If you used one word to describe him, it would be cool. He just was. He had a swag to him. Handsome, like he’d always been, with a cigarette dangling from his lips and never too far from the stringed love of his life. That’s how I remember him, mostly. Infectious and smooth and really really cool.
I don’t remember how old I was when I found out that he was sick. Elementary school age though, maybe 8. I saw him in the summers; a time which, for me, denoted freedom from the restrictions of September to June school life, but a time which, for him, as the years went by, became an increasing time of confinement. The disease ate him alive and the suave musician I’d known grew sickly and emaciated.
I think I was 11 when he played his final note.
That’s 1 story of 3 that I could tell.
HIV/AIDS has never been an “over there” disease to me. It’s not something that happens to “other” people. The statistics aren’t just faceless data. It’s blood and snot and tears and pain. It’s silence. It’s vicious. It’s having to stand in the hallway the last time you see a person because you’re still nursing a lingering cough. It’s reconciling the person in your mind with this frail dying body you see before you still giving you a smile while the home nurse aide makes sure that you keep your distance.
It is also redemption and hope and love. It’s an opportunity to make amends. It’s the diamond in the rough and paying it forward.
It’s a gift: An understanding of the mortality that makes us human; the direct link between choice and consequence. It’s knowing that when I hear the almost unfathomable reality that 152 people will contract HIV today and half of them will be Black and that of all new cases of infected women, 2/3 of them will be Black, that these aren’t numbers that come out of nowhere. They’re numbers that come from a belief that “it couldn’t happen to me.” I am grateful to not believe in that shield made of clouds.
He couldn’t give me a hug the last time I saw him but he did give me the gift of vincibility.