Living with AIDS

"Archibald's Swiss Cheese Mountain" is a tale about a little mouse who overcomes obstacles to become king of his Swiss Cheese Mountain.

AIDS nearly killed Topanga Canyon resident Randy Neece 11 years ago. He writes about his struggle with the disease and his road to relative healthiness in his book, “Gone Today, Here Tomorrow.”

By Jonathan Friedman / Assistant Editor

Randy Neece is living the good life. The Topanga Canyon resident runs Canyon View Ranch-a five-acre vacation place for dogs that is more a luxury resort than a kennel-with his partner of nearly 25 years, Joe Timko. He spends his days taking care of and playing with dogs while running the financial end of the successful business. And his health is excellent. One would never know that he has full-blown AIDS.

Neece, 54, has chronicled the ups and downs of his life in a book released this year titled “Gone Today, Here Tomorrow.” The novel begins as a tale of a young Quaker boy in Orange County struggling with his sexuality. In his teens, he toured the world as a member of The Young Americans musical group, and this eventually led to a career in game show and documentary production.

The book is also a love story. After several years of numerous short-term relationships, Neece met Timko, now 50, in 1983. The two were prepared to celebrate their fifth anniversary and soon a wedding when one day Neece received a letter from a life insurance company denying him coverage.

“There was no mention of HIV in the letter, but I didn’t have to be a Mensa member to decipher the code,” Neece writes in his book. “I knew exactly what ‘abnormalities detected in my blood’ meant.”

Neece and Timko both were tested the next day, with Neece officially learning the news he already knew and Timko surprisingly finding out he was negative. Since the two had carried on a monogamous relationship for half a decade, it was determined Timko probably had some sort of immunity to the virus.

Despite finding out he had what at that time was still essentially a death sentence, Neece continued on with as normal a life as he could. He and Timko entered “unchartered territory” with a gay wedding in which “everything about a ‘traditional wedding’ had to be adapted, reinvented or tossed out.” The couple went on a honeymoon to Kauai. And Neece continued to work on various television shows and medical documentaries to varying degrees of success. Life continued on a somewhat normal path until 1993, when his HIV advanced into AIDS.

For three years, Neece was in and out of the hospital, nearly dying on each trip. And the times he wasn’t there, he was at home receiving medical treatments from Timko and taking drugs that helped him stay alive, but also made him terribly sick. While Timko remained optimistic, at least outwardly, throughout that period, Neece believed on many occasions that death would be a better option.

“I’d had enough needles and pills, and hospital stays,” Neece writes. “It was time. If God was going to perform a miracle on me, He would have done it long ago.”

Neece’s desire to die and Timko’s will to keep his partner alive is a significant struggle in the book. Eventually the two made a deal after seeing a friend who counseled them. Neece would continue with the IVs and drugs. But the next time he had a major sickness and had to return to the hospital, they would “let nature take its course.”

And then in March 1996, that miracle Neece thought would never come did. A new drug called Saquinavir had reduced his viral load (the amount of active HIV in the body) to zero and increased his T-cell count. Over the years he has taken other drugs and he continues to remain healthy. Today he takes four pills a day, which Neece described in a recent interview as “tough on the system, it’s not like popping four vitamins.” But it is nothing like taking 50 pills a day, which he used to have to do.

Shortly after the miracle drug came into Neece’s life, he returned to work in game show production. But that was short-lived, as he and Timko, who had become a successful dog trainer, founded Canyon View Ranch.

Neece said he got the idea for his book after receiving several favorable responses to a brief article he wrote in The Advocate about his battle with AIDS and his success with Canyon View Ranch. So, over the next few years as a side project he put his life story on paper, writing the book for himself, with no intention of anybody actually reading it.

“There were times for eight hours I would sit writing, and it felt like I had been through the most amazing session with a shrink,” Neece said. “Things bounced back so quickly and I went into full gear so fast once I got well that I never really had a chance to stop and see what had happened. So writing this was really therapeutic.”

Despite the dark subject matter in the latter half of the book, Neece still includes humor. A deadly infection of the lungs that affected him several times, known as Mycobacterium Avium Complex, Neece refers to as the MAC Attack. A chapter detailing his emotions about what he believed was his inevitable death while describing his anger over the fundamentalist Christian reaction to AIDS is called “Dear Pat Robertson: My end is near. Kiss it!”

“AIDS can be a very depressing subject,” Neece said. “So I wanted to give the readers a little bit of release from wanting to tear their hair out.”

The book has received good reviews in the gay media, and large crowds have come to book signings, many of them with their own stories of survival and those struggling with illnesses who see Neece’s book as an inspiration.

“I was just amazed with the response,” Timko said. A man who prefers happiness, Timko said he doesn’t often think about the struggle that ended more than a decade ago because it makes him sad.

“My days then weren’t really set up until I saw him [Neece] coming through the living room door,” Timko said. “And then my heart would stop, and if he had that ‘I feel awful’ look, I’d feel sad and know it would be a bad day. And if he looked better, then I’d feel like ‘Oh good, it’s going to be a good day.'”

Timko said through most of the battle, he felt that Neece would get better, and it upset him as things only got worse.

“The day the ethics consultant came, that was the first time I gave into the fact that he was going to die,” Timko said.

Today, Timko and Neece are grateful that they have the life they do and that Neece is relatively healthy. But Neece never forgets he has a serious disease that is still without a cure. And because of that, it allows him to look at things differently.

“I feel much more free to try things, to branch out,” Neece said. “I’m much more focused on doing new things rather than just repeating. [Earlier in life] I would have never gambled on buying this five-acre piece [Canyon View Ranch]. But when you get lucky and start anew, it does put a whole new spin on things. Time is precious. And I don’t waste time on the things that aren’t important.”