World AIDS Day, 2011: Year 26 of Infection
I awoke with one eye closed and buried in my pillow, but the other, wide open, stared into the bright sunlight that was streaming in through the closed blinds of my bedroom window. The sunlight shone brightly across the head and between the erect ears of my curled up schnauzer buddy, Goose. He feigned sleep and did not move, but his ears betrayed his attention to detail and his vigil for my awakening. I did not wish to move because it would cause him to stir. There I continued to lie for a few minutes, coming to my senses from the sleep and dreams that had had me clouded up a moment or two before.
“What day is this? Thurs…oh…World AIDS Day.”
I had let myself forget while asleep, but the day’s significance came back to me in a rush.
“Oh dear. Most days of the year, I can handle taking my pills and shooting up my insulin and eating and sleeping and buying groceries and carrying on with my life. When World AIDS Day rolls around, though, it can hit me without warning, like it just did yet again. The thing is, no one wants to hear about it. There is no one with whom I can confide my true feelings of loss and fear and deep, deep, dark forbidden sadness for the friends I have lost to death and for those whom I have lost to life and the sense of that betrayal."
I rolled over in my bed to keep from disturbing Goose and tried to bury my thoughts in sleep again. On my other side, the sunlight wasn’t nearly so bright, but there was Greta, Goose’s “wife” and the mother of his children. She was curled up against me, seeking warmth like some kind of black, heat-seeking schnauzer-missile with bad breath and few remaining teeth. Thoughts continued to run through my head, uncontrolled, like children left to run through a household where the adults, consumed by their grief, are focused on tending to the details of a wake.
“It is no longer so bad to have to swallow 31 pills a day. I no longer worry about trying to hide any of them when eating out. If someone wonders why I am taking a side-dish of capsules and tablets, it is their issue, not mine. I also have learned to test my blood sugar five times a day and inject insulin six times a day to try to get my metabolism back under control from the very pills that have saved my life. I have even learned to sleep when tired, to nurse my pain when it is bad and to get to the doctor when I need to do so. On most days, I can take all of that shit. What I can’t seem to face, though, is these yearly World AIDS Days where everyone seems to look at the disease like a holiday--one where it is time to wear a reminder of the disease and to spend a few minutes thinking about those poor, poor people in Africa who are suffering."
"Don’t they remember what we lived through in the 1980s? Don’t they remember that this disease is real and still here and doing quite well, thank-you-very-much? It is hiding behind the stigma and shame in their own homes, schools, churches and gay bars, here, in America. I am sure they will find my thoughts to be a form of heresy for not being grateful that they have put aside a whole day to think about my dead friends and me. I know that they think themselves noble. They sit on committees and dress up in their silk shirts and tuxedos so that they can have a chance to throw a gala to assuage their guilt for not seeing us the rest of the year. The will say things like ‘You can’t get AIDS from a hug!”, yet when it comes time to share intimacy with someone who is HIV positive, they flee into the anonymity of their rejection and their projected shame and fear. I can't take that. I can't tolerate the artifice of my culture. But the worst, the absolute worst, is the knowledge that but for me and the other few real friends whose lives were truly touched, my departed friends are slowly being forgotten. Hell, I am even having trouble remembering all of their names at any given moment. When I am gone, who will remember that I was even here? Who will remember the impact that Kenny, and Donald and Chuck and Ralph and François and what’s his name had on my fucking life and how important their death was to me.”
“For fuck’s sake, who decided that public health should be a function of greed and profit? We need a cure for this disease and we need that cure to be motivated by ethics and not the stockholder’s meeting. I am the 99%, but I am also in the minority. I am the 34 million worldwide who are infected with HIV. I line the pockets of those whose portfolios contain pharmaceutical stocks. My HIV meds alone cost in excess of $3700 per MONTH and we have people who are dying because they cannot get access to that kind of money or who lack insurance coverage. Life is worth so much less than profit and this is the 21st Century! You wonder why I state with passion that capitalism isn’t working for many of us? World AIDS Day has become the last refuge for my anger and sadness, damn it all!"
I awoke with it, like a fever that had set in overnight. As I lay in my bed, my eyes leaked and my ears filled with salty tears and my sobs became uncontrollable until Greta solemnly arose and gave me one of her patented “sweet Greta hugs”, where she literally wraps her front legs around my neck and drives her head into mine with great passion. Her hugs feel like they are filled with more compassion than the whole of humanity can muster for itself, all wrapped up in one little 25 pound dog.
I soaked up her love, knowing that it is likely the most I can expect from this day when my disease sets me apart more than any other day of the year. It is the one day a year that I allow myself to be really pissed off and to express my sadness. It is when I allow myself to feel the absence…the hole that is left behind…that intangible part of us that others bring to each of us, that which moves us to laughter, to joy, to tears and to grief. It is when I focus on how much of that I am missing from each of my departed friends. This is the day when my sadness maxes out and my anger overflows.
I have awakened far earlier than I had hoped I would today. I had hoped to hide in my dreams for a few hours more before these tears would awaken me and wash the sleep from my eyes. I have alarmed my dogs. I felt that I may as well get up and get going, so I slowly crawled from the covers of my bed and ambled into my bathroom to wash my face. I splashed water into my eyes and tried to clear my nose. When I lifted my head, I saw into the mirror that was before me, my red eyes looking back.
“There is little in the way of self-indulgence quite like crying into a mirror, but I think I will let it be my gift to myself this morning.”
I cried for a full minute, looking at myself in the mirror, before abruptly pulling myself up short.
"This is conduct unbecoming of a soldier in this war. Time to move on for another year at least. Time to bury my dead again. Time to start this new World AIDS Day and face it with a smile so that people aren’t frightened by what could happen to them. Time to dress and put on my red ribbon. Time to wear it with pride. Time to live again."
In memory of:
Ralph, North Carolina
Francois, Paris, France
Daniel, Paris, France
Jorge, Cuba and Washington, DC
Thierry, Paris, France
Chuck, Alberta, Canada
Dip, Washington, DC
Charlie, North Carolina
Thomas, North Carolina
Kenny, North Carolina
Gene, Alberta, Canada
Jamie, North Carolina
Jim, Chicago, IL and NC
In honor of:
All the friends who continue to live with HIV around the world.