Thirty-five years have passed since 1981, the year we all first heard of a terrible new disease: AIDS.
Today, books and memoirs are being written about the early dark days of the epidemic before advances in drugs changed a diagnosis from a sure death sentence to a controllable condition.
“When people write about gay history they write about Stonewall or gay marriage,” says Michael H. Ward of Chatham, author of “The Sea is Quiet Tonight: A Memoir” (Querelle Press, 2016). “We have been in a period of quietude on writing about AIDS. There are not a lot of books dealing with the emotional context of AIDS.”
Yet that might be changing. Last year, Chatham summer visitor Brad Gooch released “Smash Cut: A Memoir of Howard & Art & the ’70s & the ’80s” (Harper, 2015). Both “The Sea” and “Smash Cut” deal with love, loss and AIDS in the 1980s. Ward’s editor says at least three more books dealing with that period are in the pipeline.
Today Ward, 72, is sitting in the sunroom of the home he has shared since 1998 with his husband Maurice “Moe” Melchiono overlooking Trout Pond. The couple has been together for 28 years. They married 11 years ago, taking out their marriage license in the first hours that it was legal in Massachusetts.
After the Stonewall Riots of 1969, many young people lived openly gay lives. Yet after the freedom of the 1970s came that grim period of the 1980s and early 1990s. Ward’s book revolves around young men in the gay community, which AIDS decimated before a “cocktail” of drugs was found in 1995 that could halt the effects of the disease. “To love, in the age of AIDS, was to mourn,” Dr. Mitchell Katz writes in the book’s foreword.
Yet Ward’s story is also one of hope. He begins with a quote from Isak Dinesen: “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.” And this is, of course, what he has done in his memoir.
The title comes from a gravestone that Ward and his partner Mark Halberstadt discovered near Bar Harbor, Maine. The stone, which stood alone, belonged to a sailor, and the inscription read, “The Sea is Quiet Tonight.” Not too long afterwards, Ward had those same words carved on Halberstadt’s gravestone on Long Island.
Ward, who grew up in Nebraska, was a practicing therapist in Boston when he met Halberstadt at a late-summer tea dance on Fire Island in 1981. It was love at first sight, and Halberstadt, who was working on his captain’s boat license, moved in with Ward on New Year’s Eve. Even during that idyllic period at the start of their romance, young gay men were beginning to die of a strange new disease. In March 1983 an ominous article by Larry Kramer appeared in the New York Native called “1,112 and Counting.” While the article upset Halberstadt, Ward dismissed it. “When I reflected on my history, I didn’t see how AIDS related to me at all.”
But then AIDS did relate to Ward. Halberstadt began experiencing a number of tough-to-cure illnesses that were strange in a man in his early 40s. Not many months after reading Kramer’s article, Halberstadt got his own terrible diagnosis: AIDS.
“When he was diagnosed and I had to call his parents, I knew that my life was never going to be the same,” Ward says. “I had this very clear realization that I was entering a new territory.” He opens his memoir with that powerful scene.
Halberstadt died in July 1984 at the age of 42, just short of three years after the pair met.
“His death was my first experience with death in terms of contemporaries,” Ward says. “I lost seven very close friends and my dad in the next seven years. I got to a point when I felt anesthetized.” During the 10 years after Halberstadt died, Ward worked with the AIDS Action Committee in Boston.
And yet by now, it seems credible that people might forget that terrible period of the early AIDS epidemic. “One of these days those of us who were caregivers aren’t going to be here,” Ward says.
For a time in the 1990s, Ward stepped away from AIDS, and worked on “The Shared Heart” (William Morrow, 1997), coming out stories of 40 gay and lesbian teenagers. The exhibit that accompanied the book went into every high school and some junior highs in the state, he says. “It was life-affirming.”
Thirty-two years have passed since Halberstadt died. Yet, “I always feel like Mark is a part of my life,” Ward says. His husband, Melchiono, was “terrifically supportive” as Ward wrote his book. Yet for those who survived, there is something particularly poignant about remembering those who died young.
“One of my greatest hopes is that this book will reach young people,” Ward says. “Like we did, they believe they’re immortal.”
Ward will read from and sign copies of “The Sea is Quiet Tonight” on Tuesday, Nov. 15 at 6 p.m. at the Snow Library, 67 Main St., Orleans. For more information contact the library at 508-240-3760.