It is this time of year, like it has been for a very long time, which I am reflective on World AIDS Day. Every World Aids Day remembrance, I am reminded of the time when the news broke of this devastating disease that was once labeled, "The Gay Disease." I am more reminded of how naive I was back in the 1980's that I thought HIV/AIDS only affected people in the large metropolitan cities. I never would have never guessed that this disease would also hit close to home for me in 1991.
Shortly after graduating from my small town high school in Michigan and starting my first year of college, I had longed for two major things in my life. The first was to lose weight and feel healthy and attractive; the second was to experience and fall in love with another man. A boyfriend who would capture my heart, that I have a special connection with was my dream. The weight never came off during my younger years and the boyfriend I had wanted to have in my life didn't happen until I was in college in 1990.
I met my first real boyfriend at The Copa Nightclub, a gay bar in Flint, Michigan in 1990. This was also the very first gay bar I had ever been to. I was with a group of gay friends from Central Michigan University. I met James that night and we were both drawn to each other almost instantly. Our first dance that night was a song by Chris DeBurg called, "The Lady in Red." It is a haunting ballad that still reminds me of James to this day. After several dates over the course of several months and a connection that was amazing, we became a couple. I enthusiastically thought my prayers had been answered.
The summer arrived and talked James into coming with me to the east coast to work at summer camp with me in the Berkshires. It was great experiencing Connecticut and touring the surrounding areas on our days off. After the summer ended, James moved in with me at college. While I was in school, he worked a job he hated at a local fast food restaurant. I knew he was not happy and soon after many tearful discussions, he moved back to his home town, which was 90 minutes away. He left right before the Christmas holiday season which ended our 8 ½ month relationship. I was devastated and lonely. I was also mad at God, (I had to be mad at someone) for taking him away from me.
I didn't see or hear much from James for a long time. He was far away, but six months later I got news that left me speechless and sad. I heard he had unprotected sex with another man and had contacted HIV. I called James to talk to him and my fear of the news I had got second hand was true. My heart sunk, but trying to be strong, I told James that if things ever got rough and he needed a friend that I was there for him. Just because we were not together anymore, didn't mean I wasn't involved in his life. I did not hear from him again until the fall of 1996.
After several calls and searching, I found James, living at his Dad's in 1996. His HIV status had developed quickly to full blown AIDS and he was not well. I was devastated with the news. He also had lost his job and a majority of his friends. My phone call after all those years was embraced ecstatically and he was happy to hear from me again. For the next two years I loved him only as a friend could do and kept my promise. I watched this wonderful, caring and creative man slowly disappearing from life like an ice cube melting on a hot sidewalk. It was the hardest thing to watch. The disease ran through every inch of his body and I watched him slowly fade away. On January 2, 1998, this wonderful man who touched my life, that I loved, laughed and cared for passed away.
I learned so much from that time long ago. I did not leave that loss of a friend bitter at the world for how his life was taken. What I did take away was a greater appreciation for unconditional love. I also learned about dedication and truly being there for each other.
It is so important that all of us need to support people who are living with HIV/AIDS. I encourage everyone to get tested and know your status. Life is precious and a word, hand or gesture of compassion is worth so much to those who feel shunned, ashamed, different and alone.
This World AIDS Day 2012, I will remember my dear James and how my life was touched by his wonderful, loving spirit at such a young age. I will celebrate my friendship that I still have with his mother Pam. I also will remember so many lives that have been lost and many others that are struggling and living daily with HIV/AIDS.
The quilt panel (pictured above) I made for James many years ago for the AIDS Memorial Quilt will not bring him back, but I am reminded throughout the year and on every December 1st that an amazing man passed through my life that educated me, was my friend and loved me for who I was.