Pictured: Levi Petree ( right ) smiles with his late roommate, Ken Krawzak. Photo courtesy of Petree
It truly has been a marathon year of memories for Levi Petree, 25, an actor from Louisiana who has been living in Chicago for about four years. And the journey ultimately will come to rest in mid-December in the Pacific Ocean off Waikiki Beach, amid tears of joy and sorrow.
On New Year's Day 2008, Petree returned from a Christmas vacation with his family. Petree, who is straight, spoke that night with his roommate— Ken Krawzak, 49, gay and living with AIDS—in their Edgewater home.
Krawzak reported that he had had a great New Year's Eve, Petree said. 'He was really happy, at peace.'
The next morning, as Petree was preparing to go to the gym, he could hear Krawzak moaning, 'which was normal,' Petree said. Still, Petree walked into Krawzak's room and asked if he was OK.
Krawzak replied, 'No, but just let me go,' and since the same scenario had happened a few times in the past, Petree just went to the gym. He returned about an hour later and Krawzak was in the living room, dead. 'I kind of beat myself up for a few days, thinking about what might have happened if I hadn't gone to the gym. But, I know he wouldn't want me to beat myself up about it,' Petree said. 'But it kind of left me feeling like I didn't do enough.'
However, nothing could be further from the truth in this teary tale of friendship, which hides age, sexual orientation and health differences.
'He was my best friend,' said Petree, who gave the eulogy at Krawzak's funeral. 'The best thing about the relationship is that I'm able to look back on it and know that I got him to stop feeling bad about his situation. Age was never an issue. Sexuality either.'
The two lived together for about 18 months. At times it was a brotherly relationship; at times, it was a father-son one; at times, doctor-patient. Petree drove Krawzak to the hospitatal when he got sick, ran errands and picked up Krawzak's medication when need be.
Petree introduced his friends to Krawzak, 'and they loved him as much as I did,' Petree said. 'He was a genuinely nice person.'
In June, Petree started training for the Honolulu Marathon on Dec. 14 through the National AIDS Maraton Training Program ( NAMTP ) . It will be his first-ever marathon and, of course, he's dedicating the 26.2-mile journey to Krawzak— and will have a photo of Krawzak on his yellow NAMTP shirt come race day.
'I've always wanted to run a marathon and kept seeing the flyers around town for the AIDS Marathon [ Training Program ] . By signing up, I knew I could help raise money for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and also help share Ken's story, which I've really wanted to do,' Petree said. 'Basically, I want to help anyone who's going through the same thing as Ken. I just want to do what I can to give back.'
After the marathon, Petree will take the Krawzak photo from his shirt, along with information about Krawzak's life —including his struggles which he never harped on—seal them in a bottle and then throw it into the ocean. 'Someday, hopefully, someone will find it and get inspired,' Petree said.
'Being an actor, I have a lot of gay friends, so being around gay people is not a big deal at all. I'm able to get along with most people; I'm comfortable in most social settings. Ken was like a Peter Pan figure, the boy who wouldn't grow up. We ultimately could talk about anything, such as my relationships and his health. 'He looked like the healthiest 35-year-old you've ever met. Though his body was weak with sickness, he was the strongest man I've ever known.'
Krawzak once gave Petree a poem, and Petree has since mounted it on a mirror in his bathroom along with a photo of Krawzak. The poem reads:
Dance as though no one is watching you; Love as though you have never been hurt before; Sing as though no one can hear you; Live, as though heaven is on earth. 'Ken was the first person I've ever lost that I've been close to and know he is someone who will stick with me for the rest of my life,' Petree said. 'But, as lucky as Ken said he was, he knew others with his disease were not so lucky. I met Ken for a reason and feel it is my duty, to share his story and raise awareness and support for those who still struggle with AIDS today.
'This is extremely important to me. I saw Ken take over 50 pills a day when I lived with him and know it was that medicine that kept him going. So, the more money I can raise for the AIDS Foundation, the easier it might be for them to get help and care to others who faced the same struggles Ken went through.'
Petree, who is hoping to finish the Honolulu Marathon in three hours, 30 minutes, added: 'The night before the funeral, while cleaning out Ken's car, I came across a business card holder. I opened it up and found a card with Ken's name, address, e-mail and phone number. When I turned the card over I found a question. In the past couple of months, Ken would e-mail me questions that ordinarily wouldn't come up in a conversation, such as, 'What were your first words?' It was [ Krawzac's ] way of getting to know me a bit better. And I thought it was fate he should not only get to ask me a final question, but that it's this particular question. It asks: 'What would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?'
'Well, my answer is, I would bring our friend back. Without the pain, without the sickness, without the suffering. Because he was a talented man who had a lot left to offer the world and many more lives to touch.'