December 10, 2001
AIDS is a concern for every day of the year
By Patrick Letellier
This essay appeared as an op-ed in the Santa Cruz Sentinel on World
AIDS Day, December 1.
Today is World AIDS Day, the one day a year set aside to remind people world wide
about AIDS, and encourage them to take action to fight this disease. I'm glad there
is at least one day to do that, since many Americans have been lulled into thinking
AIDS is "manageable" or, worse yet, over entirely. As a 38 year old gay
man, however, I don't need a designated day to think about AIDS. If anything, I'd
like a day when I don't think about it.
If you visit web sites about AIDS or read fact sheets, AIDS looks like a disease
of numbers. Big numbers. For instance, about 850,000 Americans (including 150,000
women) have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. That's one person in 300 in this country.
As of April of this year, 420,201 Americans have died of AIDS.
Worldwide the numbers are even more staggering: 36.1 million people living with HIV,
and 21.8 million already dead. Every day, 8000 people die of AIDS.
I have my own set of AIDS numbers. Some I can rattle off the top of my head: in
1993, I lost 21 people to AIDS. In '94, another 12 died. In '95, 14 more.
In total, about 150 people I know have died of AIDS. I say "about" because
while I kept track of the number for many years, at some point I stopped.
Some time after the 50th memorial service, the 80th trip to the hospital, and the
100th obituary, I just stopped counting.
And now, I admit with no small degree of shame, all the deaths sometimes blur together,
like a packed rush-hour subway car, or some relentless parade. It's just impossible
to keep track of everyone.
But numbers are, well, just numbers - and AIDS is all about people. To help you
imagine what 150 deaths are like, here are the names of some people I knew who died
of AIDS. Some were close friends, some boyfriends, some I worked out with at the
gym, some I went to AIDS demonstrations with. A couple were next door neighbors,
a couple were my dearest friends: Peter, Phil, Wade, Mark, Gerry, Robert, John, David
(4 different Davids actually), George, Ron, Michael, Joey, Drew, Mitch, Charlie,
Scott, Frank, Chris, Bill, Gary, Rick, Tim, James, Stephen, Jeff, Justin, Michael,
John, Elliot, Paul, Buddy, Doug, Kenny, Tony, Russell, Perry, Andrew, Randy, Bob,
Neil, Dan, Dennis, Loy, Chuck, Joshua, Tom, and Jason.
That's 50, about a third of the people I know who died, but you see just from reading
those names how they start to blur together. Sometimes I hear a song on the radio
and feel terribly sad, and I think, "Oh, I remember how Mark used to love this
song. Or, wait, was it Mark or was it Michael?" The fact that I can't remember
makes me sadder. Other times one of my dead friend's faces will flash before my eyes
with incredible clarity -- as if in the middle of our conversation he stepped into
the next room to grab his cup of coffee and he will be back in a second to pick up
where we left off. And I have to tell myself, for the 100th time, "He's gone."
I wish I could say having lost so many people to AIDS has made me a wise and spiritual
person. Someone who understands life is unbelievably short and cherishes every second.
Someone patient and full of compassion. I'm laughing as I write this: Oh, were that
only the case!
On my best days, I am some of those things, and on extraordinary days, I'm all of
them for brief spells. But that's only half the story.
AIDS has also worn me down to the bone with sorrow and grief. It has taken some of
the people I loved most in the world, people I loved fiercely, passionately, and
entirely. At times it has made me terrified of the future, because the future meant
only that more people I knew with HIV would be dead. And AIDS has aged me beyond
my years. The average American loses someone close to them once every nine years,
so by my calculations I'm about 1,388 years old. And sometimes it feels that way.
So I implore you to listen to this old, old man: Learn about AIDS. Educate yourself,
your friends, your children. Protect yourself. Donate time and money to a local AIDS
organization. Fight against this disease, but not against the people who have it.
Please don't let yourself become one of the big AIDS numbers. They're already way
too high as it is.
Patrick Letellier is the program coordinator at the campus Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual
and Transgender Resource Center.