In my wallet I carry a folded card printed by Alcoholic’s Anonymous’ Central Office. Four prayers for the price of one, which was free nonetheless. Though I have only once consulted the card, it certainly looks care-worn; its edges pulpy, the cardstock darkened by my wallet’s nub, the words worn and faded. I will spare you the Third and Seventh Step prayers, and certainly you know the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change things I can, and wisdom to hide the bodies.” Ha ha.
Isn’t it the Prayer of St. Francis that most people prefer? Agnostics and faithful alike.
Lord, make me a channel of thy peace; that where there is hatred, I may bring love…
On July 4th of 2001 I sat in an examination room of San Francisco General Hospital. The door was open; in the hallway I watched nurses and doctors pass, trays and files in their hands. It had been years since I had seen a doctor. I hadn’t needed one, or I was just afraid to know the answer. But six months of sobriety and a new job with health benefits cleared some of that fear away. I had made an appointment the month before. The doctor had given me a physical, and sent me across the hall to have four vials of blood drawn from the crook of my arm.
That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness…
I am ashamed to admit that it had been ten years since my blood was last drawn. From where I sit today, safely bolstered by two years of sobriety, I could blame it on my usual suspects, my faithful companions from those dark years: my whiskey, my crystal meth. But that wouldn’t be the entire truth. I hadn’t used any substance for seven of those years. Only the last three had been obscured in their company.
That where there is discord, I may bring harmony…
The only constant I can see from those ten years is fear: fear of the truth, fear of never writing again, fear of being found out. And the fear just grew, layer upon layer, and when finally I found my drugs, I dove into them with sweet, blind relief.
That where there is error, I may bring truth…
My new doctor poked his head around the corner of the door. “I’ll just be a minute, Michael,” he said, and for the second that his head hung there I searched his face, because he already knew the answer.
That where there is doubt, I may bring faith…
But he was giving nothing away. He disappeared from my view.
I went to school in the early nineties at a tiny college in Sarasota, Florida. I spent so many of those four years wanting to be somewhere else; New York or San Francisco. Those years when ACT-Up and Queer Nation were changing what it meant to be gay. Or so it felt from Sarasota. I felt so far from it, left out, chasing the parade. I wanted the excitement, the thrill of revolution. I wanted to sleep with sexy activist boys. I wanted to block streets and wave signs in tank tops and combat boots. In Florida I shaved my head; I taped xeroxed pictures of cute boys and “Silence=Death” stickers to the walls of my dorm room. One night, during the days when Magic Johnson was the public’s sole focus on AIDS, while everyone slept I papered the cafeteria with the names of gay men killed by AIDS
That where there is despair, I may bring hope…
That year I was first tested for HIV. During the two weeks while I waited for the results I could not sleep at night. Not that I had much to worry about; I had always been safe. In the years to come I would change all that, but in 1991 I had little to fear.
I got as close as I could. I followed the parade through newspapers and magazines and books. From a thousand miles away I shadowed the movement, compiling their subversive, radical activities into a 100-page thesis I titled ” A Queer Fable: The Sociological Effects of AIDS on Gay Men”, and though it may not have been the most incisive of arguments, my advisor uses it now as a model for good writing.
And because the fire continued to burn, I produced a one-man show of three one-act plays, all about AIDS, the final play my own, which I called “Wish You Were Queer.” My theater advisor left the auditorium in tears. A producer brought me and my show to Tampa later that summer. Through AIDS I was finding something bigger than myself, something to be about.
That where there are shadows, I may bring light…
The minutes in the examination room ticked by. Somewhere nearby my doctor finished up his business. His head held a piece of my approaching life.
I pulled my wallet from my pocket, opened it, scanned through the pile of business and membership cards till I found what I wanted. I opened it to Saint Francis. I read it over and over, the words flying past me, never landing, never resting, the neurons firing and snapping, wind crying in my empty head.
That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.
I don’t really understand the power of sex. I don’t understand why we do things we would never do once the heated moment has passed. Which is not to make excuses for myself; I’m a grown man, capable of adult decisions. And I made many bad ones, some under the influence, some not. I have no one but myself to blame. I had my youth, I had the facts.
The doctor came in, file in hand. He pulled his chair across the room and sat a couple of feet from me.
“Well,” he said, “we got the results back from the lab.” He paged through my thin file. “And you tested positive for the HIV, as you thought you might.”
Grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted…
There was that second of suspension, the slow intake of breath, the rush of heat to my face, and I heard myself say “okay” and I felt myself nod, looking at him, looking away. Yes, I thought I might be, but really I had convinced myself I wasn’t. My good health, my young, strong body. The doctor watched me closely, saying nothing. I turned away from the moment, that room, that doctor, that chair. I turned towards the future. “What next?” I asked him.
To understand, than to be understood…
A couple of months later I spoke at an AA meeting, one with a “special emphasis” on those with HIV. I shared my story, and after it was over a weathered man of an indeterminate age (forties? fifties?) approached me. He placed a hand on my shoulder and said, “You’re lucky, you know. Things have changed so much. So many of my friends are dead.”
I nodded again, the good little boy, earnest to the end: “Yes, you’re right, I am lucky.” But I wanted to push him away. Lucky? How can you call this lucky? There’s still no cure, or haven’t you heard?
To love, than to be loved.
He was right, you know, things have changed so much. The new drugs, with newer ones sure to come. And I really am lucky; my numbers have been so good. “You could go years without needing meds,” my new HIV-specialist had told me.
Several months ago at the gym, I was passing the membership counter and spotted, sitting on the far corner, a collection jar with a sign that read; “Please donate to Kent’s memorial in the AIDS Grove”. There was a photograph of a man taped to the jar, and from a distance there was something familar about his smile. I stepped closer, and saw the man who had played with my heart, several years before. I hadn’t even known he was dead.
For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.
It is easy, in this body of mine, to have HIV. I am in the best health of my life. My biggest hurdle is just sex. Self-disclosure, which I give freely, and the rejection that sometimes follows. I know it’s for the best, after all, what kind of relationship could I have with someone like that? But it doesn’t sting any less.
When I was first tested I struggled to find some meaning. In a city like San Francisco there are so many willing to give you their meanings; what it means to have this virus. But I wanted my own, because I am stubborn that way.
I haven’t found it, and I’m not sure I will. Maybe there is no meaning to a virus. Maybe it just is. Or maybe it’s about our finite times here. Work less, love more. Look towards the process, not the results.
The happy accidents of life make me laugh. Today in the mail I received an annual report of my college’s alumni foundation. I leafed through it while warming up Thanksgiving left-overs in the microwave. And there on page 27 was a photograph.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.
It’s of a young man standing on the shore of Sarasota Bay, at sunset. He is just a silhouette, but I recognize his shaved head, his thin limbs.
It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life.
He looks out across the water, and though I can only guess what he was thinking at the time, it looks as though he’s waiting for his future. He stands, impatient, wanting more of everything; of love and sex and revolution. And it’s coming, fast and silent, carrying everything he will ever need.