Rick Bowers didn’t want to be another number.
It was actually 1986 and while on his second date with Scott Smith that he disclosed he had AIDS, Smith recalled. Bowers had been diagnosed six months before the two started dating.
“It didn’t really bother me much at all,” Smith said. “I’ve dealt with cancers, strokes through family. For me it was one of those things. It was part of Rick .. something you dealt with. … We learned what needed to be done to maintain his health and other things. It goes to say a lot about Rick. Today I’m still HIV negative.”
Not wanting to be a statistic was something that weighed heavily on Bowers. Even when the two went to get tested every three months. “It’s not just Rick and Scott,” Smith said. “It’s this number and this number, from files. Everything we did, we were just a number.” Even with AIDS was talked about in the news, it was a count of statistics, Smith said. It was 12,000 infected, never the 10,000 who are surviving and living a life. There was never talk of doing what needed to be done to either “beat this or at least extend it.”
One of Bowers’ biggest regrets was not making it down to the March on Washington. In the months after his death, Smith was looking for a way to honor his partner. He joined the Open Group as a buddy, working with those who were living with HIV/AIDS. Then came the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
“When we started on the quilt, it was once again another number,” Smith said, noting the size of the panels and all the requirements. “By adding Rick to the quilt it became not a number, it became something personal. You see the pictures. You see the dates. You see everything right in front of you rather than just another number panel.”
Five friends helped Smith with Bowers’ AIDS Memorial quilt. Three of them have since died from AIDS. “It’s not always here with us, but it’s out there and we know it’s out there.”
For Smith, it’s all about education. Most people don’t start talking about HIV/AIDS until early November and that’s only ahead of World AIDS Day. Smith used to speak to school groups and churches, something he said needs to start up again. It’s something he wants people to think about when his partner’s AIDS Memorial quilt panel comes home June 23.
Last time the quilt was here in 1994, Smith said the turnout was much bigger than expected. The biggest thing people didn’t realize, he said, was that it was personal. “Yes, we did lose,” he said. “But we still have them here.” And this time? “Rick’s coming back home again,” he said. “It’s something York needs itself. To reawaken and so there’s not a lot more statistics.”
“It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be welcomed with being able to personally see the panel again,” Smith said. “The biggest thing is it’s the fact that you’re not only getting to see the panel and everything, it’s going to bring back memories, good and bad, that we had that we dealt with at the time and everything. The biggest part goes back to education.”
Despite the pain, those memories still make Smith smile. And it was his husband, Dwayne, who encouraged him to reach out and see if they could bring Bowers home. On the quilt, Smith said from memory is: roses – Bowers’ favorite flower – a photo of him, a teddy bear and the number 77.
The teddy bear represents Scotty Jr. The first time Bowers was in the hospital with full-blown AIDS, Smith came to visit with a bear. Bowers named it Scotty Jr. and said it’s “something here with me when you can’t be.” When the two were together from 1986 to 1993, they couldn’t publicly say “I love you,” so instead they said 77. It had to be on the quilt.
Smith hopes that by bringing Bowers home again – along with several other area panels – some may see the AIDS Memorial quilt for the first time. Kids are graduating from high school and don’t know that HIV/AIDS is something they should be aware of. He wants them to see Bowers and what he wanted his life and death to stand for – education. “AIDS/HIV is still out there. It still needs to be looked at, still needs to be publicized,” Smith said. “It’s not a thing of the past. It’s still here. It’s still current.”
“We lost Rick too soon,” Smith said, adding that his favorite memory was helping raise Bowers’ son from age 4 to 8. The two still spoke weekly until about a year ago and he hopes to bring him to the quilt. But it will be hard, Smith said. And it will bring back up the hardest thing Smith deals with: “Knowing that pretty much no matter what he did or what I did it wasn’t going to be good enough. We were going to lose him.”