While more of a play-on-words than an actual homage – no costumes were required, or donned by anyone – we were serious about the music, even when a near revolt erupted after my boyfriend Doug insisted on playing Stoney End 

Given the thematic nature of the party it's probably not surprising that everyone who attended was gay, except of course for the future lovers in the midst, Ken and Elizabeth. 

She almost didn’t make it.  Elizabeth was feeling lousy, nearly sick but as a newcomer to San Francisco she understood it would be good to get out, meet new people. Arriving with her roommate Craig she was disappointed when she noticed everyone was gay (or so she thought) and spent most of her time either sleeping on a blanket or chatting with her Craig. They both noticed a black haired guy with sexy eyes and a big smile. "Too bad he’s gay", she thought. 

A week later Craig called to ask if he could get the phone number of this dark-haired man. At first I didn’t know who he was talking about.  Then, realizing who he meant, I laughed.  “That’s Ken, my roommate,” adding “but he’s straight.”   

Craig and I connected the dots and after a few false starts Ken and Elizabeth had their first date. Twenty-one years later, in a house Ken rebuilt, he died with Elizabeth and their two nearly grown kids by his side. 

Upon moving to San Francisco Ken had hoped to get more hours working on ferry or tugboats so he could upgrade his pilot license.  Back East he worked as a ferry boat captain, navigating the Becky Thatcher up the Connecticut River, into Long Island Sound and south to Manhattan’s East River too. Instead he became a carpenter and homebuilder, but his love for the water remained. He and his business partner Mike bought a sailboat and with uncanny good luck snagged a berth in San Francisco’s South Bay Harbor, just a five minutes drive from their house. 

Close as we were, Ken and I drifted out of touch, over the last ten years abetted by his two kids, my time back East, the ebb and flow of old friendships reconnecting us just a year before his diagnosis. 

One of his favorite stories from our time in Mystic was parents’ weekend.  It was early afternoon,  we were each sailing a small boat in the river when a gust blew in hard and my boat keeled to the right before capsizing.  It was more embarrassing than anything else.  Aid was there in minutes and I remember swimming to the shore. 

Ken came in ahead of me and he introduced me to his Mom.   Shivering, drenched, my wool sweater and blue jeans sopping wet, sagging like potato sacks, I grabbed her hand as if nothing was amiss.  Stuttering from the shivers,  “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” I said, adding  “I’ve heard so many nice stories from Ken.  How was your drive?”  

Ken managed to suppress his laughter while enjoying the show. I stood there while Ken and his mother exchanged glances until she replied, “You must be cold, why don’t you change your clothes.”  Shaking her hand I thanked her for the “good idea.” 

Our friendship was built on many things - the joy of sharing stories, exchanging ideas, cooking meals, talking politics, drinking too, but perhaps none more essential than our shared understanding of life’s absurdities, its moments of nonsense, sometimes comic and joyous, other times sad, perhaps even tragic.  

A couple of months before he died, Ken jokingly told me that everyone was placing bets over who’d die first – cancer ridden Ken or Rosie the family’s decrepit old dog.  We talked about life’s irony, how I’d been living with HIV for nearly thirty years and Ken, the spouse of an AIDS research veteran, was battling a cancer that we never knew existed.  

Two week before his death, I visited him at home, showing him how to create a blog and how he could use voice recognition to dictate his thoughts instead of typing them.  

He never got around to it.