Terrance Gravening joined the Navy in 1986, working as a deckhand on a aircraft carrier docked in San Diego Harbor. He lived near the ocean, under the clear skies of southern California, and close to BJ’s, a gay bar with a country western theme — straw on the floor, furnished with plastic beer crates, and peanut shells everywhere. That year, As Is, the first play to discuss HIV, was broadcast as a TV drama. Gravening read everything he could about the deadly virus.
In 1990 Gravening met a man during a visit to Seattle and quickly moved north to be with him. Gravening worked at a local hardware store and helped mend the costumes his partner, Keith, wore during appearances on the drag queen set. “I never thought I would bead two gowns in my life,” he joked.
When Keith broke it off two years later, Gravening moved home to Portland. He soon learned his ex had tested positive for HIV. Still Gravening avoiding the test. He remained healthy for years, working as a driver for TriMet, transporting people with disabilities to work and doctor appointments.
But suddenly, one day in 2002, he fainted, hit his head and fell into a coma. He was admitted to the hospital with a T-cell count of 12 (a healthy range is 600-1000). When he woke up, doctors gave him the news: He had full-blown AIDS.
“I’m going to die. That’s where my mind went,” he said. “I tried to play the blame game, but I have to take responsibility for my life and what I’ve done. I can’t put that on somebody else.”
He was 38 when he quit his job and checked into Our House, then a hospice care center for people dying of AIDS. But after 11 months, Gravening wasn’t ready to die. With no income, he moved in with his parents, then to a subsidized apartment with the help of Home Forward.
On a bright spring afternoon in 2006, Gravening met the lanky, dark-haired Edward, walking out the doors of Everyday Music with CDs from Enya and a popular Swedish teen band. Edward settled at a table at the Silverado, near the table Gravening shared with friends. Edward kept tapping Gravening on the shoulder and ask him to listen to songs.
“I thought he was out of my league. He was gorgeous,” Gravening said. They flirted for hours before Edward got nervous, skirting an issue he couldn’t bring himself to raise.
“I have got to talk to you about something serious,” he said. “I need to talk to you. It’s really important.”
“If it’s about being positive, I am, too,” Gravening said, watching as relief flooded the younger man’s face. Gravening was healthier by then, controlling the disease with a preventive treatment known as Highly Active Antiretroviral therapy so that the virus was undetectable in his blood. The men began dating, then moved in together. Soon they were making joint doctor appointments at Multnomah County’s HIV clinic.
They were together nearly four years before Edward died, in 2009. Gravening held Edward’s hand, and listened to his breath slow to a stop. As he tells the story, Gravening pulls of his glasses and wipes tears from his eyes.
“Listening to him breath. Holding him. That was tough. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t miss him,” he said.
Today Gravening has a healthy T-cell count and an undetectable viral load. It’s been about eight years since he had steady work, and he considers trying to find a job. But he worries about managing his disease and continuing his healthcare benefits. He feels unworthy of work, in a way, and sometimes even unworthy of being alive.
“There’s a bit of survivor’s guilt. Why me and not them?” he asks. “I was just as sick as the rest of them. Why am I still here? What’s my purpose?”
He tries to find purpose through volunteer work at the County clinic where he still receives services. Once a week, Gravening serves clients coffee and snacks, and chats with people in the waiting room ,hoping to put them at ease. He coordinates a weekly art group at the clinic, too, open to anyone who wants to paint, bead, paste a magazine collage or work a loom. And he sits on the clinic’s client advisory board, helping craft the clinic’s mission. He also volunteers Thursday nights to serve a community dinner at Quest Integrated Health.
At 54, Gravening has only just begun to think about aging. Perhaps he’ll retire to San Diego, to the sun and the ocean he so loves.
“I honestly thought I wouldn’t be here, almost 17 years later,” he said. “It’s been an incredible ride.”