Beliefnet

The thing I remember most about Stuart is his table, and until recently, this was a source of great shame for me.

When my friend Stuart Garcia died in 1986 of AIDS, at age 23, I promised myself that I would try to remember him--for what could be sadder than someone who is forgotten because he hadn't had time to do something memorable?

It seemed especially cruel because Stuart was one of those people who seemed destined to do something important. I met him in college when he was the president of the student body and I was the editor of the school newspaper. He had that rare combination of talent, earnestness, and ambition that makes for great men and women.

He was diagnosed with HIV in 1985, many years before the invention of life-preserving drug cocktails. Stuart and I both lived in Washington, D.C. As he grew sicker, I sat with him during physical therapy, watching his unbearable optimism. I promised myself I would hold on to his compassion, his brilliance, his potential--unaware at the time that it's impossible to remember potential.

There was nothing miraculous about his last year. It most certainly did not illustrate the healing power of prayer or positive thinking. He tried to visualize the AIDS virus as dark light that could be pushed out through his pores by white healing energy. It didn't work.

He did not live "far longer than anyone expected." Indeed, he died faster than anyone predicted.

And after he died, his other friends and I pledged to do whatever we could to keep his memory alive. We created a scholarship fund at college in his name; we promised to keep in touch, in tribute to him. But as time passed, I've stopped responding to the notes from the school about the Stuart Garcia Fund. There are no reunions of Stuart's friends, and I really couldn't tell you where most of them are.

The one thing about Stuart that persists in my life is his table. It's a modern drop-leaf table of blond pine, with legs that fold so that it can be either a half-table, a full table, or, with both leaves down, a thin one-foot-wide expanse. It's undistinguished, saying less "family heirloom" than "Ikea special." But Stuart's mom, when she was cleaning out his apartment, needed to get rid of some of his things and asked if I wanted it, and I said yes, not out of sentimentality but because I needed a table.

After I got married, we put it in the sunroom, where we ate breakfast. Sometimes, we'd dress it up with a tablecloth and a vase full of flowers. It seemed elegant enough. "When the guests come," I'd say, "we can have brunch at Stuart's table."

When my son was born, the mohel--an old man with an accent, dark fedora, and mysterious black bag--came to our house for the bris. We needed a spot with plenty of light, so we opened up both leaves of the table in the sunroom. The mohel set his bag, surgical utensils, and prayer book on Stuart's table. He lay down our new life on this table, performed the ancient circumcision ritual, and quickly dabbed my son's lips with wine to stop him from crying.

As they grew, my sons Joe and Gordon would set up their dollhouse on Stuart's table, this time with the two main leaves folded down. Miniature wooden tables, tiny aluminum foil bowls and candelabras, hungry plastic dinosaurs--they all sat together atop Stuart's table.

My wife, Amy, never met Stuart, so all she knows of him is the table. Only recently did we become conscious of the fact that 14 years after his death, we still call it "Stuart's table."

At first I thought, how pathetic that this is what has endured. What became of my plans for memory books and meaningful scholarships and reunions?

Now I feel very blessed to have that table. No, Stuart didn't really get a chance to make his mark, and his potential will never be carved into a monument.

But when I see the table, and when I speak of it, a fleeting vision of that sweet young man--that gentle do-gooder--reappears in my mind. In some faiths and cultures, people believe that human spirits inhabit trees or objects. It's hard for me to look at it quite that way, but clearly a table can work as a co-conspirator--with the mind and the spirit--to call forth memories of a wonderful soul. So, thank you, Mrs. Garcia, for allowing me to take Stuart's table.

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