In the abstract history can be fascinating. When you have lived the history, experience’s emotional layers can act as blinders, obscuring the larger picture; relative objectivity is a challenge.
Thirty years ago the first article on AIDS appeared in The New York Times. As is often the case, we didn’t know in the moment that our lives would never be the same.
The brilliant revival of The Normal Heart on Broadway brings it back — a flood of memory and feeling. The gay community was caught up by a tsunami of fear, conjecture, and uncertainty. By the mid '80s, sudden deaths and struggle were commonplace. I remember sipping from the same cup of coffee as my GMHC buddy, his body weakened by Karposi's sarcoma, and thinking, I may have just killed myself — all bodily fluids were still suspect (HIV, carried by blood, had not been identified at that point). Yet I didn’t refuse the proffered cup. I didn’t want him to be an object of fear.
In tandem with the suffering, we were also experiencing extraordinary beauty. A community came together —those in the first wave, young gay men, were embraced by their brothers (and sisters). We found our soul. If liberation had inadvertently led us to a plague, we could bond together lovingly — and effectively. I also remember this as a time of faith and celebration of life.
Crisis is always an opportunity to recalibrate our priorities. At the "front" in wartime, each moment is revealed in its value and clarity without the illusion that it comes with a guaranteed future. I know that those years broke my heart, but I also knew them as a time of wakefulness. I was not on my way to my life, I was in it. Time and again, I have observed that during crisis, life is oddly simple: One must do the next thing, then the next thing, then the next.
In the '90s, when I was critically ill, taking my next breath was my job. Accepting the kindness and practical support of family and friends was easy — I could no longer "earn" their love, it was simply present.
On a personal level, I have no regrets about this part of my journey: I wouldn’t be who I am today without all of it — the loss, the not-knowingness, the aliveness that came from savoring the very day, accepting that some of us might not be here tomorrow.
Last night I was talking with a friend in his 20s and I was reminded of the ultimate gift: the realization that just being here to tell him the tale is enough. Being alive is the magic.
That place of simplicity can become obscured but is never fully forgotten. The grace is in remembering it without the need for yet another crisis.