I remember exactly where I was when I first learned about AIDS. I was standing in my grandma’s kitchen and we were getting dinner on the table. I was maybe 8 years old…we had the evening new on the tv. The anchor was reporting that they had now named the virus that was linked to homosexual male cancer. It was called Auto Immune Deficiency Syndrome. He went on to explain that they still were unsure how the virus was being transmitted, but it was most likely through blood, seamen, saliva, tears and mucus. The anchor was warning everyone that any exchange of these fluids with an infected person would lead to death.
The first thing I heard was AIDS causes death. I immediately burst into tears. My grandma had a box of “Aids” in her refrigerator. They were a dietary supplement she had been using to try to lose some weight. I insisted that she throw them out. She did. Wether to calm me down or because she hated the damn things anyway, I don’t know. The second thing I heard is that they weren’t sure exactly how the virus was being transmitted but it was probably through everything that comes out of our bodies. Oh and through kissing and using public toilets. My mother was a nurse, so I told her she had to quit because she came into contact with sick people everyday and now it was way to dangerous for her to go to work. She didn’t quit.
She didn’t do much to relieve my fears either. She simply said that they were doing all sorts of research and that sick people needed well people to take care of them and she was not sick so she would take care of those who were. I didn’t really care for her logic. My dad had to institute all sorts of new techniques when it came to the care and handling of the deceased. In my family, AIDS was a presence in our lives.
The first person I ever knew personally to have AIDS was a guy I met when I lived in Houston. I was 17 and living with my best friend in an apartment complex (think lower income level Melrose Place). Just below our apartment was Terry. He was a very stereotypical gay man who was very funny. He was dying. I got to be quite close to Terry in the 6 months that we lived there. He had TONS of house plants and his bathroom was collaged from ceiling to floor with pictures of naked men. Classic naked man pictures or funny naked man pictures….ceiling to floor. And it was a large bathroom!! Very creative, if you ask me.
Terry’s family had abandoned him when they found out he had AIDS. He would bounce between understanding, self loathing and anger in regards to his family and his diagnoses. He drank openly to try to escape, at least for a little while. He didn’t have much money, he couldn’t work. He had lost most of his friends and he had lost his lover to the disease the year before. He had more medications on his kitchen counter than he had food in his cupboard. But Lord was he funny!!! Towards the end he began giving away his “stuff”. His friend who was always (I am not exaggerating when I say always) in jean cut offs, a white tank and work boots came up to give us three of Terry’s bigger house plants that he had been growing for years. We all knew the end was near. I think after that, Terry and I made one final trip to the liquor store, vodka for him, Bailey’s for me. We went back to his place, changed into caftans and furry slippers and we got drunk and laughed, we hugged and cried, he got mad and stormed about. We sat on the bathroom floor and he told me the stories behind each picture on the wall.
Terry taught me that I did not have to fear a victim of AIDS. He taught me that facing death is partly brave and partly not brave. However fleeting life may be it holds significance, no matter the cause of death. I hope Terry knows how he changed my life.
After Terry, there was my old dance teacher Rinaldo. My mother was with Rinaldo as he took his final breath, holding his hand. His last words were “I am dancing again….” Another friend John was in end stage when he and I reconnected briefly. He held my eldest daughter when she was just 6 months old and he made her laugh, he gave her a kiss and told me she was beautiful. John really mellowed in the last few weeks of his life because I remembered him as the skin head mean guy who threatened to stab my best friend’s mother if she tried to drag me out of the bar we were in.
Because of these people I knew, because I got an upclose and intimate view of exactly what AIDS does to a person’s body and spirit, I was always scared of contracting it myself. Not through touch or tears or even a kiss. I was not scared to hold these dying people as they cried. But by the time I came “of age” we knew that AIDS did not discriminate and the incidence of women with HIV/AIDS was almost as high as gay men. I was a statistic waiting to happen. That I saw this disease in action was a very good thing. While my girlfriends were out having sex, unprotected with no care in the world, I insisted on testing before and protection. My girlfriends hadn’t lived through watching someone die from the disease. They had no clue. I was fearful for them. I tried to explain what I had experienced to them and they just did not believe it could happen to them. I knew it could happen to me.
Having children who are coming to age in this day, I have impressed upon them the fact that AIDS kills. Sure, with the drugs available, people with HIV (the pre-cursor to AIDS) are living longer, healthier lives. Regardless, living with HIV is no walk in the park. I have told them that getting pregnant is not the only consequence to having sex. Death is still a possibility. I know we are better educated today, I know that we have better medicines and better research but AIDS still kills. People are still contracting AIDS.
Not just in Africa, here in America. Our kids are not learning about AIDS the way we did. For my generation AIDS was a lead story on the evening news 7 nights a week. We watched the progression of awareness from it being a “gay cancer” to being a “gay plague” to being a full blown, worldwide epidemic. It seems that the panic has taken a backseat as we have learned more about the disease, like it is only transmittable through blood and sexual fluids. As cancer has replaced AIDS in the epidemic category, I can’t help but worry that we are doing our children a disservice by not keeping AIDS education in the forefront of our awareness. Kids are not catching cancer.
AIDS is still out there and no one is immune. The fight still continues against this horrible and sad disease. As a tribute to those who have fought and lost we all need to keep the fight going, we need to protect our kids with information and we need to find the cure. It’s out there, it can be done and in the meantime, I will put on my silk robe and furry slippers and drink a toast to Terry….I have to wait till the kids are grown to re-decorate the bathroom though…Love.