The secrets that we keep

November 30, 1996|By Harold Jackson

AWAKE AT 2: 30 last Saturday night, I was struck by how well I could see across the length and breadth of my bedroom. A flood of moonlight filtered through the blinds, giving every object a shadowy dimension that suggested an attachment to another world.

I put on my glasses, walked barefoot across the cool, hardwood floor and peeked out the window. The sky was actually cloudy save for an occasional break, the largest of which allowed the moon to fully display the illuminating power that according to legend can drive men mad.

The sun would blind us if we similarly looked directly at it. But the moon, in its brilliantly pale fluorescence, demands that we stare it in the face. I opened the blinds wider to get a better look at the glowing disc with dark craters that make it a work of art.

Eventually, though, without slippers or robe, I started to get cold. And was reluctantly reminded of what woke me up in the first place. A call informing me that my younger brother had died.

The unfairness of death

Death touches each of us, but never are we really prepared for it. Especially in circumstances that seem so unfair. Less than six months ago, my eldest brother Anthony died during an asthma attack. I began the year with four brothers, I will end it with two.

Though all five of us moved to different parts of the country, I remained closest to Calvin, if only through our connected memories. As children, we shared the most, played together the most, understood each other the most.

As adults, no matter how many months separated visits, we were always able to recapture the essence of our childhood relationship, joking, laughing, recalling outrageous events and people, favorite songs and TV shows.

We also talked about our grown-up lives, our jobs, vacations, health problems. Well, some health problems. He never told me he was HIV-positive. Like so many others, he didn't want his family to suffer from what he believed should be a personal burden.

The opposite coast

Living on the opposite coast, he could keep secret what was really going on. Summer was almost over before I found out he was dying. A visit in October found him bedridden. Saying

goodbye and ''I love you,'' we knew we were seeing each other for the last time. Then Saturday night, with the moon defiantly pushing back the clouds, I got the call.

I share my story because it's not unique. From 650,000 to 900,000 people in this country are HIV-positive. A lot of them don't know they are. Many who do know keep it to themselves, afraid that someone, somehow, will find out, hoping some miracle cure will be discovered before that happens.

Since AIDS was first recognized in the 1980s, more than 325,000 Americans have died waiting for that miracle. And that's only a fraction of those who have died of AIDS worldwide.

In recent weeks the hopes of the HIV-positive have been raised. A new triple-combo drug therapy -- protease inhibitors, AZT and 3TC -- has dramatically reduced the amount of the virus found in some patients' blood.

But realists point out that most AIDS patients, especially if they can't work, can't afford the $10,000 to $20,000 a year those drugs cost. Others don't want to take a dozen or more pills a day and suffer the side effects. And, besides, getting HIV out of your blood doesn't mean it isn't in body tissue where it can do harm.

It's wonderful that drug therapies are being developed that can prolong the lives of AIDS patients. But what is needed is a vaccine that can wipe it out the way a vaccine eradicated smallpox. Until such a vaccine exists, there will be AIDS, there will be people keeping secrets, and there will be mourners who cannot sleep.

=1 Harold Jackson writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 11/30/96

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