Last week's meeting began with grim news. Five group members were in George Washington University Hospital undergoing treatment, and a sixth, a restaurant manager in his thirties, had died there four days earlier.
For the eight patients who braved a chilly rain to attend the meeting of the AIDS patients' support group at the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Adams-Morgan, the death of a group member -- the second in as many months -- was a terrifying harbinger.
"It's a little scary because he was only diagnosed a month before I was," said Sonia Sherman. She is the only woman in this support group, one of several started recently in the Washington area to help AIDS patients, their friends and families.
"Every time someone dies, it comes closer to home," said J, a 37-year-old Alexandria resident who did not want his full name used. "At first I could barely stand to come and look at 10 other people who are also dying. But I don't know what I'd do without it."
Attendance at the two-hour meetings varies depending on the health of its 22 members. Sometimes the group, which is led by a physician's assistant and a mental health worker experienced in counseling the dying, meets at area hospitals, depending on the needs of various members.
The purpose of the group, according to coleader Jacques Bolle, is not to provide specialized therapy. "This is a social support group and we focus on the here and now, on the side effects of medication, on relationships. . . . Gay people don't have as strong and well-defined a support system as people who are straight. Gays are a subculture, so it's especially isolating when gays are rejected by their own peers."
Last week's meeting, puncutated with flashes of gallows humor, focused on the latest reactions of friends and family. Most group members are undergoing experimental treatment at NIH. All appeared healthy, if thin.
"I'm really sick of people saying, 'But you look so good,' as if I shouldn't be walking around or they don't believe I'm sick," said 26-year-old K, as group members nodded assent. "I don't know what people think I'm supposed to look like."
"Yeah, it's like when people say, 'What do you mean you're going to New York this weekend?' " another said.
J told the group he has just mailed a long letter to his elderly parents, who live in Norfolk. Several weeks earlier he nearly died after swallowing two bottles of sleeping pills. J's AIDS was diagnosed in March. His older brother and only sibling, a 40-year-old chemical engineer who lives in New York, learned a year ago that he had AIDS.
"All my father does is break down and cry and take tranquilizers all day, and my mother goes to church all the time because she thinks God is punishing her," he said.
"I would like them to know about me, about what facing death is doing to me and how it changed my life. They just won't talk to me about it, and I need to. I have a terrible fear of dying before I get across certain things I want to say."
In his letter, the product of many drafts, "I told them how much I love them and that I consider them my friends and that maybe I'll see them on the other side and we can have what we didn't have on earth," he said.
Randy Brown, a 28-year-old former waiter who grew up in a small town in east Tennessee, holds J's hand sympathetically. "My parents come from a very good Christian background and their son is a queer," he said, adding that his family is nevertheless supportive. "We don't really talk about it, but I think they realize I'm going to be a dead duck before too long."