Today is World AIDS Day. There’s a portion of the AIDS Memorial Quilt hanging in the library where I work right now. I went and stood in front of it the other day. Just stood there. It’s humbling. This single panel, just 12 feet square, is so much more than it’s fabric…it’s pure emotion. Completely overwhelming to stand there and feel and know what it means. And frightening to realize just how many people are affected by this disease. Just how many lives have been touched around the world. There are over 91,000 names on that quilt. And that’s just a small percentage (less than 20%) of those that have died. There are millions of people living with the disease worldwide.
I can tell you exactly when I learned about the disease. I was in junior high. Twelve years old. My parents sat me down and told me that the father of a friend was dying. Of AIDS. And that no one knew but a few people so I couldn’t talk about it. And that none of our friends at school were being told out of fear of their reaction, and fear that my friend and her family would be shunned or subject to hate and other fear prompted reactions. I was the only one that knew it was AIDS. Prejudices and fear were rampant, as it just wasn’t understood. How people got it wasn’t even fully understood. Treatment options were limited back then. We didn’t know much, and could really only offer support for symptoms. Fighting the disease wasn’t really an option yet. Over the next year his condition deteriorated, and he died. It was painful to watch, and to know what was really going on but unable to talk about it. I was never told how, but in the mid to late 1980s, we were still learning about it, so it could have been any number of ways. The rest of his family was tested, including my friend. Fortunately, none of them had contracted the disease.
I know it was so hard on my friend. We’d known the family for years, which is why we knew what was really going on. And I was told because my parents knew that my friend needed someone to talk to, and that I wouldn’t tell anyone or judge them because of it. I know it was scary, for all of us. We didn’t really understand, and it was a steep learning curve for everyone. And it was sobering, to be 12 and 13 years old and watch someone die from a terrible disease. My great-grandfather had died of cancer when I was 3, but I don’t really remember. Every other death up to that point had been more sudden like a heart attack, or they were older relatives like my great-grandmother. But this was a young man…a parent…and it was hard to comprehend. I know for awhile my friend didn’t believe it. She was in denial. But once she accepted it, she had a really hard time.
I had a hard time looking at the Quilt. It reminded me so much of that time. Of how people are affected, how his family’s lives were affected. I remembered my friend sobbing in my arms in the hallway at school the first time she realized she’d never get to tell her dad about her prom, or her first year of high school. He’d be gone before then. And I feel all the emotions I felt as a 12 year old girl: fear, anger, sadness, confusion, hurt…
And then I get angry. Angry when I think about how people don’t think it’s real, and don’t protect themselves. Or judge those that are living with HIV or dying of AIDS due to ignorance or hate. So take care of yourself and your family. Protect yourself. It’s real. It’s not going away. So today, World AIDS Day, think about the over 33 MILLION people worldwide that have HIV or AIDS. Think about their families, their friends, who’s lives are changed because of it forever. And then figure out what you can do to make a difference, even if it’s just simply educating yourself or making a donation.