Killacky: World AIDS Day

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(HOST) Since 1988, World AIDS Day has been celebrated on December 1 each year around the world to raise awareness, fight prejudice, improve education, and increase access to treatment and prevention services.  Commentator John Killacky is the new Executive Director of the Flynn Center in Burlington.  Today he reflects back to the beginning of the pandemic.

(KILLACKY) There are now 33.4 million people living with HIV and AIDS.  Each year, 2 million die from AIDS related illnesses.

Thirty years ago, the disease had not yet been named when friends became sick. Lingering flus, ongoing fatigue, night sweats and purple lesions overtook and obliterated my generation. Fear mongering and prejudice greeted those who were ill.  The media talked about "gay cancer scares." Politicians called for quarantines.

By 1982, the illness was named; AIDS: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.  Scientists identified the HIV virus.  Three thousand cases had been reported in the U.S.; one thousand had died.  By the end of the ‘80s, 8 million people were living with AIDS worldwide.

As the pandemic spread, my losses escalated. I felt prepared for some deaths, those close at hand whose dying I experienced. Others took me by surprise; time and geography had made communication infrequent.  Morning coffee had me scanning the obituaries.  Still others, I discovered in passing conversations with friends, who assumed I already knew.

I hold on to my dead. They have become the elements in my reality.  I can still hear Celie’s fluid-filled lungs laboring in her emaciated transgendered body.  Her quick, shallow breaths are wind in my universe.

Peter’s night sweats are my water. I remember holding him, trying to warm his shivering body – hoping that somehow I could heal him, even for a short while so he would sleep.  Entwined in sweat and tears; I held him for what seemed like forever.

My fire resides in Bill’s fever-ridden body on the ice mattress.  It was too early on to name the disease, so he wasted, an anomaly for the medical students to ponder.  I’d nap with him on the frozen bed: "No, I’m not cold, I’m with my friend."

David’s ashes are my earth.  At death, his wishes were ignored as the family cremated him before an autopsy could reveal how his lesion-filled brain and lungs could have functioned for so long.  I imagine smearing his ashes, warrior-like onto my body, as I call into the night.

My dead: they are my mandala. I walk among them and live.

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