Two summers ago I drove five hours to spend a weekend with an old high school friend I hadn't seen in years – a friend who has AIDS. He and his partner (also HIV-positive) invited me to their home in a small Mississippi town. I knew I'd have a great time because we always did when we were together.
I didn't know how much I had to learn.
I learned that my friend has not allowed AIDS to define him. His AIDS was "full-blown" when it was discovered years ago and, medically, he shouldn't be here today. But when he was diagnosed, instead of giving up, he gave of himself. Although sometimes too weak to stand, he took an elderly woman into his home because she was dying of cancer. She'd been his business partner and her nephew had dropped her off at a nursing home in Florida. My friend flew there, picked her up from her bed, brought her home on the plane, and cared for her as if she were his own mother until she died two years later. When I asked him how he handled logistics – like helping her with her bath, his answer was matter-of-fact, "Oh, you just put your swim trunks on and climb in with them if you have to bathe somebody." Indignities and embarrassments didn't even register with him; he'd suffered so many of them himself.
I learned that the medication regimen that sustains life for AIDS victims comes at a price. I was surprised when he described the huge handful of pills he and his partner take every day. He told me I hadn't seen them take them 'cause they were off their meds for a couple of days. When I asked why, he admitted ruefully, "We couldn't hang out with you and have fun if we were taking them; they cause so many stomach problems we'd be in the bathroom all the time." I felt so selfish that they'd cooked for me (amazing food!) carted me to visit relatives of theirs I knew, stayed up late telling stories, and I hadn't realized how rare those "good days" were that they'd saved for me.
I learned that integrity means facing responsibility. When my friend was diagnosed, he was asked to make a list of all the people he might possibly have infected. His doctor offered to send warning letters to people who should go for testing – without revealing his name. My friend refused. Instead he called the partners he'd been with over the years and told them personally what they needed to know. They were some of the hardest calls he'd ever had to make. It made me think about how many of us have been incautious in "the heat of the moment." My friend paid with his health – for a lifetime.
I learned that many professionals are woefully uninformed. When my friend's doctor realized how comfortable he was with talking about his AIDS, he asked him to share his story with students at a nearby medical school, so he stood in front of 200 future doctors and answered questions for over an hour about what it's like to live with AIDS – to people who knew shockingly little.
I learned that attitude is everything. My friend still has the same infectious joy he's always had, even though his energy levels wane at times. We sang karaoke loudly until small morning hours (there might have been vodka involved and yes, we did sing Somewhere Over the Rainbow for fun) and watched videos of his dance exhibitions with the older ladies he was hired to instruct at a dance studio. Some dancers might have given a half-hearted effort to a job some would consider cheesy, but my friend has always known how to make people feel special, and these women were stars who glided and pranced with him across the floor.
I learned that my gay friend can never truly let his guard down. He assured me that he and his partner suffered no abuse from the quiet conservative neighbors surrounding them, but when we stopped at a nearby convenience store and he went in with me in his pink shirt, two tables of rather menacing looking "farm boys" watched our every move, commenting under their breaths. My friend pretended not to notice, but I could see he was nervous and we both felt the tension that caused us to make a hasty exit. Just a few months later, he moved to another state where he'd previously managed a bar in a predominantly gay community and I was glad to picture him there among friends.
I learned that all the things we never said to each other back when we were in high school didn't matter. Those were days when homosexuality wasn't discussed, and though I'd felt guilty for never encouraging him to share with me what I always knew, he knew I loved him – as I love him still. And because he loves me, he spared me the heartache of most of what he's been through, although his partner told me he'd been beaten once as he was coming out of a gay bar and if he hadn't managed to get to his car and drive to the police station, the car still following him would have probably finished the job.
As I left, he told me he was happy. He and his partner have been together for over ten years, and they have a thriving home remodeling business. He said something I'll never forget. He said, "You know, Beck, we're all the same. We all want the same things. We all want the white picket fence." I kissed him and drove away as the two of them waved arm-in-arm from the front porch of their home, a home where there was more love and more generosity and concern for others than in any home I'd ever visited. I'm so glad my friend has the white picket fence, even if he's had to build it in a community far away from the people who still don't get it. The loss is theirs.