Mike, Glenn, Alan, Peter, Alan, Andrew, Chris, David: I used to have a list somewhere of all the names of the men I know who’d died. Then it got too long. And now I can’t remember everyone I knew who died of AIDS. I hope their families still do, but it is over 20 years now since many of them sickened and died. Even to their brothers and sisters they will be turning into misty memories, the sadness and grief now all but worn away over time, as they look at old photos and remember the good times. I suppose this is what it is like after a war. Twenty years on who wanted to hear talk of the trenches of WW1 and their horrors, or who in the 1960s really cared about the agony and brilliance of the Battle of Britain pilots? Who cares today about the veterans of the first Gulf War? But in all of these, families were destroyed. Young loved men in the prime of their lives disappeared into some distant land or city, and returned, if at all, either plague-wracked and waiting to die or already dead, to the fear and grief of their families.
At least in a war, the dead are honoured. But for us, our dead were not so welcomed, not initially. The fear of contagion surrounding even a corpse was strong. To have to admit to friends that the funeral was for a son who’d got sick and died, here or in Sydney or London was shameful. Shame, guilt, ostracism, doubt and fear: HIV is marked with all of these in ways that other diseases are not. And if you nursed people through those days, watched them sicken and waste away, become demented, forget who you were even though you’d been spending hours every day with them, this was heartbreaking. It seemed a whole generation of beautiful young men were cursed, and we all wondered when our turn would come, because why should we escape?
Today, it is all so different, in a medical sense anyhow. For most of us, if you take your pills and do what your Dr says, you will be ok. Medically ok that is. But those deep currents of shame and anguish linger and are strong. Grown men still weep in fear and at their folly in getting infected. Even though they know in a rational sense that they will most likely not follow the same trajectory as we did back in the early days, still that sense of fear, of shame and of guilt is there, still strong, perhaps even stronger. After all, that little voice inside your head says “They knew the risks!” And it’s true, they did know what they were doing, and even so, in spite of all the safe-sex campaigns they’d been in, in spite of all the condoms they’d thrown off floats in parades, in spite of having manned AIDS hotlines, even they got it eventually, and they cannot help but ask themselves “Why? How?”
They will not die in the same way as all those men did 20 years ago. Blind, demented and lying in their own shit. They will be able to lead fairly normal lives. Travel. Have relationships. Have sex. Maybe even have kids. All this is possible now for those of us with HIV. But still, the shock is there, the trauma, the agony.
And for those of us old enough to remember the really bad days, for me anyhow, there is that sense of “Why did we have to go through all that horror?” along with a feeling that, in some ways, that is when in fact we were most alive, most useful, most worthy as human beings. We were in there, up to our elbows, dealing with sickness and death and grief on an almost daily basis. It was horrible, debilitating and sorrowful, and yet it felt for many of us as though we were doing the most valuable and important things that could be done.
And who remembers that now? Did it all happen? Did it matter? This generation today – they have no idea. And why should they, in fact, I want to protect them from it, but still I resent their blithe ways and their lack of understanding, their lack of history.
But then, go through small-town NZ and look. You will see them there, small memorials from WW1 or WW2; in my school chapel we even had a memorial for the Boer War dead. Think of the heartbreak every one of those deaths caused, the devastation and distress on receiving that letter or telegram, knowing that son was never coming home. And now, who remembers the person behind those names? Who recalls their laugh, what made them special. All gone, generations ago. And so will all this be gone too. Who will remember them, with their good points and flaws? Who will recall how they were loved?
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