'Why did this happen to me?'

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

February 05, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

This weekend, I saw a play about a young man with AIDS.

His name was Wendal. He played the saxophone.

He seemed like a nice, intelligent young man, and in the play, as I said, he was wasting away -- dying, dying, dying the slow, inevitable death of acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

One time, in the play, Wendal went to tell his fiancee that he had the disease.

But he couldn't.

So, he made love to her instead.

That was a painful, shocking moment because I liked his girlfriend, too, and we had to watch while this nice young man exposed her to a possible slow and inevitable death.

Another time, he went home to his family, looking for solace and comfort. And while he was there, the subject of AIDS came up.

And Wendal had to sit there, smiling awkwardly, while the people he loved talked about the disease like something disgusting, dirty, a scourge possibly sent by God to punish evildoers. They didn't know he had it, you see.

There were many moments like this.

But the most intense, emotionally searing moment occurred when Wendal's family finally learned he was dying. Because unlike other types of killer diseases, people find it very hard not to blame the AIDS victim. AIDS can separate its victims from life even before they die.

The name of the play is "Before It Hits Home." Cheryl West wrote it. The Arena Stage in Washington is presenting it through March 3.

"Yes, yes, yes, it sounds very, very real to me," said a man with AIDS after I had told him about the play.

"I can tell you that almost all of the things that happened to that character happened to me," he said.

The man with AIDS, though, hastened to assure me that he has not had sexual contact with another person since he learned of his illness.

"But as shocking and horrible as it may seem to you, I can understand why he did it. You go through this period of denying it, like it isn't really real, like something this bad, this fatal and this ugly cannot be happening to you. You want to feel that if you just go on living your normal life, it'll go away.

"When I first fell ill," he continued, "it was the hardest thing in the world to accept. I kept thinking, 'Why did this have to happen to me?' 'What have I ever done to deserve this terrible, terrible thing?' It is like somebody has pulled the rug out from under you."

The man with AIDS is slender and of medium height, much like the Wendal in the play. They both are in their early 30s. Wendal, however, was a jazz musician. This man with AIDS was an office clerk.

"But the thing I can really relate to in the play is the part about his family," he said, and he began to wring his hands while he spoke.

"You know, just being a homosexual sets you apart in the first place. Your parents get really, really hurt, betrayed, because there are all these feelings about homosexuality being evil, dirty.

"I sometimes think it is worst than what they would feel if I told them I was a thief. Although a thief chooses to be a thief and I didn't choose to be a homosexual.

"So then you get AIDS," he continued, and he put a peculiar emphasis on the word -- just so. "It's like you're being punished for your sins."

He laughed then.

"Only their reaction -- I mean my family -- was more like they were being punished by my having AIDS. I have a very religious, churchgoing family and they couldn't handle it."

State officials say there have been 3,240 diagnosed cases of AIDS in Maryland between the start of the epidemic in January 1981 to January 1991. They say 2,018 of those victims have died.

The newest thing has been the growth of the illness among women and children. Officials say there have been 69 diagnosed cases in children under age 12. Twenty-nine of those children have died.

"What do you want people to understand about all this?" I asked the man with AIDS.

"I don't know," he said. "It's all so complicated. There's so much that needs to be said."

I suppose it is very complicated although people are forever writing and talking about this epidemic. Most of the discussion regarding AIDS, however, relates to prevention of its spread.

But I'll share with you one insight that I got from the play: Nobody deserves to die alone.

And too often AIDS patients are faced with just that -- a long, lonely death.

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