A friendly gesture LIVING WITH AIDS

January 09, 1995|By H. B. Johnson Jr.

A PERSON WITH AIDS is assured of two things: suffering and a sooner than expected death. But there is a third tragedy that I've learned about: isolation. Without the caring and love that I get from my family and friends, I would be much worse off psychologically.

The isolation caused by AIDS is extremely painful. This is an illness that stigmatizes its victims to an extent that few without the disease can understand. It's hard to go through life thinking that you won't make new friends.

A recent experience underscored this feeling. A few weeks ago, I met a very bright and attractive young woman at a city bus stop. She had the most engaging eyes I had ever seen and I told her so. While waiting for the bus, we struck up a conversation that touched on politics, education, racism and raising children. The bus came and we boarded together and continued our conversation.

It turned out that we were getting off at the same stop. We disembarked, smiling at our good fortune; it was clear that our conversation was mutually enjoyable. Since we had missed the bus we wanted to transfer to -- it was pulling away as we arrived -- we stopped for hot tea at a fast food restaurant. We sat by the window, watching for our bus and chatting.

I pondered whether to bring up AIDS as a topic. We had shared personal matters, why not my disease? I decided to bring it up.

How disappointed the results of that decision made me feel -- initially. My traveling companion thought, for example, that AIDS could be spread by casual contact. That's why she never carries her child with her on the bus. Further, she said that AIDS is a curse from God, sent to punish mankind for its wicked and sinful ways. I was, needless to say, aghast!

I asked her what would she do if she were at a friendly gathering (such as the close of a church service) and five people came up and kissed her on the cheek. Would she be able to tell if any of those people had AIDS? What if she later discovered that each has the AIDS virus, what would she do?

Her answer was simple . . . said in an attempt at jest I suppose, but with a serious undercurrent: "I'd kill myself. Well, maybe I wouldn't go quite that far, but I wouldn't go back to that church no more." And lord knows I would do a lot of praying and scrub my jaws raw with disinfectant!"

"You wouldn't go to a doctor and be tested?" I asked.

"For what?" she replied, "What good is a doctor if all he can do is tell you you've got a disease? That's all they seem to be doing with people with AIDS these days! If I got it, I wouldn't want to know a thing about it!"

I considered commenting on her views about AIDS and how it's communicated, but thought better of it. Instead, I looked at her in silence for several minutes, then called her name quietly, and said: "I have AIDS."

At first, she laughed and told me to stop joking. Another look into my eyes told her that I was dead serious.

To my shock and amazement, she was suddenly very apologetic. She repeatedly said "I'm sorry."

We sat in that restaurant for a long time after that. We missed two buses because we were talking about AIDS. When we left that restaurant, we walked down the street, holding hands. And when she rose to get off of our cross-town bus, my new friend -- of whom I am now very proud -- kissed me on the cheek and said "take care." Already, she had taken a giant step into the first reality of illness. Illness is not a crime, not a sin of the sick.

Each evening now, around 6, my telephone rings and I know who it is. How fortunate and much more alive I sometimes feel now, thanks to this deeply religious young woman who had been so misinformed and confused. But, unlike a lot of people, she was willing to listen and to learn. Her genuine concern about my welfare is a great help to me in my fight against isolation. She, her husband and her baby, have been invited to my house for dinner, and they have accepted.

H. B. Johnson Jr., a Baltimore playwright and poet, writes occasionally on living with AIDS.

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