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"
December 19, 2000


       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 widely.

       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,
not even a real word
but an acronym, a vacant
four-letter cipher
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.”

     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:
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.
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,
he is where we’ll be hit first,
he’s the part of us  
that’s going to get it.
       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:
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.
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.