I often reflect on the notion that HIV and AIDS have significantly shaped who I am. In a pretty incredible and even wonderful way, that I can't imagine being different. HIV forced me to look at life in a very different way, to very tangibly realize that my time in this life is a blessing, as is doing the things in this life that sometimes seem rather improbable, difficult, or way out of the box. <insert laughter and perhaps a wee bit of eye-rolling> I'm still learning, and hope to be doing so each and every day I'm here.
Not long ago, I read names at the AIDS quilt. I was given a list of names, almost all unfamiliar, and I had a separate hand-written page of names of people I have personally lost to AIDS. You know how sometimes there are multiple levels of awareness while you are doing something? As I read the names given to me, I was aware that I was speaking each name clearly and individually, with pauses in between, with a strong voice. To me, it felt like offering the sense of respect for the lives each of these people lived... our shared humanity... I started my own list in the same way. Somewhere along the way, I lost it. From nowhere, a huge wave of emotion crashed over me. I breathed deeply in between names, giving myself a chance to regroup. Each name brought a picture to mind. Brought a person I loved and wished was still physically here. So many incredibly complicated levels of awareness operating simulaneously. I was so grateful for the deeply wonderful hug a friend offered when I finished teary-eyed.
I hold each of these people in my heart. They come to mind all the time. Usually I smile, sometimes I tear up, sometimes memories pop up that make me laugh to myself. The memories stretch back to the mid-80s, when the first of my friends became ill and subsequently died. And then another. And another...
When I moved to San Francisco in 1989, I started volunteering with the Shanti Project. The experience was life-changing. I thank my dear friend and fellow volunteer Joanie for the clarity of that observation. I had clients with AIDS for whom I did all sorts of practical support, from doing their laundry, cleaning their toilets, being there, being invited into their lives and they into mine, having sweet and sometimes really hard conversations, becoming friends. I also facilitated volunteer support groups that met every other week for years, in the process meeting truly awesome people with their own amazing stories about why they were there. It all gave a deep sense of purpose in a way that I had truly never experienced before.
Alan, one of my clients, was a priest at Grace Cathedral. At his memorial service, the Episcopal bishop and Alan's fellow priests came down the aisle wearing rainbow vestments. I was dumbstruck and instantly in tears. It was at that moment that I felt for the first time that the Episcopal church in which I was brought up truly embraced who I am. There seemed to be no aspect of my life segregated from the epidemic.
For years, the weekly ritual was to open up the Bay Area Reporter newspaper and go through the pages of obituaries, hoping I was not going to be surprised, and knowing others would be there and wanting to take that time to reflect on them, their lives, their love, the memories of time together. I often thought I was truly too young to be experiencing this. And yet, looking back, I remain grateful for having had the experience of being present at a moment in other's lives when all that was truly needed was an open heart.
The end of 1993 was the darkest time of the epidemic for me. I lost 5 friends in 6 weeks. Among them was my dear friend Jeff: my country-western dance partner, bicycling partner, fellow hiker, and a man with such an easy-going, disarmingly sweet sense of humor that he still makes me smile. I can't imagine having been anywhere but present with him until the moment he decided it was time to go.
In early 1994 I felt pretty cooked and unsure how deep the personal resources I had were and whether I could possibly muster the energy needed to continue any time soon. I stopped seeing clients through the Shanti Project while continuing to facilitate a volunteer support group, and gradually recovered.
I was no longer the same person I was. I was changed forever. I had a sense that I was stronger than I thought I was. I also had and have the blessing of holding the memory of each of the people who touched my life so deeply. I learned so much from each person. I learned so much about me. And today I remain deeply grateful for the gifts I have received.
I also live in the knowledge that I have so much more to give. And that I can. That may be the most important learning of all.