WHEN Judith Miller wrote her book Facing the Holocaust, she soon realised that this darkest chapter in human history was not about six million Jewish victims: it was one, plus one, plus one…
This came to mind when thinking about World AIDS Day. I have lately been inundated with numerical data and statistical material relating to current HIV transmission, trends and treatments. I follow the developments closely and am keen to see the day where every person, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, gender identity or socio-economic circumstance, will have unfettered access to high quality, life-extending care – free from stigma and discrimination.
But wading through the numbers of newly- diagnosed HIV carriers or the statistics on the rate of infection in Sub-Sahara Africa, and in view of the overwhelming medical evidence in favour of Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP), it is easy – and convenient – to forget that behind the numbers is a person, with a name, a history and a family. A real person – someone’s son, or niece, or father – with dreams, aspirations and hopes who, through whatever means or whichever circumstance, has contracted HIV and has become part of this overwhelming ocean of statistics.
So last night, I sat up and read a book called The Names Project Book of Letters which was given to me many years ago by a friend. It is a collection of letters written for the Quilt Project, in which people who have been affected by AIDS donated a square piece of quilt on which they wrote about an individual close to them: sons, daughters, fathers, lovers, friends and colleagues. Private individuals who agreed to share their personal calamity.
I sat up all night reading these entries, trying to fathom the magnitude of grief and loss. Where do all the words go, what do they mean? Who will remember? Who will want to know?
Linda Fermoyle writes: “I miss my brother Kenneth. It has been three years, almost to the day, since he died and there remains a profound sadness to my life without him”.
Another entry, by Rev. Karl Selman, reads: “I met James after I was asked to go visit a young black man who had contracted HIV though drug injecting. The house was filthy. When I got to him flies were all over him because he had had an accident and no one would clean him up. There was no hot water so I carried him to the car and brought him to my home, gave him a bath and put clean clothes on him. […] The next time I saw James he wasn’t able to respond, he just stared at the ceiling. He died the next day”.
Michael Murphy remembers Aaron as a “great guy; I was lucky to have him as my lover for five years. We had fun all the time. Even our fights were fun”.
I think of my own brother; of the many things he had done, had said and had planned in his lifetime. 13 years have gone by since he was taken from us, in the midst of the AIDS pandemic.
This year World AIDS Day will be a private affair for me. I intend to listen to the songs he wrote and the music he composed; I will re-read some of the letters he sent me shortly before his death. I expect I will receive emails from friends of his to share something funny they remember about him. Even 13 years on, the mention of his name still triggers a peel of laughter over something he’d once said or done; a glance at a photograph of him still precipitates a deluge of tears.
I dedicate this to anyone who has lost someone close to them to AIDS. May you find memories to comfort you and remind you of your loved one; words to console you and details to make you smile between the tears of grief and loss.
I urge you to wear a red ribbon, in recognition of, support for and solidarity with those who carry the burden of memory or are engaged in the fight for an end to the AIDS epidemic. And also, to the many individual men and women who are living with HIV around the world. One, plus one, plus one…