12/05/2011 10:36 am ET Updated Feb 04, 2012

The Power Of Memory: My Brother's Ashes and AIDS

On World AIDS Day, December 1, there were profoundly reflective gatherings to remember 30 years of the global epidemic and honor those who survived or died. For example, the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives and Library at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles is coordinating memorabilia in a permanent collection.

Included are the ashes of Kirk Thompson, who died of AIDS in 1996. His brother Mark is my partner of 27 years. I remember vividly a summer day--it seems such a long time ago now--when five of us rode horseback to scatter Kirk's ashes in the Upper Carmel Valley of northern California. We moved over ridge tops and reached a secluded canyon. A grove of redwood trees grew along banks of a stream.

We gathered in a clearing, grasped one another's hands and remembered Kirk in quiet words. Then Mark opened his backpack and took out a brown plastic box that held some of Kirk's ashes. I noted that they had the consistency of coarse, lumpy sand. Each of us scooped out a handful. We sprinkled them among the fronds on the forest floor and blended others into the earth beneath. It was an exhilarating and magical kind of moment when the wind picked up momentum and spun the ashes into a cycle of energy.

What was I thinking and feeling? Dying always confronts me with solemnity, gravity and wonder. Kirk's death also struck me with the hard reality that he was 40 when he died. I realized the devastating loss that his early death meant for his family. Our family group on this occasion included Kirk's sister Gail, his other brother John, Kirk's partner Donald, and Mark and me.

For this new happening on the first of December, Mark has placed more of Kirk's ashes in a fruit canning jar that belonged to their grandmother Bonnie. The jar and a few other personal ashes rest in a box designed to resemble a miniature old-fashioned steamer trunk about the size of a cigar box. Too, there's a grade school photo of Kirk surrounded by decals of yellow flowers, reminiscent of Kirk's life work and vocation as an expert gardener. Finding a box that conjured a steamer trunk conveyed the idea of starting out on a long journey into the future.

Whenever a large number of people face death because of war or an epidemic or another kind of major disruption of life, it becomes part of our responsibility to stop, be quiet, pray if we wish, and honor those who have perished and left us. Often this becomes an uncommon spiritual or religious ceremony wthout many of the usual trappings. There is prayer. There is community.

I believe that those who have died have moved from what we call time to what we call history. When I was a kid there was a famous slogan "Time Marches On." Indeed, it does. This means that you and I are also going to move from time into history. We'll become ancestors, whether we want to or not.

Never forget. In memory is found the greatest wisdom.