The Survivors


A reader writes:

I know this feeling well. My small town in Pennsylvania hosts an annual AIDS Walk each autumn. A few years ago, I was involved as a volunteer, handing out tee shirts to participants. As part of the event, the organizers had arranged for a small portion of the AIDS Quilt to be displayed in the middle school gym for the day, a beautiful, azure-skied, October day. I had not been near the Quilt since the early ‘90s, when I served on the organizing committee for a display at Rutgers University in New Jersey. I had contributed a panel for a dear friend who died in 1992, a peak year for the AIDS epidemic that took so many from our lives. But other than that, I hadn’t thought much about the Quilt (or, to tell the truth, AIDS itself) for a few years. So when my tee shirt duties were done, I wandered into the gymnasium.

A fleeting feeling of apprehension did cross my mind but I thought, casually, “I can handle this. It’s been years now. I dealt with the pain, the loss. They’re dead. They can’t hurt me. The least I can do is see the panels, pay my respects, remember.” And so I strolled in to see the Quilt panels.

I lasted five minutes, if even that. All the pain, all the feelings of loss and bewilderment, came rushing back up at me, as if those deaths were yesterday, not a decade or more ago. “Like a knife through the heart” as the old cliché goes. The images, the words from the panels came swimming up around me, all the pain and loss and grief (“Oceans of grief” I used to describe it to my partner) overwhelmed me. I mourned everything again, their lives, their deaths, my losses, and all the pain and grief of the young man I used to be, the happy-go-lucky chap who changed forever in those black years. I was myself and I was him as well, all over again, mourning, keening, weeping.

I couldn’t take it. None of it was buried at all. It was all just below the surface. I still carried all my love and all my loss. “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” I understood that for the first time. And then I stumbled away. I could only take so much. And so much less than I expected I could handle. Hopefully, our grief strengthens us. In time it becomes part of us. But I’m not sure the pain ever goes away.

About five times as many young Americans died of AIDS as died in Vietnam, in roughly the same time period. In the gay community today, the silence about this, the avoidance of this, especially among the young who have no families to remind them of the terror, is staggering. But human.