Arlene Bubb remembers the conversation vividly. She was sitting at the kitchen table talking on the phone to her son, Brian. “Do you have AIDS,” she asked, holding her breath while inside her body was screaming “please say no.” “What would you say if I told you, yes,” he asked quietly. Bubb was trying to think of the right thing to say. What came out was the words of a mother. “We certainly would love you and take care of you and have you home here with us and do whatever we needed. I mean, you’re our son.”
Nothing else was said. Brian also never told her he was gay. But she said she always knew. The day she first heard about AIDS, she was cleaning the bathtub and something came on the news. She listened prayed that Brian would never get it. “I thought, you don’t have a son who hangs out in gay bars. … But it was always in the back of your head.”
Bubb sits in her favorite chair most days with a prime view of who’s walking by outside. Over her shoulder are two portraits. One, her daughter Diane. The other, Brian the photo they used to use of the tie designer when he was in magazines. He was one of the top 10 in the country, she said. Proud of the boy who worked for Perry Ellis and then started out on his own. A clip featuring him in Esquire has the handwritten note from Brian “It’s tough being famous and good looking.”
That was him, she said with a laugh. “There were a lot of things I do to do that I wouldn’t have gotten to do without Brian,” his mother said. Trips to Paris, Milan.
Brian died on July 8, 1993. It was his sister’s 40th birthday. Since his death, Bubb got involved with The Open Group a group of mainly mothers who put on monthly dinners for those living with AIDS. And then one day, she heard Brian was on the AIDS Memorial Quilt. One of his industry friends did it, she said. It’s Brian’s own self-portrait a caricature, his favorite. Simple. Funny. Brian. “That’s Brian,” she said. “He had such an amazing sense of humor. I think it also helped to cover up a lot of hurt in his life.” They say funny people are hiding pain, she said, sadly. “I wasn’t there to help or understand. There are so many things I wish I had known then that I know now.”
Bubb has seen the quilt a few times over the years. She road the bus down to Washington D.C. when it was on the National Mall. “Those quilts, they’re just incredible. To see what people put together and about their lives and how they were loved.” Standing there, Bubb was amazed at the vast display of quilts. “There were so many there and they all had families. It just broke my heart. We sent a man to the moon. We have medicine now. It just came too late.”
Sitting in her chair, Bubb sorts through things that remind her of her son. An Absolute Vodka ad he did “Absolute Bubb.” A box is full of ties he made. Once he died, she ended up bringing home a suitcase of them. She couldn’t bear the thought of them just being given away or thrown out. Several ties are sown into a throw that sits on the chair opposite hers like it’s holding his space.
When Brian’s quilt comes home, his mother knows she’ll be bawling her eyes out. But she wants people to think as they remember. “I want them to know that it’s still here. AIDS is still here. It hasn’t gone away. I’m thankful that people now have been able to get on medication. Know that you can live with this. But be careful. Don’t be stupid.”
(Photo and video by Randy Flaum, York Storyman. Story by Kate Harmon.)