Ward, Michael H. “The Sea Is Quiet Tonight: A Memoir”, Querelle Press, 2016.
How It Was
The AIDS epidemic was an important event in LGBT history and it is quite difficult for those who lived through it to revisit that period. I was fortunate enough to have been living out of the country during that time so my knowledge of what went on here, in most cases, comes from what I have heard and read. I did come back to the States during the summer of 1989 for a visit and discovered that almost every gay person I had known before I left America in the 60s was gone. I, then, made it my personal odyssey to find out all I could about AIDS and as depressing it was to read and hear about, I felt it was my responsibility to do so. Lately, we have not had a great deal of literature written about AIDS and that could be because the memories are so painful. However, we need to remember so that those who died from this terrible disease have a place in history and remain in our hearts.
I recently received a lovely letter from a man named Michael Ward who had gotten my address from a friend whose books I reviewed. Ward told me that he had written a memoir about the early years of the AIDS epidemic; a time when so little was known and very few who were diagnosed survived. He asked me to review his book and, of course, I jumped at the chance (especially after the nice flattery he gave me in his note). I knew that reading and reviewing, “The Sea is Quiet Tonight” would be a cleansing experience for me as it has always bothered me that I lived through the epidemic while so many that I knew did not (I think many of us suffer with survivor’s guilt). What Michael did not know then is that both his publisher and his publicist are friends of men and the book in all probability would have eventually landed on my desk.
Because of my own experiences, I am seldom able to get through an AIDS memoir with dry eyes and that was certainly the case here. Of course, not everyone will be affected as I was.
Writer Ward writes in great detail about his then partner, Mark (Halberstadt), as he declined and died. This is not easy reading but it is important reading and as tragic as what we read here is, it is also a way of honoring those we lost to this terrible disease. It is also a look at the past before we had medication to help those carrying AIDS and even before we really knew what it was. Sometimes we forget that being diagnosed with AIDS was a death sentence. Sometimes we also forget that the AIDS epidemic was about people; people in relationships and what happens when one half of the relationship is dying or gone.
Now that I make my home in Boston, I find that I have a responsibility to myself to learn the history of the LGBT community here and the AIDS epidemic is certainly a part of that history. Ward takes us back and realistically tells us about how AIDS affected Boston and from a more personal point of view how he dealt with the loss of his partner. Mark Halberstadt and Michael Ward fell in love at the very beginning of the AIDS epidemic in 1981. It is so important to note here that when the world was still learning about the disease, Michael and Mark were already dealing with it. They did not know much and they were afraid. AIDS broke their hearts and destroyed what they had together.
The early days of the disease were terrible, not only because there was so little knowledge of what was happening but also because there was nowhere to turn and find answers since there were only questions and no answers. For Michael Ward, this was a personal battle in which there were no weapons. AIDS was about so much more than life and death. An entire community was affected by the epidemic and while this book is about Michael Ward and Mark Halberstadt, it is also about all of us who lived through this period and whose lives have not only been affected but changed in many, many ways.
As I read “The Sea is Quiet Tonight”, I soon realized that the characters that are part of this story are people that I know. This brings in the personal side of the story and we know that AIDS not only affected our community but the relatives and families of members of our community.
Michael and Mark are our main characters but for me they also become symbols of that terrible time. We meet both Michael’s and Mark’s parents and we read how their lives were changed as well as how so many individuals found themselves coping during this time. I think, and this is my opinion, that many think they know the story of what went on when in reality they know only parts of the story. Michael Ward fills in what we need to know. Everyone who has lost someone to AIDS has a theory and while some of those might be similar and alike, the fact that the personal story is different in every case. It is easy forget that a relationship is based on compromise but do we understand what happens when one half of the relationship cannot be part of a compromise because he is dying? This is what we really see here. Ward shows us the true meaning of love and friendship. More important than that is we see what being an adult and human really means.
The book arrived today and I must tell you that I sat down immediately to read it, determined to finish it before the presidential debate began. What I am writing here is based upon my first reading and I feel certain that you can see how the book played on my emotions. Now I know that this might sound like a depressing read but it is human, witty and funny at times and it is beautiful all the way through. The mood of this country changed with AIDS and as people we have changed. Because of that, we have achieved the freedoms that we have. It has been a terrible price to pay and we have to thank Michael Ward for reminding us of how it was. I am going to post this review now but I feel certain that I will revisit it again and write even more. I really want to get the word out so that everyone can be looking for this when it is published on November 1.
One last comment—in the beautiful forward by Mitchell Katz, MD and director of the Department of Health Services, County of Los Angeles, California, he says in his first sentence what I have been trying to say this entire review. “Love and death. For a generation of gay men, love and death were inextricably intertwined. To love in the age of AIDS, was to mourn”.