Tuesday, December 1, 2009

World Aids Day

Today is World Aids Day. Aids is not a subject that is not discussed that much any longer. I remember when Aids was first identified as a disease, there was almost no other talk. It was the "Gay man's cancer." There was no cure, nor was there any treatment for the disease and death was a certainty. Every time someone was diagnosed as HIV positive it was a given that what would follow would be a rather short but extremely painful slide into death.

In the ensuing years, much has been done to combat this dreadful disease. Drug cocktails have been developed to slow down the progression of Aids but there still is no cure. However, just because someone is diagnosed as being HIV positive is not the inevitable death sentence that it once was.

While Aids is still very much present in the United States, Africa is plagued by the illness. Thousands of men, women, and children are dying. The agonizing death has spread to all corners of the continent. The United States has led the way in providing the medicines to combat the progression of the disease. Still, this aid is not enough as the epidemic continues to spread wildly.

Aids has touched my life on occasion. Years ago I spent a lot of time in the theatrical world. During this time I met several delightful people who were very talented and creative. They were such fun and great to be around both on stage and off. One of these people named Robert, had never acted in a show but loved the theatre. After auditioning for a part in a show, he was rewarded with the role. He was ecstatic and scared to death all at the same time. He was terrible in rehearsals. He had a hard time hitting his marks. He seemed to be unable to memorize any line no matter how simple it might be. Yet, he pressed on.

The night the show opened, Robert was as nervous as I have ever seen anyone before going on stage. All of us in the cast wondered how in the world he would get through the performance. However, once the lights went up and he stepped on stage, he became a new man. His performance crackled with energy. He stole every scene he was in drawing raucous laughter from the audience. In short, he was a big hit. At the curtain calls, when he came out for his bows, the audience roared their approval. We were all gratified and had all learned something of persistence. Not long after the show, he moved to Texas for job reasons.

Six months or so passed. Time went on as usual. Then, one evening as another show was about to open, a young man with a couple of friends came backstage to greet the cast. He looked vaguely familiar but was frighteningly thin and very frail looking. At first, most of us thought that this was a friend of someone in the cast. As it turned out, he was a friend of us all. For here, in front of us, was Robert who had, months before, struggled so hard with his first role on stage.

While we were all thrilled to see him, we were also stunned by his appearance. What had happened to this previously very healthy young man? Aids. You see, Robert had, in the ensuing months of his departure, contracted HIV which quickly progressed into Aids. His once lively eyes now sunk deeply into his head. Pain emanated from them even though he still flashed his bright smile quickly and often. He looked brittle as though if you touched him too hard bones would break. His voice was weak and just walking across the floor caused him to be out of breath. He still had his great sense of humor and his can-do attitude was still infectious. However, he was but a shadow of himself.

About three weeks after his visit, we received word that Robert died quietly in his sleep in the middle of the night. He had touched all of us deeply with his spirit. It was an honor knowing him and I'll never forget the impact he and his remarkable sense of life had on me.

Robert was gay, but the disease that took his life at age 32 was not a "Gay man's cancer." It was Aids. On this World Aids Day, it is time for all of us to pause to remember the victims of this horrible disease. We have to unchain ourselves from the thoughts that this disease is one that mainly effects gay people. This is a disease that takes the lives of thousands of ordinary people every year. It is not as important to concentrate on how the disease may have been contracted as it is in developing a cure. We need to leave our judgements at the curb and see the victims of Aids as vulnerable, suffering human beings and give them the dignity they deserve.

Today, I remember Robert and those many thousands of others who have died over the years. They are our brothers and sisters in our humanity and we do need to reach out to them in their moments of need. Today, all of us need to spend just a moment in thought and prayer for these victims and their families. May God grant all of us the wisdom to touch their lives in similar ways that Robert touched mine so many years ago.