Message from Merle
This year marked the 30th Anniversary of World AIDS Day, a global health campaign founded by the World Health Organization in 1988 to raise awareness of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and mourn those who have lost their lives to AIDS.
Three years before the founding of World AIDS Day I took a trip that forever impacted my conception of the illness. Below is an excerpt of the story of that trip published in On The Issues Magazine in 1985.
Love and Death on 86
by Merle Hoffman
I am overhearing a phone conversation – the tone of the speaker is intimate, concerned, loving, parental… long complicated words are being spelled out – RETINITIS – CHEMOTHERAPY – LYMPHADENOPATHY – repeated again and again.
The voice on the other side of the phone was Bobby’s – and he had missed his appointment. “Is your lover with you now – does he know you will probably have to be going into the hospital?” The question is asked gently but firmly. The speaker is a nurse practitioner named Gary. His bright red curly hair, plaid shirt, glasses and jeans place him just about anywhere. His name tag and stethoscope around his neck – the phone at his ear – the place I am standing in – place him on ward 86 at San Francisco General Hospital – the Oncology Unit – The AIDS Ward.
I knew I wanted to go to San Francisco General a year ago – AIDS had been in the papers. The issue was argued politically, medically and philosophically. Susan Sontag used it as a focus of social critique. Illness as a metaphor – it had shades of the medieval black plague – it was controversial, dangerous, and it was profound.
The profundity touched me one morning when I was dressing and listening to the radio. It was an interview with a Shanti counselor on the AIDS ward. She was saying something extraordinary – something that made me pause in my daily ritual – something about the fact that working with AIDS patients made her realize that if she would choose her own death – she would want to know she was dying – for one year, she would want to experience the clarity, the restructuring of priorities – the immediate’ placement of things important and not so important that she had been witness to by working with some of her AIDS patients.
And then, of course, there was the sexuality issue – the fact that a large majority of the AIDS patients were male homosexuals – an easy target for the right wing ideologues – Falwell’s proof that God was punishing our society for its decadence. Not only was abortion a blight visited on the sinner but now the Deity had something even worse in the offing – The “GAY PLAGUE.”
And then there was Calvin – my hairdresser. The strangeness had gone on for about a year – I would be called and told that he could not make appointments or would have to be late. He started to look thinner and thinner. I would question him – he just said he wasn’t feeling well – some stomach problems or something. Then one day as I was sitting in his chair, while he went through his programmatic cosmetic rituals – I looked up into the mirror and caught his eye – and again asked him what was wrong – He didn’t answer verbally – but he answered – I knew at that moment that he had AIDS and I also knew that he was dying.