A Tribute to Phil Saviano, 1952–2021
Front page, above the fold, in The Boston Globe. Feature length obit in The New York Times. Segments on major outlets—nationwide. I have only one friend whose death warrants such a blanket of coverage. Then again, media savvy Phil Saviano is also my only friend who would fully appreciate the deserved attention. By all means, click on the links and read the obituaries of this remarkable man. Or simply continue on for my personal tribute to a remarkable friend.
Summer 1995. My chronological calendar has flipped over to the big 4-0, but as a gay man, I am still a toddler. Two years since I came out. Therapy, support group, Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, boogie-down at the Napoleon Club’s Josephine Room until the 2 a.m. lights-up blinds us stragglers. I’d kissed a man, which represented progress. But when an acquaintance scolds, “Virginity is no virtue in the gay world,” it’s time to speed things up.
Personal ads fill the well-worn back pages of Bay Windows. I dislike phone chat, and so scrutinize columns for the tiny envelope symbol of those few seekers who welcome written response. Here’s one: Smoky Bar Man. Hardly sounds promising, but then again, opposites attract. I read and reread the carefully composed 25 words. Begin a letter of introduction. Reference the ad. Eventually notice it’s listed under the heading ‘Positive Attitudes.’ This guy has AIDS?
Among the differences between a 40-year-old newly-gay father with a pair of kinder-age children and the bulk of Boston’s gay community circa 1995 is zero direct experience with AIDS. Every gay man of my generation bore fresh wounds. They either had the virus or knew some who did. Everyone knew someone who’d died. They’d discarded the shame of sex=death to rally the activism of silence=death.
By the time I arrive on scene, means of transmission are well established, modes of protection understood. Avoiding the virus requires precaution, but the methods are clear. I don’t know anyone with AIDS, and never considered the logistics of dating someone with the virus. But what the heck, Smoky Bar Man has captured my attention.
“I got your letter. I’m impressed. No misspellings. Correct Punctuation. Call me back.”
Not the most promising answering machine message. But I return his call. The same night.
“Oh, heh. This isn’t a good time. My favorite show is about to start.”
Really? You prefer some TV show over talking to a man of correct punctuation? My inaugural experience in the personals confirms common consensus: guys who post ads are duds.
The next night, Phil calls back. When he relays enthusiasm for Leonard Cohen, I think this guy might be okay. When he divulges his love for Judy Collins, I want to meet him. When I learn that Phil actually knows Judy Collins, I am smitten. We talk for two hours. Perhaps my longest phone conversation ever.
Phil and I go on a date. A walk along Newbury Street, suitably public and chaste. Phil invites me for dinner. The simple casserole in plastic bowls is a welcome relief from the elaborate presentations I’ve encountered at other gay tables. Phil comes to my house; my children take an immediate shine.
By the time we met, the defining parameters of Phil Saviano’s life were history. His boyhood abuse by Father Holley. Contracting AIDS in 1984. Receiving a six-month life expectancy. His decision to stand up to the Catholic Church’s gag order. Founding SNAP (Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests). Signing up for every experimental AIDS treatment available. Being on magazine covers. Being in and out of the hospital. Plunging to a single-digit T-cell count. Living just above poverty, in awesome dignity.
The Phil I meet is healthy, handsome, wicked funny. His past recounted as a trove of adventure more than a burden of suffering. I’ve never known anyone of such fortitude. One night, finally, we make out on his couch. After few minutes we fell apart, laughing. “Sorry, Paul. You just don’t have the right teeth.” Phil’s the only gay man I ever meet whose singular fetish is teeth. Small, even, straight-lined kernels top and bottom melt the man. I have, well, pointy canines. Tooth contour aside, Phil and I are never destined to be lovers. So we became fine friends.
Over our twenty-five years Phil is mostly healthy, fiercely independent. His streength improves; his Mexican handicraft import business thrives. He weans off disability. Each December I go to his art-filled apartment to help wrap and ship the holiday rush. In 2000, Phil takes me on a buying trip to Pueblo, Oaxaca, and surrounding villages during his favorite celebration: Day of the Dead.
Phil possesses a rare ability: insight without judgement. “You live in your head.” He tells me one summer day as we share lunch on my deck. “You should start considering it an attribute.” I grew up in a family where solitude was viewed suspect. “Don’t be afraid; enjoy it.” That simple germ reveals a truth that decades of therapy never tapped. I mark the moment as a turning point in self-understanding.
Phil and I are typical guy friends. Years pass with no contact. Until some mutual interest prompts reconnection and we pick up where we left. Never an expectation, no recrimination. I’m at the hospital the day after Phil gets his new kidney. I can’t recall how I knew; certainly Phil would not make a special request.
“The problem with my life,” Phil jokes a couple years back, “is that I never planned for retirement.” Phil’s outlived his original death notice by more than thirty years. He’s confronted his boyhood trauma through action. He’s survived pneumonias and kidney failure and narcolepsy. The guy’s side-stepped the reaper more times than any cat. Never once do I hear Phil complain of his life’s lot. Nor see him cry. I scarcely recall a frown.
The last time I see Phil, he says, “When things get tough, I’ll call Lynn, and I have Jim.” I swallow the full meaning: I have dodged death so often, it will someday catch up with me; when I go, it will be on my terms; I’ve selected my best friend and devoted brother as the few people directly involved. Such a uniquely Phil way of expressing that I am not part of the inner circle, without making me feel outside.
I’ve spent the last few days remembering my friend, reliving our Mexican adventure. I will miss Phil, of course. But it’s hard to muster the same anguish I’d harbor for someone snapped away by accident. Phil lived and lived and lived. He lived well; he lived on his own terms. Far beyond anyone’s expectation or medicine’s explanation. His death feels less a tragedy than an opportunity to remember—and celebrate—the remarkable way this man thrived.
Thank you, Phil, for the gift you gave us all: the example of life so meaningful; so fully lived.