When Do the Dead Die?

AIDS faceLast week I immersed myself in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Both the dead and living are palpable in the Crescent City. Decay and color exist side by side, even more evident 10 years after Katrina. Vestiges of that storm’s devastation still scar many neighborhoods.

I was walking down Frenchmen, a street marred with graffiti. Music and the odor of stale beer spilled from open bars. Tourists and locals strolled the sidewalk. One crew, covered in tattoos, included a young woman dressed only in shorts and pasties made from electrical tape. Her taunting smile spoke volumes.

We came to Washington Square Park. Originally named Founders Park, it sprang to life in the heart of its Creole neighborhood in the early 1800s. Now it bears the name of the Washington 141st Artillery Regiment, an active unit since the Mexican-American War.

Tall oak trees line the park’s perimeter. The humidity was smothering, no breeze lifting branches or drying my sweat. A young Latina mother sat on a bench, her toddler freed from his stroller, feeding bread chunks to strutting pigeons.

Ten yards from her, sprawled in shade near the wrought iron fence, was one of the homeless that frequent the park. He was stretched out like a corpse at the beginning of a TV crime drama. He didn’t seem to be breathing. A brother down? Concerned, I walked over and tapped his shoulder.

“Are you all right, man?”

Slowly he stirred, emerging not only from the fumes of booze, but from what we alcoholics call the “incomprehensible demoralization” of our disease when it’s active. He turned his face upwards.

“What?” he slurred.

“Are you OK?”

“Yeah, yeah. Thanks,” he said, rolling back to his sodden dreams.

A bit saddened, I moved further into the park. At its northern end is a unique art piece known simply as the New Orleans AIDS Memorial, a glass and steel sculpture by Tim Tate, dedicated in 2008. It features the cast faces of individuals affected by this disease that transformed our planet. Granite pavers leading up to it bear the names of loved ones lost

It’s haunting. The faces seem to be straining, still trying to break through to life and healing, their pain and struggle frozen in time. On a bronze pedestal at the base is a quote from Mexican writer Laura Esquivel: When do the dead die? When they are forgotten.

My mind panned through grave markers I’d seen in Metairie Cemetery, one of New Orleans’ “cities of the dead.” More personally, I thought of departed friends and loved ones who graced my life too briefly: my schizophrenic uncle, Jerry; Tony, a neighborhood delinquent who died in a freak accident shortly after I baptized him; dear Henry who succumbed to alcohol; baby Laura, stricken by encephalitis before her third birthday. Others who died of cancer, heart attacks, overdoses, suicide, gang violence.

These precious people, and scores of others, press their faces against the glass membrane of my memory. I will not let their visages dissolve as long as I live.

When do the dead die? When they are forgotten.

Who do you remember today?

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