Last October I lost my BFF to AIDS. Those who think AIDS is a manageable illness, listen up. Antonio was smart, funny, good-looking, a real charmer. He was a Yale graduate and an attorney at a powerful New York law firm, but after his diagnosis, the pressure of that career just knocked him out. So he slipped away to L.A. to study Eastern medicine. That wasn't enough to heal him.
Two years ago he told me he wanted to go off antiretrovirals. I remember thinking, "How crazy." He'd only been HIV-positive for 10 years, and the ARVs had done their work, reducing his viral lode and giving him back his health. Deep inside I thought I could rescue him. I thought our friendship and the love of others might be enough. I thought, "Maybe we can all rally and save a life." I thought wrong.
His slide took months, and it was agony for everyone. But no mater what we came up with to try and soothe the burden, his position on the matter never wavered. He was done. Over and out. And he blamed the stigma surrounding HIV for this decision. He'd been a powerful, sexually charged man, but AIDS took that away from him. He found it harder and harder to find a true connection with others, HIV-positive or negative.
I understand this. I try to have blinders on. I try to move like a work horse in turn-of-the-century New York City. I keep calm, carry on, collect the trash, carry the firehouse, escort the trolly up and down Broadway. But after Antonio's death those blinders fell right off, and I began to see what was always right there in front of me. The AIDS crisis is not over. This fact was reinforced a few days ago when a friend of mine told me of his experience going into hospice last year for a non-AIDS-related ailment and meeting a room full of gay men who, like Antonio, had chosen to stop taking their ARVs. These 40- to 60-year-olds, done. It was also reinforced when I spoke to a social worker from Colorado who told me that three of her clients had committed suicide last year. They'd all been long-term HIV/AIDS survivors who could manage no more.
I think about the young ones. I think about the newly converted, the flock and the "V" formation. I think about the rates of seroconversion. I think, "Maybe they know something I do not. Maybe their desire to be infected cannot be contained." But I know that that is a lie, because in the late 1980s, when transmission rates were high, we mounted campaigns for harm reduction and safer sex, and we got people tested.
As a community we reduced rates of infection for years. We did it on our own. Those days are gone, and a new day is upon us. The second silence about the realities of this disease is all around us, like a vacuum in space. The big lie is that ARVs contain the virus. They may contain it physically, but emotionally? Sure, my T-cell count is over 600, and I have no viral load, but I am also a slave to Big Pharma and the infectious disease clinic, to my therapist and my psychiatrist, to the low mileage on my bank card.
As the calendar flips from '13 to '14, I am entering year 19 with HIV. I take my ARVs. But the other thing, depression and the lack of emotional or physical intimacy, is killer. On the farm where I work, four bull calves were born last season. I was there for the birth of the first one last spring. I decided then to name all the new calves for friends I'd known back in my younger days who had died of AIDS: Spencer, Howie, Jeremy, Mickey. And next spring, when the heifer brings me a new calf, male or female, it already has a name: Antonio or Antonia.
When the Holsteins and the Herefords bless my life with a new baby, I will cry for two reasons: joy for a life received, and sorrow for one beautiful and loving friend who's now gone for good. Spring cannot come soon enough. It will be measured in teardrops like rain on the tin roof of a Pennsylvania barn. When that calf takes its first step, I will be there to wonder and applaud new life. That will always be my salvation. In my eyes a pile of manure and a bale of hay have meaning beyond their wildest dreams. When Antonio's eyes closed for good last fall, mine opened wide and saw the light. There is so much work yet to be done, not only here on the farm but in the streets of your town. The hearts and minds of all those at risk must be won over, or they too will become someone else's grief, someone else's calf to gambol and outgrow her pen.
I'd like to think that someday I will run out of names, but that day has yet to come.