I believe that people with AIDS have made me a better person. It is hard to say exactly how – though I know it is true.
25 years ago I was a young mailman in Colorado. One day, in my truck, on my break, I was carefully reading someone’s science magazine. I didn’t fully understand the article about this new disease but it did sound serious. I wondered how relevant this really was to me or anyone I knew. It seemed so far away – mostly on the coasts.
A few years later, I moved to San Francisco for school. I heard about it again. I quickly learned that living in an HIV epicenter was like living in war. So many people were dying. First my neighbor next door, then his partner, then the neighbor above, then my boss, then a close friend. I worked in one restaurant for six years and lost nine colleagues. Many of us stopped counting. We had to. It all became surreal and so oddly – normal. Devastated and desperate to cope, I became a volunteer. It was a fortunate decision.
I remember the man I took to a medical appointment who wanted an ice cream cone. “Pistachio and chocolate,” he said. It seemed so little to ask. I bought one for us both. He initially focused on the cone but then became fatigued and disinterested. His favorites were dripping all over my car seats. I felt guilty for even caring, but I did. My car was old but I did keep it clean.
I remember working with a somber woman in prison who pulled up her pants leg showing me purple spots. She confided, “I know this is Kaposi’s Sarcoma.” She said the doctor did not want to diagnose her because they would then have to treat her. I shuttered at the possibility. I had seen KS many times and it did look like it.
I remember a day at work when a man leapt to his death from a building just down the alley. Some colleagues actually heard the impact. They were understandably horrified. His neighbors said he had recently been diagnosed with HIV and was not coping well. Later that night, after my shift, I sat on the alley curb with a few small lit candles I had taken from the restaurant. I wondered about the man, his struggle, and wished him well. I thought, “how can this disease be so unspeakable that even jumping to death seems a better choice?”
I have known thousands of people with HIV/AIDS over the last 25 years. Many of them have passed, many are still around and doing great. People are living now, many living astoundingly very well. When I think of all of the rich, complex, devastating, and rewarding experiences I have been allowed to witness – I am deeply humbled by my good fortune. People with HIV/AIDS have taught me the value of my life and the precious sweet feeling of being alive.