I am standing outside our beautiful town hall on a chilly, dark evening — late afternoon, actually, in this damnably short-day time of year. There are flickering candles all around me; I am holding one myself. This is the World AIDS Day candlelight vigil.
The candle-bearing crowd consists of couples, small groups, and people standing alone. We are loosely assembled around the Remembering block — the AIDS memorial created by Lauren Ewing. The undulations on its ebony surface look just like wavelets as they catch the candlelight.
There is a minimum of chatter in the dark. After a couple of brief speeches, a heartfelt recitation of a poem, and a sweet prayer by the Rev. Kate Wilkinson, there is a moment of silence. Then begins the calling out of names from the crowd, names of those lost to AIDS. Some of the callouts are tearful; there are muffled sobs in the crowd. As a name is called out, a red rose is gently placed on the memorial; it is soon covered in roses. I call out the name Billy West, a beautiful young man I worked with in the ’70s. I recognize some of the other names as well.
Reverend Kate recites a 900-year-old poem by the Spanish Jewish physician Judah Halevi. He wrote, in part: “’Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch … A thing for fools….”
We are all fools.
Perhaps Provincetown is more foolish than most places. First, this town was a haven, a place to come for the dying, to die in grace; then we became a place for surviving and healing, in dignity. Now, we have the irony of remembering the victims of one epidemic while we are not yet out of another. And then there are the other ongoing epidemics with their own victims: opioid addiction, alcoholism, gun violence.
It is sobering to be a survivor. The tide of Time drags us forward and leaves the dead behind. But Death comes for us all, whether huddled together or standing alone in the dark. I did not want to come out on this chilly, dark day; I was comfortable at home. I thought I might read a book. But I remembered a line from a Mary Oliver poem: “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” (She didn’t.)
I forced myself out the door and into town, to join my community, the living and the dead, to stand in the dark with strangers, acquaintances, and friends — and to remember. We are truly together, the living and the dead, and the line that connects us is remembrance: it is a thin line, but strong enough to hold.
The streams of lights on the monument add life to the scene, and the giant lighted snowflakes on the streetlights do, too. The crowd disperses. After a cup of warm cider I walk over to the beach. Just beyond, MacMillan Wharf is lit up as well. Directly overhead, the pitch-black sky is pierced with stars. The dark water at my feet is gently lapping. Out beyond the breakwater, I know, the bay is lolling; far behind me, the woods and dunes are quiet in the night; and beyond them is the backshore and the mighty Atlantic.
All the people we are remembering loved these things, too. Delighting in these elements is a form of remembrance, and an acknowledgement that all this will persist long after we are all gone. There is peace in that thought.
A vigil is defined as “a period of keeping awake during the time usually spent asleep, especially to keep watch or pray.” I’m not sure everyone prayed at that ceremony, but I think we were all keeping watch.