HIV has taught me several things. I actually believe that HIV changed my life forever with a mix of sad and beautiful memories of fighting for my life, after receiving a “death sentence” back in the late 1980s.
I mean this literally, I was told over the phone that I had, at the most “6 months to a year to live”. Getting a death sentence is probably one of the most terrifying things I have ever confronted so far. The bleak circumstances surrounding my death sentence were very poignant.
At that point, I had already lost so many friends that I developed a fear of answering the phone in order to avoid receiving news about another death. Every time the phone rang my heart would stop. It was so intense that I remember vomiting uncontrollably after receiving such a call informing me that my friend Doug was dying of AIDS in San Francisco.
After that call I felt like I was lost and alone in a long, dark tunnel with no end in sight. The day I was told I was HIV positive, I stepped out of the doctor’s office and the first thing I saw, displayed on a magazine cover at a newsstand, was the garish, horrible depiction of a dying AIDS patient. I felt my heart shrink in my chest, and I half expected my heart to stop. I was still in my 20s, wondering if I’d live to see 30.
Fast forwarding to the present, I am going on for 31 years of living with HIV. HIV etched an idea about death into my brain forever though. I have been bombarded with death for so long that for starters, I’m not scared of it anymore. Death is not a strange force that is going to make me waste my todays in fear of an early death.
I have learned to be inspired daily by the “Carpe Diem" (Seize the Day) tattoo on my left arm. Admittedly, some days are seized more than other days but I “seize the day” every day. I decided to seize the day a long time ago. This is one of the most important things I learned about death.
Very early after my diagnosis, I had the realization that if my life was going to be terminated early, I was going to leave this earth full of rich life experiences. I am happy I did so. Now, I look back and feel I have indeed lived! I have traveled the world, met lots of people. I’ve fallen in love as well as in “like”. I’ve managed to get a good education and carved out a career educating others.
If there is such a thing as a “silver lining” on a death sentence it’s that I became less shy, more adventurous. I like to think that I became an avid collector, indeed a “connoisseur” of precious moments of pleasure that I don’t regret whatsoever.
Either the Buddha or Paris Hilton once said, “Life Is Difficult”. That is true but life is also beautiful. The best is yet to come. Every day that I wake up, I’m still glad to be here and do my best to celebrate my life. I wake up grateful to still be here and I rejoice at being able to stay on the right track. I live in a special place where peace is the king of my land.
Since my “death sentence” over 30 years ago, the Grim Reaper and I are pretty much on a first name basis. I'm not sure we’re necessarily buddies, but we’ve pretty much gotten used to each other by now. Death will be the last piece of the epic, beautiful jigsaw puzzle that is my life. When all the other pieces have found their places in the mural of my life the last piece will complete the work of art.
My experiences with death prepared me for a positive view of this process. Those experiences forged in my mind one powerful option that many can’t see. As a humanist/atheist I’m not a prayer fan but I have borrowed and paraphrased my version of the Serenity Prayer. Mine goes like this:
“Some things I CAN change.
Some things I CAN’T change.
I need to figure out which is which”
I pretty much live by the above mantra. Every day we have left is one more day to dare ourselves to love and be loved. To prove to ourselves there is hope for humankind because we are willing to make this day a better day for everyone that crosses our paths.
The process of living every day to the fullest, energizes me. It challenges me to keep on fighting for those causes and those people that I treasure. It places me right in the heart of an old tree. There, I can outlive safely many misfortunes, protected by the thick bark of hope. Encapsuled in a cocoon and growing safely, knowing that I will have to leave that cocoon behind at some point.
The real lesson that I learned from death, is the fact that we are ALL capable of sculpting our todays in order to enjoy a tomorrow that we can appreciate as a personal work of art. Live without fear, love intensely and enjoy the pleasures of being alive. I don’t regret living, because I have lost my fear of dying in the process of building my private garden of earthly delights and universal inner peace.
"One day we will all die, all the other days, we will not."
- Charles Shultz, creator of "Peanuts" comic strip.