Love, loss and surviving the AIDS epidemic: Jim Clay

June 13, 2018

Think of 100 people you know — the person who bags your groceries, the person who drives your local bus, the person you sleep next to at night. Write their names on a whiteboard. Fill it up. Now take an eraser and make broad swipes across that board.

“Who’s left?” asks Jim Clay, coordinator of Cascade AIDS Project’s Aging Well project. “Most of them are gone, and it’s a crapshoot whether the one who is left is the woman at Starbucks, or your spouse.”

Clay is 71, an advocate for services to address the needs of people who, like him, survived. It has been nearly four decades since his first friend died of AIDS. It has been more than two decades since he went to work for Multnomah County to advocate for education and treatment for HIV.

Jim Clay, coordinator of Cascade AIDS Project’s Aging Well project, lost his husband to AIDS.

It’s been more than a decade since he held his husband’s hand in their Northeast Portland home and watched him die. As a young man in the 1980s and 1990s, Clay never considered that he might escape the virus that killed nearly everyone he loved. He never considered he would grow old.

Clay was a furniture designer in Eugene in the early 1980s, one of a close-knit group of young gay men who became a family. Among them was a landscape architect named Gary who kept a beautiful yard where they congregated on sunny spring days.

“I saw him one week then I hadn’t heard from him, and I got a call telling me that his funeral was scheduled for that weekend,” Clay recalled. “I remember being really angry. It was not the large context anger at the inaction of the government, or anger that people were telling us it was our own fault.”

Clay was angry that, at the front of the church, stood two tall vases full of gladiolas. “He would have been appalled,” Clay said through his tears. "He would not have wanted those commercial flowers. He would have wanted native grass.” Gary’s parents had done the best they could, Clay recognized. “But he would have hated them.”

Next came David, a graphic artist and friend who had designed the logo for Clay’s shop, Plain and Fancy Woodworking. Later Clay found his friend memorialized in the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Clay, like the rest of his friends, assumed he would soon follow.

“We all figured we were going to die too, and I remember how scared we were,” he said. “We didn’t know what we had, but we assumed we had it. And we knew no one was trying to figure out what it was.”

Clay co-founded a nonprofit called the Willamette AIDS Council to organize and educate gay men, who were then, as now, the primary target of the disease. He was walking home one night along a bike path that skirted Amazon Creek, when he passed an angular man with hazel eyes and a large nose. The man was younger. He wore a trimmed mustache, a fine wool coat and a brimmed hat. His umbrella was long and elegant with a curved wooden handle.

“He didn’t look like he was from Eugene, which would be a flannel shirt and work boots,” Clay said. “I thought he was so beautiful."

More than 30 years later, Clay’s voice breaks when he pronounces his late husband’s full name the way his French Canadian roots intended — Maurice Henrí Gauthier.

That night, Nov. 9 1987, their eyes met and they stopped. They made small talk until Clay worried it might end, and so he invited Gauthier to have a cup of coffee.

“We started walking, but it was 10 p.m. in Eugene. There’s nowhere to get coffee,” Clay said with a chuckle. Gauthier was directing a play at the Very Little Theatre, he told Clay, and he had the keys to the building. It was just short walk down 24th Ave, and once inside they shared instant coffee (“the best cup of coffee I have had in my whole life”). After dating a few months, Clay met Gauthier’s parents (“I way overdressed”), and they welcomed him into the family.

The couple moved in 1991 to Portland, where Clay took a job with Multnomah County Youth and Family Services, overseeing contracts for homeless and queer youth. Gauthier, armed with a master’s degree in literature and a second degree in theatre (“He wasn’t planning on making a lot of money”) went to work for Multnomah County’s Central Library.

It wasn’t long after that when Gauthier started getting sick. He would seem unwell and then bounce back. Already a trim man, Gauthier began to drop weight, until he became almost skeletal. Clay was concerned, but neither wanted to suggest Gauthier test for HIV.

“It was easier to ignore,” Clay said. The test results took weeks to come back. Then a medical staff would call. “They either tell you over the phone that you were negative,” Clay recalled. “Or they would say, ‘we would rather not give you he results over the phone. Can you please come in?’ And you knew what that meant.”

Gauthier finally did see his doctor. And he tested positive for HIV. Still the couple had good years ahead of them. Gauthier studied nursing, then worked as a child support enforcement agent for the Oregon Department of Justice, until he grew too sick to work. At home, Gauthier would focus on his knitting, listen to opera and bake (Christmas cookies were a favorite). He had an eclectic taste for television — old silent movies, Mariner’s games, Judge Judy and Cops.

Clay went on to help develop Multnomah County’s planning council for HIV Services the took a job as web developer for Basic Rights Oregon. When County commissioners voted to allow same-sex couples to marry in 2004, Clay worked 18-hour days, running the website and helping to line up officiants and venues for couples seeking to wed. He took a brief break of his own, and he and Clay married in the couple’s backyard, with judge Nan Waller presiding. They hadn’t time to get hair cuts or fancy clothes, instead wearing on-sale red oxfords they purchased at Fred Meyers. Clay’s brother and Gauthier's sister flew in at a moment’s notice, and celebrants sipped coffee from Styrofoam cups.

But the new drugs couldn’t save Gauthier. He began again to lose weight, and no amount of Ensure and diet supplements could keep the pounds on. He was diagnosed with cancer and began chemotherapy. He lost his hair but not his humor; during a trip to the grocery for a case of Gauthier’s favorite soda the cashier joked that he was surprised the store still carried TAB. “I thought that caused cancer,” he said.

Gauthier pulled off his beret. “Too late for me!” he said with a smile, then circled around to hug the appalled-looking young employee.

“I knew he was dying but I never thought he would die,” Clay said. “I never really thought of an end game.”

Then, in the middle of the night on Oct. 21, 2007 — 20 years after the couple first met — Gauthier didn’t wake up. His breathing was shallow, and Clay didn’t know what to do. He called the number for hospice and a nurse drove over. He asked her what was happening, and she wrapped an arm around his shoulders. “He’s actively dying” she said. “I didn’t even know what that meant. But dying is a process. It takes time.”

Clay sat with Gauthier until his breathing weakened and finally stopped. Then Clay laid down next to this husband, held him, and cried. When the nurse came back into the bedroom, she asked whether Clay made plans. He had not.

What do you do when someone is dead in your home in the middle of the night? Who do you call? A funeral home down the street had a 24-hour number posted on the building. The nurse called and made arrangements. Two men arrived shortly after, dressed in drawn expressions and pressed suits. They washed Gauthier, wrapped him in a blanket and placed him into a bag before they carried him into the foyer, where Clay kissed him goodbye. [Listen to Jim Clay tell the story of the final days of Gauthier’s life]

When he was alone, Clay realized how exhausted he felt, and he didn’t know exactly what to do. Neither Clay nor Gauthier had been much of a drinker, except on a special occasion when they might each sip a pousse cafe of sherrie. And so Clay poured himself a glass and sat down in the sudden silence.

“I wonder how many young people at all ever think about getting old. That’s not part of being young,” Clay said recently, sitting in a room at a retirement center where he had gone to recover from a back injury, where staff served his evening meal before 5 p.m.; where he dressed in sweatpants and wore socks with rubber slip-proof pads. “Only in the last few years have I come to understand and be proud of being old.”

Clay never contracted HIV. Pure luck, he said. But he doesn’t always feel lucky. He lives with the ach of loss that still catches in his throat each time he utters a loved one’s name. And he can’t unclench the fury of federal indifference and blame.

“It’s something truly traumatizing that you can’t know unless you’ve experienced it,” he said.