A World AIDS Day Remembrance
December 1 is World AIDS Day, the one day a year set aside to remind people worldwide about AIDS, and encourage them to take action to combat this disease. I'm glad there is at least one day to do that, since many Americans have been lulled into thinking is AIDS is "manageable" or, worse yet, over entirely. As a 40-year-old gay man, I don't need a designated day to think about AIDS. If anything, I'd like a day when I don't think about it.
If you visit websites about AIDS or read fact sheets, AIDS looks like a disease of numbers. Big numbers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 886,000 Americans have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. That's one person in 300 in this country.
As of last December, 501,669 Americans had died of AIDS. And there's no end in sight: approximately 40,000 Americans a year are infected with HIV.
Worldwide the numbers are even more staggering: 36.1 million people living with HIV, and almost 22 million already dead. Every day, over 8,000 people die of AIDS.
Nowadays people hardly talk about AIDS deaths. We talk about medication "cocktails," steroids, viral loads, and AIDS fundraisers, as if death is somehow not part of the reality of AIDS and never has been. But numbers don't lie.
I have my own set of AIDS numbers. Some I can rattle off the top of my head: in 1993, I lost 21 people to AIDS. In 1994, another 12 died. In 1995, 14 more. In total, about 150 people I know have died of AIDS. I say "about" because I kept track of the number for many years, but at some point I gave up. Sometime after the 50th memorial service, the 80th trip to the hospital, and the 100th obituary, I stopped counting.
And now, I admit with no small degree of shame, all the deaths sometimes blur together, like a packed rush-hour subway car, or some relentless parade. It's just impossible to keep track of everyone.
But numbers are, well, just numbers -- and AIDS is all about people. To help you imagine what 150 deaths are like, here are the names of some people I knew who died of AIDS. Some were close friends, some boyfriends, some I worked out with at the gym, some I went to AIDS demonstrations with. A couple were next-door neighbors, and a couple were my dearest friends in the world: Peter, Phil, Wade, Mark, Gerry, Robert, John, David (four different Davids actually), George, Ron, Michael, Joey, Drew, Mitch, Charlie, Scott, Frank, Chris, Bill, Gary, Rick, Tim, James, Stephen, Jeff, Justin, Michael, John, Elliot, Paul, Buddy, Doug, Kenny, Tony, Russell, Perry, Andrew, Randy, Bob, Neil, Dan, Dennis, Loy, Chuck, Joshua, Tom and Jason.
That's 50, about a third of the people I know who died of AIDS, but you see from reading the names how they start to blur together. Sometimes I hear a song on the radio and I feel sad and think, "Oh, I remember how Mark used to love this song -- or, wait, was it Mark or was it Michael?" The fact that I can't remember makes me sadder.
Other times one of my dead friends' faces will flash before my eyes with incredible clarity, as if in the middle of our conversation he stepped into the next room to grab his cup of coffee, and in a second will be back before me to pick up where we left off. And I have to tell myself, for the 100th time, "He's gone."
I'd like to claim that having lost so many people to AIDS has made me a wise and spiritual person -- someone who understands that life is unbelievably short and cherishes every second. Someone patient and full of compassion. I'm laughing as I write this: were that only the case!
On my best days, I'm some of those things, and on extraordinary days, I'm all of them for brief spells. But that's only half the story.
AIDS has also worn me down to the bone with sorrow and grief. It has taken some of the people I loved most in the world, people I loved fiercely, passionately, and entirely. At times it has made me terrified of the future, because the future meant only that more people I knew with HIV would be dead.
And AIDS aged me beyond my years. The average American loses someone close to them once every nine years, so by my calculations I'm about 1,390 years old. And sometimes it feels that way.
So I implore you -- listen to me, an old man. Learn about AIDS. Educate yourself, your friends, your children. Protect yourself. Donate time and money to a local AIDS organization. Fight against this disease and the stigma that so often comes with it. Don't let yourself become one of the big AIDS numbers. They're already way too high as it is.
Patrick Letellier is a freelance journalist living in San Francisco. Reach him at LetPatrick@yahoo.com, or at PatrickLetellier.com.