Jon came to visit me the summer before the year I would understand, in some small part, what he was dying from. He came to say goodbye.
All I knew, or suspected, was that he was sick in some way. He showed up at the front door – graying (far grayer than he had been in previous years), gaunt. The glimmer of bright lights and big cities (as it always had been) still played in his eyes. My immediate thought was: Cancer. Jon has Cancer.
We would never talk about the why(s) over that trip. We went out, we explored, we ate, he made us laugh uncontrollably. These things were all par for any Jon visit. Jon was one of the funniest people the world ever knew, especially my world. Looking back, I guess I am happy that I didn’t know the truth. It’s very possible I would have, in my need to know, asked too many things and lost too much time with him.
1992: Hurricane Andrew dismantled parts of the house. In that same year, my mom spent countless days and visits between Miami and California in a dizzying back-and-forth of “Jon’s sick…. I need to go” unanswered upheavals.
Despite 1992’s traumas, 1993 would be worse. After the I-can’t-remember-the-number trip to California (I wasn’t a part of the trips), my dad sat me down to tell me exactly what was going on. Kind of. Bits and pieces of the puzzle had floated to the surface, but I couldn’t pull them all together. The conversation with my dad went something like this (after school, while my mom was in California; he had just been on the phone with her):
Dad: Bud, we have to talk.
Me: Ok… it’s about Jon?
Dad: Yes. He has HIV. He’s dying.
Me: (I have no memory.)
Dad: Do you know what that means?
Me: Yes. He has AIDS.
Dad: He has AIDS now. He sent your mom and aunts and the family a letter a few years ago explaining that he had contracted HIV. I think it was 4-5 years ago.
Me: Why didn’t anyone ever tell me?
Dad: Your mom thought you were too young. We didn’t want to upset you.
Me: (Again, no memory of what was spoken; I would be insanely upset for days after that conversation. I knew “it” for sure. Jon didn’t have Cancer, but he was still dying.)
It may have been weeks or months later, in June. Almost a year to the date that Jon had come to visit me the year before. Mom’s in California again, and we get the call. Jon died. He had suffered through a variety of what I now know are illnesses that can befall the immune-suppressed (and why I wasn’t, after all, included in on the trips). AIDS hadn’t killed him directly, but he was gone. From the sanctity of my post-Hurricane Andrew blow up mattress, I clutched my dad, sobbing and babbling something about Jon being “so young”. Just 4-5 years after his letter to the world, he was gone. Jon was 39. I wasn’t part of the memorial service. I was angry; I was 17.
Another lifetime later (a few months into 35), I’d find out that the Universe has its very calculated way of bringing you to answers. Not the other way around.
After living, growing up and (later) developing a professional life in Miami for my entire 34 years, I decided to take a new position in Los Angeles. It was a huge opportunity and, even as I write this, one that still pains me for the simple fact that it was a decision that included leaving every safety net and person I’ve ever known. Something in me, despite a palpable trepidation – propelled me to pack up my life that September and drive 3000 miles+ across I-10. Something else, call it a gravitational force, was also pulling me across everything.
By October, I was up to my elbows in learning curve and falling into the sanctuary that is my couch, fetal style, most nights. By November, I was contemplating early retirement, lotto wins, etc. And, in the middle of everything, I was also propelled to attend the memorial service for our “big” boss’s mother in November. I did not know her mother at all, but it felt like I should be there. I also felt, in that place (the memorial park I would later learn was the resting place of Marilyn Monroe and several other stars), a profound peace. I loved that cemetery.
Then December. December changed everything. After years of shrugging off involvement in a world of activities I had felt a connection to since 1993, I was invited to the One World Aids Day event at USC. The force, again, propelled me to it. Two things happened around that event that held the gravity of being life-changing: 1) during a part in the program where the hosts asked us to say the name of loved ones lost (through my snorts and sobs, I couldn’t even speak it: Jonathan Aronson) out loud, a female voice (that I still haven’t identified, maybe my own) buzzed into my head, right between my ears, and said, “you’re here for something else”; 2) an e-mail.
That was on a Thursday. On Friday, I whipped off a few e-mails to my mom and aunt about the event, including pictures of myself and special friends. Minutes later, my aunt wrote back what will go down in history as the craziest e-mail I have ever received:
Did you visit Jon yet?
Me: (reading, to myself) what the hell is she talking about?
My brain: (the puzzle came together: Jon was “in” LA. He was here. He was with me.)
For the entire year that my mom flew back and forth to California, I assumed she had been going to San Francisco. That’s where Jon had been living; maybe it was too much to recall in that particular year, but I barely remembered that he had – at some point, presumably because LA was the epicenter for research and treatment of HIV/AIDS at the time – moved to LA. He worked in LA. He lived within miles of where I now live, nestled in between the bright lights and studios of another big city (he had been on Broadway in his glory days and lived in NYC). My mom would explain that he spent his last days, in a rotation of siblings (three sisters, one brother), under the watchful eye of the Hollywood sign in a little area called Hancock Park.
After a volley of other emails (me: aunt; aunt: me; me: mom; mom: aunt), I realized Jon wasn’t just “here”. He was within walking distance of my office, in Westwood. He chose to be as close to Marilyn Monroe (a very Jon thing) as he possibly could be. In fact, he was laid to rest just around the corner from her grave. Yes, he’s in the very same park I had already made my fateful journey to in November. I imagine he spent what he did have left in material wealth to be there.
After the Friday emails and tears, I spent Saturday in hibernation. Sunday I drove to (what is now) Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park, marched into their office to figure out where my uncle really was (my aunt attempted to explain his exact location in email and was about as successful as someone attempting to explain aerodynamics to a three-year-old), drove around the park in the direction I had been pointed, parked, and froze. My eyes, typically average at best even with contacts, darted to his exact location (a brass plate) in the mausoleum. I went from parked car to brass plate in about seven milliseconds. I felt the same thing I felt in November: I love this place.
And, then, I wept. Sitting on the concrete floor (an odd parallel to where I was when I found out Jon had died 17 years earlier), staring up at him:
1953 – 1993
I wept for countless minutes. After years of confusion, questions, pain and anger, everything was right in front of me. He was and is here – dancing and singing into eternity with all of his fellow stars. And we are, until I decide to leave LA, together.
For Jon. For my mom.