Warmed by the early-morning sunshine, a crowd of about 1,000, clad in shorts and running shoes, clapped and cheered Sunday in Irvine as actors, politicians and organizers for the first-ever AIDS Walk Orange County finished their speeches.
"I hope you can walk next year to celebrate a cure for AIDS!" said Elizabeth Dorn Parker, executive director for the walkathon, which will benefit AIDS research and patient care in Orange County. The crowd that was gathered on the wet grass in William R. Mason Regional Park roared its approval.
In front of the speakers' platform, Scott Abner smiled wanly from his wheelchair. "My, what a pleasant fantasy," the 26-year-old Abner whispered to his longtime companion, Wade Abner-Ryan.
"Cynic," hissed the 37-year-old Abner-Ryan, jostling Abner's wheelchair.
Abner is dying of AIDS, the fatal disease diagnosed by his doctor just last January. He first tested positive to the AIDS virus almost two years ago. Since then, the Anaheim couple has struggled to accommodate a new presence in their seven-year relationship--death.
Humor, cynical fatalism and an almost brutal honesty seem to buoy the pair.
"I'm not going to sit around and mope," declared Abner. "I don't have time for that. . . . I'm dying," he said, waving a cigarette as Ryan began wheeling him along the 6.2-mile route of the walkathon.
They joined the long, brightly colored line of walkers made up of friends and relatives of AIDS patients, people who work for groups that assist them, and UC Irvine students. Also participating were state Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), and actor Robert Blake.
Sponsors said an estimated $210,000 was raised in pledges for the many miles walked. Much of the money came from corporate sponsors, such as Pacific Mutual Life Insurance of Newport Beach and ICN Pharmaceutical Inc. of Costa Mesa, which manufacturers ribavarin, a drug used to treat some patients with early symptoms of acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
Parker said all the money raised will remain in Orange County and wil be distributed to five local organizations: the AIDS Services Foundation, for direct patient services; the AIDS Response Program, for education efforts; the Orange County Chapter of the American Red Cross, for educational work; UC Irvine, for research, and to the AIDS Coalition to Assess Orange County Needs (ACTION), a broad-based group formed recently to help AIDS patients.
Abner turned out Sunday, despite his weakened condition, to show support for others like himself and appreciation for the help he said he has received from the AIDS Services Foundation.
But as they wound their way through Mason park, past a middle-aged man sailing a radio-controlled boat on a blue pond, the pair's conversation touched on their relationship, on friends, families--and what it has been like to live with AIDS.
Abner, a self-described "beach boy" who was reared in Manhattan Beach, said he followed unspectacularly in the footsteps of an older brother who was a track star and A-student. Frustrated with the comparisons and bored with school, he passed the high school equivalency exam at age 16 and moved to the Pacific Northwest, where he worked as a waiter before returning to Southern California a few years later.
Ryan, meanwhile, had finished high school in Torrance and followed a lover and mentor in the radical gay movement up to San Francisco. There, Ryan gained some fame as a political agitator and folk singer and once was described as the Joan Baez of gay liberation.
The pair, who were working in separate Los Angeles area psychiatric hospitals, met through a mutual friend about seven years ago in Long Beach. "It just happened to us," said Ryan. "It evolved real quickly. Neither one of us was looking for a relationship. We were confirmed bachelors." They have stayed together ever since, sharing a two-bedroom apartment.
Early on in their relationship, the men began hearing about AIDS, and then friends began dying from the disease. "All along we talked about it and what we would do if one of us got sick," Abner said. "But there was that feeling, 'It won't happen to me.' "
"All that talk didn't prepare us one iota for this," Ryan said, as he eased the wheelchair off the curb and onto a street crosswalk about half the way through the walk. Two Walkathon volunteers in crisp, white T-shirts applauded the two men and sounded horns.
"Before this happened, we'd go out to bars all the time," Abner said. "But our priorities have changed. That's not where the good times were. We don't have time."
Some of their gay friends are uncomfortable around them now, said Ryan, who cannot explain how he has tested negative to the AIDS virus while Abner is dying of the disease. And other friends react so dramatically, in effusive displays of sympathy, that the couple find themselves becoming uncomfortable.