Sunday, December 2, 2012

Memories of AIDS ...

It was a Sunday afternoon when a familiar voice whispered down the phone line saying, "Hi Jan. It's been a long time."

With these few words came back a wealth of memories, for the quiet voice at the other end of the phone belonged to my high school English and Journalism teacher, Barry. We hadn't spoken in a number of years, out of frank neglect on my part and on his, out of false assumptions based on his unwarranted shame and on my marriage to an Anglican priest and spiritual director. (Despite the closeness of former days, he'd feared the censure and exclusion he'd found amongst his own church members.)

Barry was calling to tell me that, after years of depression and addiction, he had finally come out; dissolved his marriage; entered recovery; met his partner, Jim; and been diagnosed with AIDS. He hadn't long to live.

My initial response was one of anger, then profound grief. Why hadn't I kept in touch? Why hadn't he called me when he'd first been diagnosed? Why had he waited until now when there was so little time left? I felt cheated of time and heartsick.

Over the next six months, we met several times - Barry and Jim, and my husband and me. Barry and Derrick met alone, as well, hashing out their similarly liberal theologies in various coffee shops around the city until Barry could face his death, fairly sanguine and with at least modicum of peace. After he died in a hospital palliative care unit, boney body racked with coughs, Derrick took his funeral in a West End church and we, his loving community, grieved our loss together.

Today, the day after World AIDS Day, many years later, I remember Barry fondly as an extraordinary educator, mentor, and friend who helped me and many other students to transcend painful life experiences and thrive. He taught me to love poetry, to use white space to advantage in a layout, and to never use two words when the one "right" word would do. He also taught me, a painfully shy and pathologically self-sufficient teenager, that it was alright to ask for help.

Barry loved to teach and his students loved him. That same love allowed us to support him, and he us, through the end of his life.  Every year, I wear a red ribbon in his honour and memory and I try to keep the ripple of his love going out into the world in some way. This year, a friend told me about an organization that knits baby dresses for African babes with AIDS who would otherwise be sent home from hospital wrapped in newspaper for warmth. So, I've been knitting dresses for the past several weeks, stitching love and healing intention into each garment.

I hope and pray that the day will come when no one needs to see a beloved teacher and friend fade away or to behold a new baby wrapped in the newspaper and stigma of AIDS. Please do have an HIV test if:

  • You have had 2 or more sexual partners in the past 12 months.
  • You have received a blood transfusion prior to 1985.
  • You are not sure about your sexual partner's risk factors.
  • You are a male who has had sex with another male.
  • You are using street drugs by injection, especially when sharing needles or other equipment.
  • You have a sexually transmitted disease (STD).
  • You are a healthcare worker with direct exposure to blood on the job.  

And why not consider supporting your local HIV/AIDS research, treatment and support organizations, financially or through your volunteer hours, so the ripple of love continues.

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