Own Your Life

BY Charlene Strong

November 16 2011 1:50 PM ET

 After the parade, walking around looking at all of the vendors we ran across the Humane Society booth and picked up a brochure about a volunteer organization called The Pet Project. It was designed to help clients with HIV/AIDS who were financially disabled by their diagnosis. I thought this sounded like a good fit since I wanted to do something, and my husband was not a fan of animals in our house so it would satisfy two needs at once. My love of animals and my promise to do something that mattered in my world.

I was assigned numerous clients that I would deliver cat or dog food to in an effort to help with their animal’s care. I was scared to death at first because some of my patients were pretty shut in and their homes were often not very easy to enter. Being that their health was so poor, who had time to clean, right? The stench at times was overwhelming, and the sadness of their illness was difficult to see. I was completely in over my head and wondering - what had I gotten myself into?

I would visit clients about once a month and deliver food. Sometimes they would open the door just wide enough to take the food and then I was on my way. It was all they wanted or needed from me. I have to imagine that having to ask for help was not easy on their part and that the thought of it was a very difficult step. It hurt their pride. There were those patients who were more than happy to see my face as well. After an hour or so of talking, it dawned on me that I was most likely the only person who had talked to them in days. With this realization came a sense of heaviness, but I felt like I was really helping and that was my intention, right?

As I continued to volunteer (and being the overachiever that I am), I learned of the financial toll the organization was taking and there needed to be some changes. It was not that we lacked enough food to bring to our clients; it was the amount of veterinary care that was tapping out our resources. Veterinary clinics that were helping us with our clients’ needs were offering discounts to us, but their costs still needed to be covered and it was becoming clear that we needed to come up with a clinic.

The director of the program who asked me if I could design a veterinary clinic approached me. I was deeply touched that she was giving me such freedom and that she believed I was the right person to take on the project. I went to work trying to figure out how we could get the biggest bang for our buck. I set about to take banquet tables to make dividers and set up vet treatment areas that would accommodate about six vets per clinic. Color-coded bins with every item tagged the same color and we were set. I asked for volunteers to assist our clients when they arrived at the clinic with their four-legged best friends. Veterinarians were never in short supply. It was a potent energy you could feel and the commitment of the volunteers was feeding my soul in ways I don't think I understood then.

What did surprise me was the obvious lack of my gay brothers as volunteers. The majority of volunteers were married heterosexual women and my lesbian sisters. I can only remember two gay men involved, one of whom was dealing with his own health and AIDS status. I remember that oftentimes he would arrive completely exhausted and in worse shape than most of our clients. His soul I have never forgotten. Buzz, as we knew him, was the sweetest and most gentle man. His willingness and love for giving in the world has never been far from my heart and I think of him now as I write with a deep sense of loss and sadness that yet another person is gone too soon from a disease for which we had no understanding at the time...and are just beginning to really have now.

One night, Buzz needed someone to stay with him while hospitalized due to a death in his extended family and I said I would stay the night. As the machine raged louder than possible for anyone to sleep, I saw Buzz sit up and look at his hands. His head was down and I got up off my cot and sat next to him. His eyes were drawn and so full of fear my heart was aching. Why was I there? It had only been about two years since I lost my Dad and to see Buzz’s struggle brought me back to the pain I felt then.

Buzz looked at me with the honesty of a child and said, "It's not going well is it? They want to put me in Bailey-Boushay. Charlene no one ever leaves there.” Bailey-Boushay was our AIDS hospice home in Seattle. I had no good answer and then I, too, started to look down at my hands. I told him I was so sorry, but he would not be alone, I promise. We took each other’s hands and our foreheads touched, I wanted him to feel some peace for a moment. I started to pray for my dear sweet friend with as much composure as I could muster so as to not let Buzz know how badly I felt. I am not sure it was so much a prayer, but a pleading in my heart to let him feel peace from the disease that had its clutch on my friend.

Buzz did not leave Bailey-Boushay and, in fact I knew he wouldn't but I couldn't tell him that night. I chickened out on my friend, but I think he understood.

That night was a reminder of how life is a gift, it is fragile and capricious It is not to be ignored. As I listened to the eulogy at Buzz’s funeral and sitting in a sea of gay brothers, I felt my fear fade and I felt my heart ache with a pain that split me wide open. My years of anger and hatred for gay folks were melting away, my hatred for myself and my homophobia was being transformed. I was gay and I was proud of that moment. Had I been afraid I would never have met Buzz. I would never have come to terms with my life, my sexuality and who I was meant to be.

Many years have passed and much has been learned about AIDS. We still have no cure. AIDS has taken far too many, far to soon; for me it took my self-respect. It took me to a place that I have wondered if I would ever be forgiven for my personal pain and hatred. It took my honesty and clarity, but mostly it took me too look into the eyes of AIDS to understand the pain, not only in my heart, but also in the helplessness of those struggling with its grip.

As AIDS turns 30 and I head towards 50, I feel blessed to be writing this testimony. It is a testament to live, it is a message to forgive, and it is my message to give us a break. I learned much in 30 years, it would be impossible to sum it up to a word or two, but as I have learned in my life, the word that makes most sense is Peace.





















Tags: HIV & AIDS

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