At one of my favorite childhood places, the children's wing of the Dickinson County Library in Iron Mountain, Michigan, I have two specific memories. One is a compilation of the many hours I spent sitting in the carpet-lined claw-foot bathtub someone had brilliantly installed there, making it suddenly the most fun place to read a book. The other is of reading one particular children's book, about a child my age who had HIV, who told me about the disease child-to-child, and about how it made her sick but that I could not catch it from her. I don't have any other memory of any other specific book I read in that library, although I know there were countless. I remember not even knowing why I picked it among the others that day. I was by myself (surely my Mom was somewhere around, and probably brothers too, but I have no memory of anyone else around me), and I found myself engrossed. Around this time, either before or after I am not sure, my second- or third-grade class had been ushered down to a small little room with an overhead projector in Woodland Elementary School and we had been taught about AIDS. This would have been around 1996. I'm not sure exactly the circumstances of any of this, but again, seeing the little video that played and learning that AIDS could be transmitted through blood-to-blood contact, and that it was very scary and sad, is one of the most vivid memories I have of that elementary school as well.
I bring these up now because I have been thinking so much about the illness, the virus, the stigma, the massive too-little-too-late effort to stem its spread, and the continued work by scientists, doctors, activists, and others to find long-term resolution (if not a cure). I bring up these memories because it is curious to me why I should remember them both so clearly, I can picture the rooms, and where I was sitting. I don't have similar memories learning about cancer (several types having affected my grandparents), or my mother's heart rhythm disturbance, both of which affected my own life in much more direct ways.
There is just something that hurts so deeply when I think about it. Yet it is a feeling I have embraced, it is important to feel deeply on this earth, in this life, especially when I have my health and so many do not.
Two of my Mom's high school friends, Craig Koller and Parnell Peterson, died of AIDS. Parnell, who I do not remember, died in 1991, at age 33. Craig died in 1997, at age 40. I remember visiting Craig and his mother and sister's family in Murfreesboro, Tennessee in spring of 1997, and I knew at that point that he was sick (though I'm unsure if I knew what was making him sick).
It's strange what I've been feeling recently, since finding the images of each Parnell and Craig's quilt squares on the NAMES Project Foundation AIDS Memorial Quilt. I am going to see the quilt next week, and they have pulled these two squares for me to see. My family, my Mom, Dad and siblings, contributed a tiny portion to Craig's square, at the request of his mother, and so we are part of a collage of love surrounding Craig's image on his doubly-large square. I did not know this until very recently, as that is one part in my saga that I do not recall.
But since seeing these fuzzy images online, and trying desperately and ineffectively to zoom in enough to see both of their faces clearly, I have been experiencing what I can only say is deep grief-- to the extent that I can understand it, which I know I cannot fully. I have not lost a parent, or a sibling, or a spouse or lover or very close friend to this illness-- or even to any illness. I have not had, as a deep-feeling adult, any such loss from any tragedy or illness. And yet, I think of lives gone too early, of what Parnell might have liked to do in his life, and I sob. I cry, I get angry, I am sad. It's usually in the car rides home, during my commutes. Certain songs, or lyrics, and thoughts, and prayers, and images either on the road or in my brain, and I am heaving again. I do not remember crying so deeply about something so big, over which I have no control, except when I read The Kite Runner, and spent a few nights in my room, on my bed, reading and sobbing for Afghanistan. (The whole thing, the whole place, every person in that country, which has seen so much. If you've read it, you understand the injustice and the pain and the violence that cannot be escaped, and the hatred that runs deep along ethnic lines.) Other than that, I have not cried so much over people I remember so little about, or in fact, if we look at the larger loss, of millions of lives taken by HIV/AIDS, of people whose stories I don't know.
I find myself wishing deeply, searching in futility, to learn more about their lives--Parnell and Craig. I search for anything I can find on the internet, time and again, on Parnell. On Craig. I've looked at the cold, simple statement of their deaths on Ancestry.com's death index about a hundred times. I long to know what Craig did for a living, what he liked to eat and watch, things beyond his illness and pain. I wonder what Parnell was doing in the 1980s, as a twenty-something as I am now, so sure that he has his whole life before him, as I feel now. Thirty-three is not so far away. Did he know anything about the disease, as it was spreading? The things I've been reading about, the "gay cancer" and the doctor's fears, and the devastation it would bring to the huge steps the gay community had made in those years before, what did he think of it? Who were his friends, how did he share his diagnosis with them, with his family? I do know that his mother, Mary Peterson, seemed like an amazing, talented woman. My Mom vouched that it was so. I wish I could talk to her now.
How long did Craig live with HIV before it became AIDS? Where was he in the 1980s? I know he and Parnell both lived near San Francisco; were they the kind of high school friends who made sure to keep in touch? Who did he lose to this epidemic before he succumbed to it? One of the most heart-wrenching parts of the story of AIDS is the proximity, the high number of friends some people lost in those first decades, to the disease, as the latency period was so long and the specific communities affected were so defined. It breaks my heart, truly, to imagine the young men who died alone, and who were not given memorial services by their families because of a denial or unacceptable of their son's sexuality. Doctors and nurses tell of miserable, terribly painful deaths some endured alone. No one to comfort them.
That is what makes me so happy about the AIDS memorial quilt. I pour into it so many hopes, that unknown names, that the memories of countless people who are remembered no where else have been stitched lovingly into these 91,000+ squares. The squares are all shaped to resemble coffins, which is a stark and essential reminder that these are lives, lost. People loved them, people rejected or hated some of them, but they all had lives, beliefs, love, careers and causes, before HIV/AIDS. Randy Shilts, in his book And the Band Played On, talks about how there was a very clear line, for every gay man, in their lives and experiences: there was life Before HIV/AIDS, and there was After. I was born into the world of After, the world as we know it from now on With AIDS. And as Stevie Nicks so eloquently says in "Landslide"--a song it is impossible to not cry to--time makes you older, children get older, I'm getting older too. Time makes us older, literally, but also, it makes us older with the heavy things it lays on our hearts. As an adult, I am brave and I accept uncertainty, but man, does the world scare me, overwhelm me.
I cannot on my own find a cure for HIV and AIDS. I am sad every day that I do not know more about the lives of the two men who were loving, caring friends of my Mom's, whose generation (all three of them were born in 1957) was most directly hit with this unimaginably unforgivable and deadly disease. But I can love others, love those around me who might be different, but who are people all the same, like me, trying to survive in this big world, that has so much hate. I can also keep Craig and Parnell in my heart, grieve the loss of their lives, and keep their memory alive. I wish I could tell them I love them; I hope they know somehow that I do.
And here I shall stop; I am sobbing again.