Lessons Learned from AIDS

In a magazine this week, I read that this year marks the 30th anniversary of a film titled Longtime Companion, a powerful film that was the first addressing of the AIDS crisis by Hollywood. It is a great film that is hard to find these days. But the memory of that film brought me back to that time, a time of great learning for me as I counseled patients diagnosed with AIDS.

It all started with a phone call. A local Unitarian minister called me in 1987 to ask if I would be willing to counsel a man diagnosed with AIDS. Keep in mind that in those days it was still unclear as to what caused AIDS so I guess not too many counselors were up to the task. Thankfully I said yes and that led to a remarkble relationship of 12 years with a man who taught me a lot about embracing life and about faith. I then started to work with patients referred from the Southwest AIDS Committee. That work changed me. So I’d like to share with you some of the most profound lessons.

I recall a man of faith who, when I asked him “How do you want to face this?” said quite simply “I want to look forward to stepping into the light.” A man of great energy and enthusiasm who consistently won the title of Miss El Paso, he accomplished his goal and honored me by asking me to deliver his eulogy.

I recall a 12 year old boy, a son of a minister, who contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion. When I spoke with him alone I praised him for his knowledge of his illness and asked if he had any questions. With no note of hostility he said “Yes, I have a question. Why did God do this to me? I didn’t do drugs. I haven’t had sex with anyone. Why did this happen?” How does one answer such a question?

I recall visiting with a man on his deathbed. While I was there he received a call from his estranged daughter and spoke angrily to her. When he hung up, I asked him how he wanted to deal with his daughter. He sighed then said “I want to gently help her heal.” He was able to accomplish some of that before he left.

I think of numerous partners holding a loved one’s hand as he or she endured the death throes of a horrible illness. Some of those couples were the most loving I’ve ever met.

And I think of that first client. He would share with me various sources of joy he had found. Once he brought some canaries and I sat in wonder as their chirping melded into the birds gently singing together. When I visited him in the hospital near the end, he allowed me to sit silently with him and hold his hand. He honored me by asking me to read his final words at his funeral. I’d like to share a few of those words with you:

“I know what I am doing right now. In forms unknown, in places not conceived I am singing with the simplicity and fervor of the canaries I raised. Singing a hymn to what is….Once again singing with loved ones that went before me. I also know that if you listen very carefully you will be able to hear me singing…I also know that I will be able to hear and resonate with your own unique singing. That unique song of yours is the best gift you could ever give me, yourself, and your universe. Awake and sing!”

AIDS nowadays can be controlled and science may be close to a cure. Amen to that! But to the many whom I met on the journey who did not benefit from those advances, I say a deeply felt thank you for lessons learned.

Let me leave you with this beautiful tribute from “And the Band Played On”, sung by Elton John.