"As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another." Proverbs 27:17
As the world gathers to reflect on all the current issues regarding the AIDS epidemic, we must understand that we are our greatest resources -- resources for information, discussion, and especially hope.
Sharpening Our Desire for Information and Discussion
In the wake of Thanksgiving, my four little cousins stayed with us over the weekend. All of them are girls, with their ages ranging from 4-13. My 10-year-old cousin Sasha overheard me talking to her 13-year-old sister Kennedy when I made a passing remark about AIDS. Sasha patiently allowed us to have our discussion and averted her attention elsewhere, as though she didn't hear anything. Suddenly, as though she went through a psychological battle in her own mind, she looked up at me, made direct eye contact, and flatly asked, "Candice, what's AIDS?"
I could tell by her posture that she was a little intimidated and nervous regarding the uncertainty of the answer, but I could also tell that she had a burning desire for the answer. It was incredibly brave of her. So brave, in fact, that it caught me completely off guard, and all I could muster was an incredulous smile. I realized there are many aspects of AIDS that aren't necessarily the most comfortable thing to explain to children, but I appreciated Sasha for her honest question and wanted to provide the best, most appropriate answer. I thought for a second and said, "Well, first of all, Sasha, AIDS is an acronym. It stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome." I emphasized and articulated every word because I wanted her to understand that AIDS is four WORDS, not four LETTERS. In my mind, the first step to understanding AIDS is understanding and comprehending what it specifically stands for. Sasha told me she could only recognize the word "acquired," and thus she probably has no reference in her mind to fully grasp what those four words mean as a whole. However, I could tell she instantly became empowered and less anxious about talking about AIDS, just by asking that simple question.
When it comes to our knowledge and interpretation of AIDS, the world is essentially divided into two groups: those with questions, and those with answers. The greatest component is that we all fall into both categories at one point or another because we are in control of our choices, decisions, and opinions. For example, getting tested for HIV. Knowing your own status is answering the ultimate question, and there are so many resources in your local community composed of people who truly care about you that can help you get that answer.
In fact, there is an answer to every imaginable question you could have regarding HIV and AIDS. How do I know? I've asked them all. And fortunately for me, every person that I have encountered as a resource has sharpened me. I must give a special thanks to Until There's A Cure, The Children Affected by AIDS Foundation, Greater Than AIDS, and the Minnesota AIDS Project. These incredible organizations do so much for our society at large and are 100% responsible for the courage I now have to tell my father's story in great detail.
Sharpening Our Hope
In January 1991 I attended my father's funeral after he died from complications related to AIDS. Attending the funeral was a different experience for me, as I was just one month shy of my fourth birthday. In my mind that day, the way my polka-dot dress looked was far more significant than anything else. But in my blurred memory, I can still recall staring in wonderment at my father lying lifeless in his open casket. I only got to have one solid glance at him up close and personal, as I was quickly swept away by a relative who probably feared that it would be too psychologically damaging. In actuality, it had the opposite effect. Although he was 97 pounds and covered in lesions that were respectfully (but obviously) disguised by a copious amount of makeup, he had this Mona Lisa-esque smile on his face, as if he knew there was a significant purpose to his life. I took that smile as a sign of optimism, and I vowed to hold onto it for the rest of my life. I soon discovered, however, that when it comes to dealing with the issues regarding AIDS, it is much easier to be pessimistic than optimistic.
At that point I needed to feel a living hope, something or someone that could remind me that my father (and my hope) was not buried in his grave. In 1992 my answer came when Magic Johnson announced that he had contracted the virus and was now HIV positive. I'm sure most people were shocked, scared, or appalled at his announcement, but not me. The timing couldn't have been better orchestrated. Magic was the first person to give the entire world and me a reason to have real hope. He made the heroic choice to stand brave in the midst of his terrifying circumstance. Meeting him in person was truly one of the greatest days of my life. Throughout the course of my professional adult career I have had the glorious opportunity to meet and speak to many people who are HIV positive. These people are not despondent. These people are among some of the most inspirational people you could meet, because they choose to live, despite what modern medicine would have us think. Some of the people I've met have been living with HIV for more than 20 years, but they all eerily possess the same quality: an inexplicable joy for life. You see, HIV and AIDS are extremely complex diseases, but at the end of the day, the only answer that truly matters is surprisingly simple. It is up to you to care enough about the answers to the questions that you have. Please take advantage of the numerous charitable organizations that have opened their doors to assist you. Make the right choices. Know your status. And whether you're living with HIV or not, always choose to live.
It took 20 years for me to be as sharpened as I am today. There is no way I could have obtained the keen knowledge and courageous spirit that I own if it weren't for people, (young and old, black and white, HIV positive and HIV negative) sharpening my mind and keeping my optimistic goal on track. On this World AIDS Day, I challenge you to sharpen others with whatever tools you possess. And I also encourage you to have an open mind to allow others to sharpen you.