Annemarie Madison (November 20, 1920 - January 30, 2010)
Most people can remember at least one outstanding human being during their lifetime, who represented the best of what the human spirit has to offer. There will always be the Mahatma Gandhis and the Martin Luther King Juniors. They will be forever celebrated in the history books and the minds of generations after them, because their actions were so public, touching the lives of countless people. But there are also the quiet heroes who deliberately operate under the radar as much as possible, because their modest, unselfish nature requires they seek no unnecessary publicity. They only come out into the sunlight when they think it is absolutely in the best interest of the common good.
Annemarie Madison requested that upon her death there should be no formal service. I’m sure that’s why it has taken nearly one year for the news of her passing to reach me, although she lived just a few blocks from me on the next street parallel to mine. I am certainly no stranger to death. I understand that each one we witness affects us in ways we cannot anticipate in advance. Yesterday, as I stood at the window of the new GLBT museum in San Francisco’s Castro district, reading the list of sponsors of the museum, at the bottom of the list I saw the words, “In Memory Of Annemarie Madison.” They were the only words I read aloud. I’m sure the tone with which I uttered those five words elicited the immediate response I received from a friend. She reached over and placed her hand on my shoulder, squeezing it gently to acknowledge my grief. Then I straightened my spine, stood tall, and like a good German/American, I tucked all that pain away, out of sight, pretending for the rest of the day, that everything was OK!
But later in the evening when I was supposed to sleep, I laid wide awake instead, with all the memories tugging at my breaking heart. I must admit now, that I often make the assumption that someone so beautiful, compassionate and loving could or should never die. So now I am compelled to do my part to ensure that never happens with Annemarie, even though her spirit has left the temporal body.
Annemarie’s heart was so big it encompassed the entire globe. Wherever she traveled, those she touched were left awe stricken by her selfless actions. In a moving Youtube video, Dr. IS Gilada of The People’s Health Organization in Mumbai, India remembers Annemarie. PHO was awarded the Annemarie Madison International Award in 1999. In remembering Annemarie, Dr. Gilada points out that Annemarie has died on the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s death in 1948. At the time of her death, Annemarie was preparing to travel to India for the wedding of Dr. Gilada's daughter. I believe that it is absolutely fitting that from this day forward the names Annemarie Madison and Mahatma Gandhi will be spoken together each year on the anniversary of January 30th!
I first met Annemarie in the mid 1980s when I was involved in a personal crusade to memorialize people who had died from AIDS. I began planting native California Poppies on the hills around San Francisco as a tribute to those who had died from AIDS, as well as a ritual representing the cycle of life and rebirth. Through my friends Jack and Jane Stuppin, Annemarie got word of my Poppy Project. Soon after being introduced to this powerful woman, I was swept away by her irrepressible energy. First I was interviewed for Leah Garchik’s column in the San Francisco Chronicle. That lead to a two page Chronicle article with photos. Then I appeared on the evening CBS News. Because of Annemarie, I was soon buying poppy seeds in five pound lots and taking groups through the hills of San Francisco, spreading poppy seeds to memorialize the fallen heroes of the epidemic. For me, California poppies will forever represent the spirits of those who so bravely faced the great challenge of the 1980s, with immeasurable courage and compassion.
Annemarie began to share the story of the Poppy Project with her friends around the globe. In 1988 she arranged for my partner Rob and I to take a Christmas tour of Hungary, Austria and Germany to share our story of healing grief through a ritual of sowing seeds of new life.
For Rob and I, as with countless others, Annemarie came to represent our rock in a world where we had all lost our emotional footing. She was the mother who was always there to console her children. She was the teacher who was always the example of calm, compassionate, rational thought. She was the soft shoulder to cry on. She was the light of hope in times that often felt absolutely hopeless! The most important thing she taught us by example was humility through giving!
But there was also another side of Annemarie that would absolutely not tolerate injustice. In April of 1989, as we prepared for an international conference on AIDS in San Francisco, an HIV Positive Dutch man was arrested at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, because customs agents found the drug AZT in his suitcase. Hans Paul Verhoef was imprisoned for five days because of an outrageous law that denied entry to the US, by anyone who was HIV positive. Through Annemarie, we were all encouraged to lobby the Bush White House in order to get Hans Paul freed. But Annemarie did not have us calling the president’s office. She had very cleverly arranged instead, to get us the number of the personal secretary of Barbara Bush! I was one of those privileged to meet Hans Paul at San Francisco International Airport when he was finally released five days later, then allowed to come to the conference. It was a very emotional moment, as we watched, bouquets of roses in hand, as Hans Paul walked into the crowd of jubilant supporters.
I’m going to speculate that what I say next can be verified by all of Annemarie’s boys who survived the 1980s. She was a mother who did not play favorites! Every one of us was made to feel special, as if we were the only one! She listened to our stories with intense interest and recalled our pasts with uncanny detail. My beloved Robby was one of the last to die from pneumocystis pneumonia in 1995. It was Annemarie who convinced me to seek professional counseling for my grieving. There was no one in the world I trusted more than Annemarie on the subject of death and grieving!
I imagined that if I were Annemarie, I would have celebrated the advent of the AIDS cocktail drugs, by retiring to a simpler, less stressful life. But that never happened! I received a notice that she was raising money to buy sewing machines that were operated with foot pedals so former prostitutes in Nepal and India could support themselves in villages without electricity. Then another time I received a notice that she was raising money to buy goats and chickens so a village could feed themselves. Then another time it was money for digging wells so women would not have to walk miles to the nearest water supply!
Most of my last days spent with Annemarie were on Muni Buses in San Francisco. She was traveling back and forth from the hospital where her husband Louis was hospitalized. I couldn’t help but think of my last days with Rob in London. All of the caring for others had never prepared me for the task of saying good-bye to my soulmate, the love of my life! When I finally understood the details of Annemarie’s passing from this world, the first thought in my mind was that it was no accident that she went quickly and peacefully.
Yes, I should know better than to feel guilty that I had not called Annemarie or gone to see her during her last year. The time just seems to go so quickly these days. The lyrics from James Taylor's song Fire and Rain just won’t leave my head now. “But I always thought that I’d see you one more time again!”