AIDS has become a major part of our society. Unfortunately, there are those who refuse to face the reality. I was one of those people. In the summer of 1995, I joined the National Touring Company of 'Miss Saigon'. When I learned that my director had AIDS, I did not know how to handle it. In this essay, I examined my fear and anxiety facing AIDS, especially seeing my dear friend slowly die from this deadly disease. I realized that life is precious.
Scene: The central library in Philadelphia
The study area of the main floor is crowded but composed. People are seated at the tables, engrossed in their work. Others walk around with piles of books in their hands. Rows of tables fill the large study area in which each table is occupied with three to four people.
It is late at night and a man is seated at one of the tables. He is in his early thirties but his appearance makes him look older. His grayish hair seems to be shaven to the point of baldness. His pale face has some scars and his body looks bony and frail. He frequently coughs and blows his nose and he appears haggard and weary.
He is in the middle of the crowded study area, but he looks isolated. People stay away from him as they walk past him. Others seem to avoid sitting next to him. He does not notice this since he is immersed in his work.
As this man quickly jots down notes from his books, a librarian slowly approaches him. He keeps his distance as he hands him a book.
"Here is the section you needed on HIV discrimination."
(He says it loud enough for everyone else to hear. People suddenly stop their work to look at him. They are startled by hearing the word "HIV".)
"Oh, thank you." (He coughs) "Thank you very much."
(The man quickly resumes to his work. The librarian does not move. He has an anxious look on his face and he hesitates to say something to him. People are still staring at them.)
"Excuse me, sir, would you be more comfortable if I placed you in a private room?"
"No, it's okay. I'm fine where I am."
The librarian continues to stare at him but he becomes more fidgety. (He takes a deep breath.)
"Sir, I think you would be more comfortable in a private room."
(The man immediately stops his work and looks at him with wonder. Then, he looks at the people staring at him. Some people bow their heads as he looks at each one of them. He pauses for a while. He turns to the librarian.)
"Oh, I see. Well, let me ask you this. Would it be more comfortable for you?"
(The librarian does not say a word. He hesitates to move but he stops looking at him. Finally, he leaves him alone.)
AIDS has taken the lives of millions and the increasing number of related deaths has called for an awareness of its effects in our society. Many of us have faced the reality of AIDS. Seeing our loved ones suffer is a painful experience. Unfortunately, many people are not educated about the disease and therefore, have blocked it out of their lives. They believe that it will not happen to them or their loved ones. Fear keeps them in the dark. Those who choose to avoid AIDS makes them more susceptible to it. Once they are infected, only then are they unprepared to handle AIDS.
As depicted from the opening scene, the librarian kept his distance from the man because he feared that he could be infected. The possibility of contracting the disease by a simple touch or just being near someone with AIDS is a myth. It has been established by medical research that AIDS can only be transmitted through bodily fluids: through sexual intercourse, sharing of needles, and blood transfusions. Although these are facts, people refuse to listen-they exclude those people with AIDS. It is sad that people living with AIDS are made to feel so isolated. It's as if their livelihood is taken away by society's fear, way before the disease has a chance to do it.
The library scene that I portrayed in the beginning was taken from the movie, Philadelphia, a story about a lawyer who was fired from a distinguished firm because of his illness with AIDS. In spite of his outstanding reputation among his clients and coworkers, he was cast out for bringing AIDS into their lives. When I saw this movie, its intensity triggered my awareness of the different views towards AIDS. It compelled me to examine how I could deal with such a frightening reality. At sixteen, na•ve and uneducated about AIDS, I believed that I would never confront this disease anytime during my life. I was wrong and I admit it.
I tried to ignore it, but it was impossible. Television and magazines constantly showed images of dying AIDS patients on their hospital beds, looking frail and helpless, trying to breathe in the last moments of their lives. As I stared at these pictures, it was unpleasant to see their bodies covered with scars and lesions. I was so scared that I told myself I would stay away from these people. Because I possessed this ignorant fear, I wanted to run away from this deadly disease that had become a huge factor in our world. "Avoid these people and you would never have to be in danger," I told myself. "This is not my reality."
Two years later, I was offered a job at a local theater company in Los Angeles. On my first day of rehearsal, the first person I met was my director. His name was Henry and through his warmth and encouragement, I immediately felt comfortable with him. For two weeks, Henry and I worked constantly, hour after hour. There were many times of frustration, but he always expressed his belief in me. I always looked forward to his big hugs of encouragement after every rehearsal. He possessed this incredible patience, even though it took me days to perfect a specific dance move. He taught me that acting, singing, and dancing was an expression of my individuality. He urged me to be free and let myself go on stage and allow my creativity to take over. Letting the mind overpower that creativity would make me more conscious of my actions and my mistakes. Even though I was an ensemble member, he believed that I still held my own special moment on stage and he motivated me to enjoy every minute of it.
One day, Henry called the whole cast on stage for a meeting. As we waited for him to speak, Henry, with his head bowed, was silent for a while. Then, he finally looked up at us with tears in his eyes, but with a big smile on his face.
He began to express his gratitude to us, "Thank you for taking the time to come to this meeting. I called all of you here because I just wanted to express how thankful I am for your hard work. It has been a difficult year but with your love and support, it has given me strength to live day by day. All of you know that I have had AIDS for five years and my time is running short. I am becoming more weak and I must apologize that I will not be able to come to every show." He paused. "All of you have been doing a great job and I just want to say keep up the good work. I applaud you."
His speech was a shock to me. At this moment, reality struck me over the head. I was seeing one of my dear friends die from AIDS. I wanted to hug him, but the fear within me was still there. I was beginning to envision him covered with scars and lesions. I was terrified that all my close contacts with him would infect me.
As months passed, I saw my friend slipping away day after day. He seldom came to work and the whole cast wondered about his condition. He was missing out on the one love of his life, theater. I missed him immensely, but it was my own fault that I chose to avoid him. My senseless fear was driving my friend away from me. I started to look past my fear and examined the life of this man who worked his way up for years to becoming a recognized, excellent actor and director. I saw a man who was living life to the fullest, enjoying every moment. Just as he taught me to take center stage and enjoy my special moment, he was trying to do the same. In a way, he meant that I should not let fear take over my life. I began to recognize his sufferings of being cast-off from society. He was a part of our lives and he should not be abandoned. As I continued to work with him, I gradually opened myself to him and his illness. I wanted to have my special moment with him in his last days because I knew that I would regret it. He was a big influence in my life and I will never forget him. Three months later, he died.
We cannot forget the victims of this terrible disease. Because AIDS is a part of our lives, we cannot run from this reality anymore. We must get it out in the open and discuss our feelings and attitudes. Fear overpowers lives. Like any other fear, we begin to panic. We cannot let AIDS take over our lives, because it makes us terrified of everything around us. Being ignorant blinds us from reality. As a society, it is our duty to open ourselves to these problems People living with AIDS are a part of this society and they cannot be made to feel excluded. We cannot fear anymore.
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