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Birthday Reflections

07/19/2012 11:01 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Today is my 61st birthday. That's thirty more than I expected to have. I'm sure many of the gay men my age who lived through the first onslaught of the AIDS pandemic know what I mean. From 1981 to 1990 five of my closest male friends died: Sidney Faulkner, Jeffrey Apter, Peter Hujar, Paul Thek, and Robert Money. Their deaths hit me like hammer-blows and stunned me senseless. I'm using this metaphor on purpose. By the end of the '80s, I was in an emotional deep-freeze that I didn't start coming out of -- didn't even know I was in -- until the late '90s when I realized a childhood ambition and finally started teaching while in grad school. It was the beginning of a new life. I'm grateful for that life and all the birthdays that made it possible. They were possible because, to both my and my doctor's surprise, I am HIV-. There is no reason I should be. It was pure dumb luck. Luck is always a surprise, isn't it?

My sero-status is not the only thing about my experience of AIDS that has surprised me. Once the emotional thaw began, and it's not accidental that it coincides with the proof that the new anti-viral drugs were prolonging the lives of people I would otherwise be mourning with the others -- I discovered that the relentless loss during the early AIDS years had actually humanized me in a completely unpredictable way that getting sober in 1984 did as well -- it brought me out of the clouds and right down to earth with everyone else. I remember thinking, 'This is what it must have felt like to be a WWI war widow; all the men you might have known gone forever and you have to make a life out of what's left.'

It revamped my sense of what a life can be and what can and must be endured and it opened me up to a level of compassion I was incapable of before that. I really don't blame myself for being the callow, self-absorbed boy I was -- I couldn't help it -- but I'm so glad I got to grow up a little bit. I'm all too aware that it doesn't always happen. There's a wonderful line in Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis Maccomber":

"He had seen men come of age before and it always moved him.
It was not a matter of their twenty-first birthday."

In my case it was not even a matter of my 31st, or 40- or even 50- or 61st birthdays. It's an on-going process. I'm far from grown up even still, but I work at it.

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