My First Death Positivity Experience

When I was very young, barely old enough to even know what death was, I saw a show on PBS about the (still very new to the public at the time) AIDS epidemic. I don’t remember anything else about the show, but there was one segment that stuck with me for the rest of my life.

A man, in a hospital gown, sitting in a wheelchair. He was emaciated, very clearly capital-D-Dying. And he made eye contact with the camera, and then sang a very jaunty song about his own, very eminent demise from the disease. I remembered clearly three things: that it was basically about why you should be kind to him as he was going to die soon (particularly a phrase “forgive me when I’m mean”), a quirky little instrumental break during which he tap danced while sitting in his wheelchair, and the chorus phrase “cause I’ve got less time than you”.

And it stayed with me. I was…let’s see when this was released….ooh. I was 13. I remember clearly thinking that the song was funny, and not being sad for him at all, even though I knew he was going to die, and I knew that he knew it, too. The emergent Spooky Kid in me delighted in how morbid the whole thing was, and i loved the twisted sense of humor, but what resonated with me 30 years later was not the morbidity. I actually admired him for knowing that he was going to die, and having made peace with that, he was able to be so forthright with his needs. Since he knew there was literally nothing he could do about it, he decided to have such a wicked sense of humor about the whole thing. It was a quiet, desperate, dare you not to look away from it strength. LOOK AT ME, I AM DYING AND THERE IS NOTHING ANYONE CAN DO. NOW LAUGH WITH ME. He saw his own pending demise, and owned it. I wanted to be like that, too, if I could. Strong, unafraid, and funny.

The image of the tap-dancing dying man never left me, and indeed after my diagnosis, any time I prioritized my own needs over those of someone with a muddier, less terminal future, the chorus would pop into my head. I justified inconveniencing people (whether they actually felt inconvenienced or not was irrelevant to my broken brain) with a jaunty internal chorus of “cause I’ve got less time than you”.

I finally remembered to look for it online, not really expecting to find it. It was (exactly!) 30 years ago, pre-internet, and all I had to go on was “man in wheelchair AIDS song less time than you”. But I did find it. It took some doing to find an actual video (especially one that wasn’t an impossible-to-understand audience recorded live version), but my Google-fu is strong. His name was Rodney Price, and he died two weeks after filming this. He is my role model to aspire to while dying today, and he was my very first Death Positive Hero.

I give you Rodney Price, “Song From An Angel”.