Because I do not know the exact date in May this seems as good a time as any to mark the twentieth anniversary of my HIV-positive diagnosis.
It was March of 1990 when I received definitive word at which time suspicious blood samples from the previous May were tested for HIV specifically and they were also positive. It seemed in hindsight, to my doctor, that I might have been sero-converting in May when I had unbearable shakes, chills, fever and other flu-like symptoms.
I remember spending most of the night in hospital where emergency room personnel hemmed and hawed over blood test results, double-checked to make sure I was practicing safer sex (so their suspicions were not lost on me entirely) and sent me on my way by daybreak. The day was particularly miserable because the apartment building I lived in at that time was being renovated when I might otherwise have been sleeping so I rather pitifully took blankets and a pillow and wrapped myself into a bundle on the lawn behind the 519 Church Street Community Centre. Ironic, isn’t it, given that about four years later the AIDS Memorial would open on those very grounds (pictured below in autumn).
When it came time for me to leave work in late 1990 my doctor at the time suggested that I look upon the forthcoming ten years, that was the figure he used, as my retirement, saying that many 65-year old retirees do well to survive ten years. In other words I’d do well to see 40.
While there have been times when I thought I should have been, even wished I could have been, dead – before the ten years was up and since – it is amazing to look back and see all the things I would have missed had that happened. Sort of a reverse bucket list. I’ll leave out the obvious bad news of the world and list, in no particular order lest it be seen as a ranking of favourites, the blessings I have enjoyed during these twenty – not ten – unanticipated retirement years:
There was the beautiful wedding of my youngest sister Janice to Randy, the marriage presided over by my brother, at the gorgeous botanical gardens in Montreal.
Their first child, Kailey, was born in August of 2001, the year making it easy to remember her age because on September 11, 2001 Craig was on the train from Montréal to see her for the first time and called me several times along the way to be kept abreast of the day’s tragic events. I’ve seen Kailey grow up through those baby-cute years to be a wonderful young school girl and a terrific older sister.
Brennan is another blessing, whose birth in 2003 I remember for the reason that it was just a few days after holding him at McMaster Medical Centre that I was in hospital myself in Toronto, following a mishap with a taxi-cab.
Dad did not live to see Brennan but our last pictures of him have him holding Kailey on his lap for his seventy-fifth birthday in 2002. It has been very moving to watch Mom adjust to a life together lasting fifty years, now without Dad.
We could not have foreseen Craig’s death just five years later; nor is it easy to find blessings in it other than the knowledge that he was never in any pain, based on him showing no agitation of any kind. I really didn’t want this in the wouldn’t-want-to-miss list but it doesn’t hurt to remind myself of how plans and assumptions have a way of changing, whether I like it or not. (I was absolutely certain that I would be a goner by 1994 at the latest, and many are pleased to remind me of my certainty.)
I can’t mention Craig without acknowledging the blessing Claude has been to our whole family, for their sixteen years together, and continuing to this day.
The aforementioned collision between my femur, wrist and the front of a taxi afforded me the opportunity to travel in luxury for a tour of the Canadian maritime provinces in 2005. Having only been as far east as New Brunswick previously this was a delightful excursion by train, bus and ferry. It was the first year I had a digital camera, too, so the trip was very well documented!
Any list is certain to have omissions so I would ask you, my loyal reader, to add great things that I have missed – or not as is the case here – over the last ten to twenty years.
The return home from family, following Craig’s death, laid bare some stark choices I had to face in my life and so it was in June of 2007 that I rejoined my “recovery” family. Old friendships have been renewed and new acquaintances made – a few would have to be called more than ‘acquaintances’. These friends manage to keep my life within some kind of perspective, always in good cheer.
I’ve also been part of a rich family of seekers since early 1999 at Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church. They, too, have seen me through much these past ten years – almost from the point of my forecasted demise!
What to me is, or has been, the mystery of my survival stems from the life and death of a friend named Jim Revell. I met him in 1990 and we became fast, intimate friends, as Jim did with many people. Although he, too, was HIV-positive he approached his health in many ways that I did not, and too often still do not. He ate well. He swam and worked out at the gym. To me he was the model of surmounting illness. His CD-4 count was such that he still was not on preventative therapies. Then he started having severe pains in his stomach. After a lot of checking and re-checking he was diagnosed with lymphoma. We were all shocked but Jim doggedly took all treatments being offered and remained in high spirits, building and enjoying a new relationship, and it took a while before any of us could believe that he might not make it. I could not believe that he was dying before me, so certain I had been that we’d be in reverse situations. He died on January 14, 1994. That brief time he spent in my life is a collection of very, very rich memories, even if some are desperately sad.
Jim was one of so many guys in my circle lost in the 1980s and 1990s. Their names and faces come back to me often.
In 1996, the year the first of the drug combinations which have become known as the “cocktail” was available, I was a delegate to the International AIDS Conference in Vancouver. What an experience – something else I’m so happy not to have missed – if for no other reason than it was my first visit to the west coast. Of course it was much more than that. Par example. I remember having breakfast with some women from Africa and they stared in wonder at the pills and capsules I was taking, telling me that they have to walk several miles to another village if and when they can afford to buy common aspirin. That’s an awakening that is still going on here in rich countries.
I reiterate that is by no means a complete list. You could help me by adding your picks of some of the highlights of the last ten, or even twenty, years; things that you would have not wanted to miss that have changed the world for the better. Send me a reply in the comments section.
A leading instigator of Toronto’s AIDS Memorial, Michael Lynch (who would himself die of AIDS-related illness) wrote this poem which greets visitors to the memorial: