Caring for those with AIDS: An essay by Huck Gutman published in The Statesman,
Kolkata (Calcutta) , India
"A 4-Letter Cipher Tugs at Every Bond"
Each year the news comes more grim news as the
community of nations recognizes World Aids Day on the first of December.
Over 36 million people are infected with the incurable HIV/AIDS virus.
In the last year alone an additional 5,300,000 people have become infected
with the HIV virus. This year there was little good news to report,
with two possible exceptions. Nelson Mandela, refuting the position
of his long-time colleague Thabo Mbeki, has declared that preventing the
sexual transmission of the HIV virus must be a high priority..
The second item of good news is that, led by
newspapers around the world, the international media has used World AIDS
Day as an occasion to report on the devastating effects of the disease.
Statistics on the rate of increase of HIV-infected persons are beginning
to make clear to people everywhere the tragic dimensions of this health care
crisis. The need to practice safe sex – either abstinence from
multiple partners, or use of a condom – is no longer a forbidden topic
in the media, and there is hope that this message will disseminate ever more
As one reads coverage of the AIDS crisis, three
approaches to the disease predominate. The first is the statistical
approach cited above. The second is revealing on the social consequences
of the disease: the strain on health care systems, the loss of a generation
of workers and parents, the terrible plight of the multitude of children
who are all too often either afflicted, orphaned, or both. The third
is focusing on the difficult condition of AIDS victims: their physical ills
and bodily decline, and the suffering that is caused by the shame and rejection
of AIDS victims by the ‘healthy’ community around them.
But AIDS victims need not be rejected by their
families, their friends, their communities. AIDS is transmitted by
sexual contact, by shared use of drug needles, by tainted blood transfusions.
It is not passed on by ordinary contact between individuals. In fact,
the AIDS victim is in need of comfort, understanding, compassion –
not of isolation and avoidance.
Perhaps nowhere is the importance of human support
for AIDS victims more fully demonstrated than in the community of homosexuals
in the United States, where AIDS has been devastating the population for
the past decade and a half. After an original period of denial, when
both the sexual transmission of AIDS and its catastrophic consequences were
repressed, the homosexual community created support networks to aid and comfort
those among their number who were afflicted with AIDS. What this community
recognized was that no disease can rob a human being of his or her humanity.
No matter what our illness, each of us remains human. If anything
diminishes our humanity, it is not illness, but failing to respond when a
daughter or friend or lover is in need.
There are times when the words we really need
to hear come to us not from newspapers, political speeches, or everyday conversation,
but from those private and intense gatherings of language we call poems.
We may turn to the contemporary American poet Mark Doty to encounter
a dimension of AIDS which we do not encounter elsewhere: the confusion and
pain which occur when the relation between human beings is not severed by
the onset of the disease, but remains ongoing and vital.
Doty’s lover and partner, Wally Roberts,
died of AIDS in 1994. Many of Doty’s poems are elegies to Roberts,
memorials to both his memory and to the love that existed – and endured
– between them. Many testify to how love can deepen even in the
face of, especially in the face of, tragic circumstances.
Doty’s poem “Faith” reveals
to us how difficult it can be to live with someone with AIDS. The poem
opens with the poet’s recurrent dream: walking their dog Arden with
his lover Wally, the poet envisions the dog suddenly running into the street
where he is hit, blindsided, by a car.
Each night the poet awakes from the dream, preferring
waking to the horror of the dream. And yet the reality he wakes to
is a mirror of the dream: six months earlier a doctor had blindsided with
an them an obscenity, a four-letter word,
Like the dog hit by a car in his dream, the narrator and Wally have
been struck down by the diagnosis that Wally has AIDS. Though not even
a real word, the vacant cipher has immense power, for it “draws meanings
to itself/reconstitutes the world.”
not even a real word
but an acronym, a vacant
The two men at first attempt denial. But although
the progression of the “vacant four-letter cipher” is not detectable
to the doctor with all his science, everyday life is another matter, for
poet notes the “steadily rising nothing” of the unseen disease:
Doty is angry at this state of affairs. But the anger doesn’t
last. It is replaced by the recognition that “we don’t
have a future,/ we have a dog.” The dog, Arden, symbolizes the
essence of life itself, “that-which-goes-forward.” As life
itself goes forward, for Doty and for his lover. Yet the poet cannot
help but think back on the dream with which the poem began: he recognizes
that the dog, Arden, is an emblem,
The doctor doesn’t hear what I do,
that trickling, steadily rising nothing
that makes him sleep all day,
vanish into fever’s tranced afternoons,
and I swear sometimes
when I put my head to his chest
I can hear the virus humming
like a refrigerator.
The poem moves on to a remarkable conclusion.
It is morning and Doty is walking the dog, in actuality and not in
dream. The progression of AIDS is made clear by a poignant aside which
reveals that the walk no longer includes the now-infirm Wally: it is “always
just me and Arden now.” Suddenly, while Doty is still halfway
between sleep and dream, his recurrent nightmare seems to come true.
Arden trots into the street. In reality, unlike in dream, there is
no car coming – though of course the devastating wreck is real, as
testified to by the absence of Wally, decimated now by AIDS. But the
poet, caught up in his nightmare of the dog’s incipient demise, screams
in warning, grabs at the dog, holds Arden with desperate tightness:
he is where we’ll be hit first,
he’s the part of us
that’s going to get it.
Confusion, helplessness, despair, pain: all of these are what we open ourselves
to when we maintain our bonds, of family or friendship, with those afflicted
with AIDS. But to do any less would be to diminish our own humanity,
and to abandon others when they need us most.
And there I was on my knees
both arms around his neck
and nothing coming,
and when I looked into that bewildered face
I realized I didn’t know what it was
I was shouting at,
I didn’t know who I was trying to protect.