Lawrence Baker Wilkins, 1962 -1994
Story & Recording by Richard Phibbs
Lawrence Baker Wilkins, born November 10, 1962, died July 12, 1994
I have wanted to write this for years, but remembering brings back so much pain that it often seems unbearable. I must do this, though, for my beloved friends who endured so much physical and emotional suffering. Baker Wilkins was my best pal from our 20s into our 30s. He became my brother. We were both new to New York, curious and excited to be away from our small hometowns.
I was terrified of HIV and its mystery. This was New York City in the early 90’s, and it was almost impossible not to equate sex and intimacy with a dark horrible death. Baker was not full of fear the way I was, and that worried me.
We met for lunch one day, and he revealed to me he had tested positive. We held each other and wept. To us, the diagnosis meant that within three to six months, he’d likely be gone. I was devastated, but held myself together for him and hoped. From there it went downhill.
A red spot showed up on his nose. I said, let’s go to the makeup counter and get a cover-up. The woman at the counter sold us a concealer and told Baker to stay out of the sun. She had no idea the spot was Kaposi’s Sarcoma. The cover-up worked for a week until the KS began to take over Baker’s body. He declined rapidly. My most handsome friend was now covered in KS lesions and had wasting syndrome.
He had to have a shunt put in his chest as his veins could no longer stand up to the IV medications. He went home to North Carolina to see his family, and the local massage therapist refused to touch him.
My heart broke for my beloved friend. His courage was remarkable and he wanted to live, so with the help of his longtime partner Rolf Iversen, we investigated everything.
Shark cartilage was said to have healing properties. We tried that. Urine therapy — drinking one’s own urine — was said to stimulate the immune system. He tried that. He tried to live his life as normally as he could. He even went out to Fire Island, but when his skinny, KS-purpled body entered the pool, everyone else got out. My heart broke again.
The next phase came when they had to amputate his foot because the KS had spread. In the hospital,
I held his hand as the excruciating “phantom pains” took over his body.
Baker died. My best friend and my brother was gone at 32. He was a remarkable man.
Selling art was his passion; collecting art was his dream. He was kind to everyone. He was so handsome that everyone wanted to talk to him, and he would spend time with each person that did. Most of them were strangers and he would make them feel heard and important.
After Baker died, Rolf died too, then Bill, then John, then Jose, then 12 other friends. Then my boss, my dentist, and then my doctor. All dead.
I was overwhelmed with sadness, then guilt that I was still alive. Depression set in. I got myself to a therapist and onto an antidepressant. I knew that, as sad as I felt, the gift of life was mine. Seeing Baker fight so hard for his life was a reminder that I had to fight for mine.
Then came a medical miracle. If Baker could only have held on for six more months, he could have received antiretroviral treatment and still be with us. At the time I didn’t believe they would find something. I just couldn’t believe it. I think about Baker everyday. I think about Rolf and all the rest. Sometimes I think I still have PTSD from all the losses.
Sometimes I still equate sex with death, though I remind myself this is a different time. I still weep when I walk by the new condominiums that have gone up where St. Vincent’s stood. I look up and remember those cinder block cells of rooms and the hallways packed with the gurneys of young men with skeletal bodies and KS lesions. I walk by the nearby New York City AIDS Memorial hoping to feel something. I don’t, except a sadness that the names one sees on other war monuments aren’t displayed here, the names of the lost.
Before I go to sleep and when I wake up, I see this photograph of Baker, and somehow this comforts me.
I love you, my dear brother. You fought hard and with such dignity. You were so kind and sweet to everyone. You were brave until the end. I am so sorry the world was not kinder to you.