Austin To Memorialize One Of First In City Diagnosed With HIV

Eric BlanchetteAUSTIN, TEXAS – Friends and family will gather in Tana Christie’s garden in West Austin next weekend to celebrate the life of Eric Blanchette, one of the first people to be diagnosed with HIV in Austin.
Blanchette, 47, died July 23 of liver cancer, according to his partner of two years, Fred Aikman.
Christie said she was honored to find out Blanchette had requested that his memorial be held in her garden, which he helped her create.
“He was very kind and giving. He taught me a lot of things about how to be patient with people, all kinds of people, and to be forgiving,” Christie said.
In 1983, Blanchette’s doctor told him he was the second person in Austin to be diagnosed with HIV.
Instead of looking at it as a death sentence, Blanchette lived every day with a joy for life, Aikman said.
“He was not a person who lived in denial; he loved living, and he shared that with people,” Aikman said.
Blanchette became one of the most recognizable faces of Austin’s HIV community in 2003 when the film “Only the Good,” a documentary based on his struggle with the virus, premiered at the Austin Gay International Film Festival.
The film’s director, Benjamin Gottfried, met Blanchette while working as a bellhop at Austin’s Four Seasons Hotel, where Blanchette was a concierge.
The film showed Blanchette at work, at play — dressed up for a drag party — and toiling through the two-day, 125-mile Hill Country Ride for AIDS bicycle ride.
Aikman said Blanchette maintained good health until about Christmas 2005, when he complained of a pain in his side. Blanchette and Aikman chalked it up to strain from hanging up thousands of Christmas lights around their condo.
But the pain continued, and Blanchette went to a doctor in January and learned his diagnosis. Over the next six months, Blanchette tried every cancer treatment his doctor suggested.
Nothing worked, Aikman said.
“We all said that was the sad part, all his fighting was with HIV, and then he died of something else,” Christie said.
Despite his declining health, Blanchette spent the last few weeks of his life traveling. He took a trip to Alaska with Aikman and went deep sea fishing at Port O’Connor with his younger brother John.
John Blanchette said fishing reminded them of New Caledonia, a South Pacific island where the brothers would visit their grandmother each summer, flying nearly 20 hours from Austin.
John Blanchette said his brother didn’t reveal he was gay until he was about to leave home for college and John was preparing to move to Wisconsin
“He asked me to go for a beer at some bar downtown — it was a gay bar,” John Blanchette said. “He just wanted to see how I would react.”
John reacted with acceptance.
Five years later, when Eric revealed he had HIV, John was stunned.
“I knew what it was, and it was pretty much a death sentence back then,” he said.
But Eric Blanchette lived, and lived well, for another 23 years, his friends said.
John Blanchette said he and his wife were at the condo with Aikman when Eric died.
“It’s been pretty tough: You go around in daze; it’s hard to concentrate and work,” John Blanchette said. “It is a lot harder for my parents. Parents should never have to bury their children.”
Next Sunday, Eric Blanchette’s friends and family will reflect on the man Christie described as artistically creative and always optimistic.
“I’ve become more alive than I ever have,” Blanchette had told a reporter before the film’s premier. “I’ve made it this far, and my life has turned around so much, that I could call it a day and be happy with what I have.”
from The Austin American Statesman

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