There has been a secret and often unsaid guilt that has hung over me through my life. I am old enough to have lived through and survived the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and '90s. I was also left unscathed, with no scars, wounds or grief from caring for, caring about, or losing a loved one. AIDS did not come near me, and I did not go near it.
I never lost anyone romantically to the dreaded disease, because there was intentionally no romance. I didn’t experience the loss of a community of gay friends, because I avoided anyone who was gay, like me. There were no losses of coworkers — that I know of — or anyone I remember watching deteriorate through the dreaded complications related to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
Vaguely, I knew one person who died, but not intimately. I went to see him once in the hospital. I was trying to be kind. And when I arrived at his room, I walked away, frightened, at the sight of his withered body. That moment in time stings indelibly. I was a coward.
During that era, there were rumors about some people who disappeared. Some were said to be sick, though it was never AIDS — cancer was usually the reason. Others had relocated, moved back home to be “closer to their families.” These obfuscated explanations seem obvious now, but back then I was too naïve to understand the real reasons why some men never came back.
Thus, there is guilt that someone my age was never close enough to the horror and the sadness that so, so many in our community felt during that exceedingly difficult period of time, and still feel today. And the culpability I still feel for leaving the shadow of a man I once knew to suffer alone in his hospital room.
Many will say, “You should feel lucky.” And there’s a part of me that agrees. Certainly, I am profoundly lucky; however, 30 years after the fact, whether it’s from the guilt or an intense desire to know as much as I can about that time, I am now learning more about the devastation of the disease on a daily, almost on a one-by-one basis. I am able to see, and hear about, some of the beautiful souls who were lost and the joyous lives they lived.
A few weeks ago, The AIDS Memorial on Instagram showed up in my feed as suggested content. At first, I wondered why it was appearing in between all of the happy, lively, and quirky people I follow. Amidst all the spruced up images of friends and acquaintances? Then, I took a moment to read one of the posts.
It was more than a simple Instagram post. More than an image with a quick caption. More than a picture accompanied by creative hashtags, or with fanciful emojis. What I began to see and read were stories with real emotion, complemented by dated photographs that showed individuals in their prime, who were once happy, lively, and quirky. Some of those images are contemplative, some with bare chests, some of good looking men, frolicking on beaches and in speedos, but all immeasurably thought-provoking.
If you are on Instagram, you need to experience this humility, particularly if you are younger, or older like me and missed what happened during that tragic time. If you are older and survived, it might be difficult to wade through the daily posts, so I’m in no position to recommend that you do. I can’t begin to imagine the scars, wounds, and loss you suffered.
Granted, some of the stories can be difficult to read, written by loved ones, that genuinely try to reflect the life of someone close to them who died of AIDS. The stories can also elicit smiles and laughs, and that’s mainly due to the uproarious lives some of the deceased lived, and the way they chose to be remembered. There’s heartache for sure. But for those who want to know what life was like during that time, the posts are poignant reflections. They are also about unlimited and endless love.
Through the posts, you find that there are, and were, boundless ways to love. The photos and heartfelt stories written by the loved ones of those who were lost are illustrative of love, more than anything else. There’s the preeminent love of someone’s child. The love of someone’s life. The love of another’s wife, or partner, or fiancée or husband.
There’s fraternal and maternal love for survivors' moms, dads, step-dads or step-moms. There’s reflections of brother and sisterly love. There is unknown love of nieces and nephews for uncles they never met or knew. There are also stories of love for roommates — code at the time for lovers. There’s the platonic love of lost friends, acquaintances, co-workers. Neighborly love. Protective love. First love. Enduring love. Timeless love.
What I didn’t want to do when I set about to write this column was to call out one story over another, because each of them is equally and vitally important. They all matter. Each picture tells a story and captures a life at a time and a place when the departed was living, breathing, and growing. The stories talk in the most personal terms, and how that growing was violently snapped in two, and then snuffed out. It all seems so avoidable now. All those lives, all those pictures, all those stories. They all should be current and continuing.
I’ll continue to carry this unavoidable survivor’s guilt, for lack of a more appropriate term. But in a very modest way, I will continue to follow, and look forward to seeing The AIDS Memorial on Instagram. I’m learning a lot about humanity each day, and also about the past and the lingering memories of those still present. It’s so easy to forget the carnage of the AIDS crisis. And we shouldn’t. We should constantly be reminded of all that senseless, inexplicable loss, and all the struggle and love that still lingers to this day, even if it's within the bounds of our buoyant Instagram accounts.
I am reminded of a line from one of my favorite plays, I Never Sang for My Father, that says, “Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind toward some final resolution, some clear meaning, which it perhaps never finds.”
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.