Mary and Ginger. Photo by Ralph Blakely, III
I don’t remember exactly when and why Lynn introduced me to her cousin Mary. I think it had something to do with Mary being diagnosed with RA and Lynn thinking that we’d hit it off. So we emailed and then we called each other and yes, indeed. We hit it off.
One of our biggest regrets was that Mary lived in Charleston and I in Toronto. We had plans that someday, we would get together and laugh our butts off while eating good food. We did a lot of that — the laughing. Mary was funny. Ridiculously funny and smart and that’s the best combination there is.
Despite having lived many years in Ireland and then Charleston, Mary’s voice was quintessential New York. Raspy, straight out of the city accent, and she swore like a sailor. Always appropriately and in context, which made everything so much more funny.
She was one of the first women to be diagnosed as HIV-positive in the late 1980s and was one of its longest survivors. She had been desperately sick many times, coming close to death so often that it no longer frightened her. In fact, after a serious illness a few years ago, she told me she would have preferred dying. She was tired of fighting, but somehow, she kept doing it. She was incredibly stubborn through and through, and that kept her going.
Mary did advocacy for safe sex education for 10 years, speaking to youth about the importance of being careful. She stopped when she felt she was too old to connect to them anymore, but still did occasional work in the field. Several years ago, she was part of a calendar for HIV and AIDS awareness in which everyone who participated posed nude. She did it wrapped in an Irish flag and on the back of a white horse. I have one of those calendars and I treasure it.
Mary loved costume dramas and politics and animals. We had many vigourous conversations about Downton Abbey, politics (she was a liberal living in a Republican city — as you might imagine, this created a great deal of opinions), and our love for our animals. When I first met Mary, she had two cats (Bubba and Paddy) and her canine soulmate Fuzzy, a wonderful border collie. The two of them were so close I’m pretty sure they communicated mentally with each other. But she was also a great comfort to Mary who told me that she had many times used Fuzzy’s ruff as a Kleenex while the dog sat quietly and let her cry.
Fuzzy preceded her to heaven several years ago and that was a tough time. Later, she found Ginger, another wonderful dog that has now found a good home with one of her friends. Her love of animals wasn’t just focus on her own pets, but also on horses. She loved them and for a long time, she volunteered to exercise horses in a therapeutic riding program.
I never met Mary’s family, but her mother and I sent each other messages through Mary, and I often felt part of the wonderful relationship the two of them had with each other. Mary’s mom died before her, and her father several years before that. Somehow, Mary made it sound like they was still very much part of her life.
I once interviewed Mary for HealthCentral on her life with HIV and RA. She told me about how living with HIV for so long had taught her to focus on joy. She said “I choose joy. The alternative is self-indulgent misery." Classic Mary.
We hadn’t talked for quite a while, but she had been in my mind more than normal in the last few weeks. Saturday was her birthday and when I went to Facebook to leave a quick message with congratulations and letting her know I’d be calling today, I found out that she had died at the end of June. And then I knew why she had been so much in my mind.
I will miss you terribly, my lovely, funny friend. But I know that you are at peace and happy laughing with your parents, Fuzzy, Bubba the cat, and the friends who went before you. And I’m pretty sure that sometime down the road, we’ll meet again and continue talking about costume dramas, politics, and how much we love our animals. And we`ll laugh. There will be lots of that.