An Artist and AIDS

In a painting by my nephew John Friedericy, there are in four rows some sixteen heads, “the people in my life,” he called it. His father; his mother; my mother; my father; his two sisters; his partner, Bruce; one of his older teachers; other best friends. Most of the faces look out at the viewer. But three, eyes closed and ashen, face left: they were the dead in his life at the time of his painting, including my father. John himself died of AIDS at age thirty-four, after two years of treatment and decline. My sister and Hans had divorced shortly after my mother’s death, and purportedly Hans had not condoned John’s homosexual life style. I saw John on my first visit to San Francisco, for a writers’ convention, before he knew he had AIDS. Later, after he was ill and visiting my sister in Los Angeles, their home for years, my wife flew out with our two children to see him. In one snapshot from that visit, John, mustached and balding, poses typically in my sister’s backyard with a suction-tipped arrow dangling from his forehead, hamming the pose of either El Greco’s crucifixion or the Temptation of St. Anthony or both, flanked by his mother in blue sunglasses and his partner, Bruce; my wife and children on either side. He would in the two years to come be hospitalized repeatedly with pneumonia and be surrounded by his sisters, his mother, and his friend, as he grew weaker.

I did send him a good-bye letter, near the end, but before he was ready to accept it. I wrote him that I was grateful he and I had had our visit in San Francisco, “to catch up and rerelate and to be family and friends. I don’t know how to say good-bye, or quite how to be normal under the shadow of good-bye, though I have lived it once with your grandmother….In your grammy’s case, I felt she’d given me me, that I had her love to live up to. In yours, at this distance, you’ve given us your work, which is what you have been given to give, and says you. Your exuberance is there, your relish of life, your wit, as well as your puzzlement, anger, pain, and strength….Our gain is having known you, and continuing to love and feel that essence that is you; our loss is missing you and all that you would have given still, but have not been given to give….in missing, or in getting to ready to miss you, what I feel, John, is a debt.”

He wrote back, thanking me for the letter, explaining that his doctor thought by the time John’s tolerance for AZT wore off, that “there will surely be a new legalized treatment for me….This combined with my strength makes me confident that I can stay ahead of the game….They hope that AIDS will become something to be lived with, not cured, rather like diabetes.” He was confident that “there are years (and maybe decades) left.” Meanwhile, he had his drawing, painting, and sculpture. “I don’t think people die until their life’s purpose is taken away from them — and I’m not ready to retire yet.”

Friedericy Figurative Art has recently launched a website dedicated to his memory and work: https://www.johnfriedericy.com/ .