For many people reading this, trying to find any gift in the AIDS experience may seem difficult, if not impossible. However, in the seventeen years that I have been part of the HIV reality I have obtained many gifts from this epidemic. I would like to share these gifts with you in the hopes that it will mobilise you into action, or sustain your efforts. Life gives us gifts in strange packages. At first we are often only aware of what we are losing. It is only over time that we can see what we have gained. Here are the gifts that I have received from AIDS:
THE GIFT OF INTIMACY
I have walked with many frighten souls on their journey through AIDS. Many of these journeys have been right to the gates of death, where they have walked through and I have been left on this side. To be there at the end of this journey for another, assuming their abilities as they lose them, is a humbling experience for the most hardened of people, including myself. To have them choose me as their guide into death, where all facades are dropped and nothing but pure honesty exists between us, is the gift of true intimacy.
It is God in action, totally non-judgmental, and with no need to fix a situation that isn't broken. It is about simply being there for the other person with no need to control the outcome, yet doing everything within my power to ensure their illness and eventual death will be with dignity. Countless people have entered my life as a direct result of their diagnosis, or mine. The influences we have had on each other outweigh the demands put on our relationship - the pain and suffering, loss of dignity, and often the loss of faculties - as we touched the face of God together. It is through the intimacy of dying that I have learned about vulnerability and opening up my heart to a greater acceptance of myself and others.
'Alas for those who cannot sing but die with all the music in them.'
As I go on living with AIDS I want to keep singing and hope that friends will continue to hear meeven when the song is a sad one. (J.)
THE GIFT OF SURRENDER
Many times during my illness - and those of people I have supported - I have had to simply let go of my need to control the outcome. Considering my high need for control, this was no easy accomplishment. To totally relinquish control for me equated to trusting the process that was unfolding in front of me. It is a behaviour I have had to learn, as it wasn't inherent in my coping styles. I had to learn to just be there for someone who was dying, simply loving and supporting their process without judging it or making it wrong or bad. I had to confront the reality that there is a much bigger plan acting itself out, regardless of my illusion of being able to control what was happening. I had to accept reality as it is, and not the way I feel it could, should or ought to be. For me, surrender became an act of having enough control to let go of my need to control. In time, I learned that there was nothing 'wrong' with the dying person's process. I was simply grateful for the privilege to be there as the Plan moved forward in it's mysterious way.
I am grateful for the time I have spent with you. I am sad that I will have to leave you someday soon.
Thank you Ron.
Thank you Mom and Dad.
I love you. (Pat)
THE GIFT OF COMMUNITY
When AIDS enters a society or group, it shatters relationships with fear and ignorance. However, as the old disappears, a new community arises. Those infected and affected gather together, to form a Chosen Community. They form support networks, caregiver agencies, underground treatment and medication smuggling networks and even meals on wheels. This takes time, but it happens. More importantly, relationships form beyond the fear, beyond the stigma, and are held together by care, respect, and love. Some friends and family remain, many leave. Those that remain do so because they choose to.
In time, this act of sharing begins to create an AIDS community, with people from all walks of life coming together to love and support one another. Suddenly race, language, religious beliefs and sexual orientation fell by the wayside. Relationships are forged across gaps that were once too large to navigate due to limited beliefs and opinions about 'those' people, which soon dissolve into an act of simply supporting one another. The gift of community grows out of a common cause for a need for a compassionate response to AIDS.
As a result, our sense of connectedness is expanded. You discover true relationship, true community, based upon humanity and compassion, not convenience, culture, religion or birth. We have all heard, many times, that we are all connected, and AIDS highlights this, and turns Sunday values into everyday reality and action. I am blessed to know who loves me, no matter where I have been, and what I have done. I have received the Gift of Community.
In the midst of illness, rejection, isolation and even death,- out of the darkness - not family, friends or lovers, but strangers loving, caring, giving of themselves- have renewed my faith and are my strength-I love you. (Roy G.)
THE GIFT OF SERVICE
Think of a time you have allowed someone to do something for you, with no expectation of returning the favour. At first it may have felt uncomfortable, or perhaps even unpleasant. However, when you allowed yourself to be supported by someone who was able to be there for you, how wonderful a gift it proved to be.
To give of oneself is God in action. It's not about money, time or effort. It is about feeling compassion and empathy for your fellow man, regardless of their race, gender, life style, culture, or religion. In service there is no 'Us and Them' - there is only WE.
I am not talking about self-sacrifice or martyrdom. True service comes from knowing that you have enough for yourself and for others. It is knowing that you are blessed with more than enough. It also means taking care of yourself, so that you remain filled with more than enough. You cannot give what you do not have.
Service is not about rescuing people. It is about empowering them, knowing that they may lack resources and skills. However, this does not take away from the fact that they are a child of God, no lesser and no greater than you. All they need is someone to believe in them so that they can see their own personal power, regardless of how long that may take. It often means seeing what they have not yet seen, namely that they have the power to change their lives, despite all evidence to the contrary. The gift of service merges giving and receiving into one single act of love. Receiving is giving and giving is receiving. The gift of service has opened me to a greater appreciation of our connectedness.
I am afraid that I may die alone.
What is even more frightening is that no one will care. (Ron)
THE GIFT OF WISDOM
Think of something you have learned because of your giving care to another human being. Wisdom is captured in the Serenity Prayer…' Lord, grant me the serenity to accepts the things I cannot change, the change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.' There is wisdom in knowing when to speak, and when to remain silent. There is profound wisdom in knowing when to touch and hold a hand, and when to allow the other person his or her privacy and aloneness.
Perhaps you have marveled at the miraculous complexity of the human body? The human body never lies. It tells you what it needs as long as you can detach from your own internal dialogue and remove the judgments keeping you stuck in a specific, and probably limiting, paradigm. Perhaps it is something about courage and endurance, about love and relationship, about ethics and values? Pause for a moment and think about how AIDS has brought you a wealth of wisdom. I have made my choice: I'm sitting tight until there's a cure.
Then as soon as a cure is found, I'm going to drop dead from the excitement.
THE GIFT OF PRESENCE
Presence is about being here and now - in this very moment. The Gift of Presence is found in those experiences where the intensity of the moment moved you so deeply that the past and future suddenly faded away and all of you responded, resonated with the power of that moment. When I am with someone who is dying, there is no future to ponder, and no past which needs to be considered. All that matters is that I am here, right now. There is great power and joy in just being here, right now. I have no need to delay telling the truth, and no need to postpone joy. This is the only moment I may have with this person, and with myself. In this moment, it is good to be alive.
Why is it only in death we can see the value of life? (A.M.P.)
THE GIFT OF MEANING
I have learned to step beyond the surface meanings of culture, religion, political beliefs, differences in beliefs, as a result of AIDS. It does not matter whether we have different beliefs. What matters is that we accept and respect each other.
Many of us, infected or affected came into this reality with many preconceived notions about people, cultures and beliefs, yet AIDS has forced us to confront these limitation and has expanded our acceptance of our fellow man, regardless as to whether we support the same beliefs or values. It has forced me to confront my need for seeking meaning by seeking only what is the same as myself trying to order my world according to categories of who is similar to me, and who is not. I have discovered that these categories have no substance, no meaning. Only compassion means something - we all feel pain and pleasure - we all seek to connect with someone or something - we all want to know that we made a difference - we are not separate.
One day people will not judge a person by the colour of their skin, their sex or their sexuality, but by the content of their character. I hope that day is almost here. (Marquis D. Walker)
THE GIFT OF LOVE
When I work directly with people with AIDS, I receive the Gift of Love, sometimes from the most unexpected places and people: Some years back I worked with a couple, both in the final stages of their lives. The one had been thrown out of the family home some years earlier when he told his parents that he was HIV-positive and there had been no contact for many years. In the final weeks leading up to his death, he asked me to inform his parents of his illness. Within six hours of my call to his parents, these two 80-something year old people arrived at the couple's home. Over the next weeks there were many tears of sadness as well as joy. Eventually their son died and instead of heading back to their home, these two people stayed with their son's partner, who for all intents and purposes was a total stranger, and nursed him into death over the next four months. They took care of him as if he were their own flesh and blood. He died in their arms, loved and respected for who he was and what he meant to their son.
I have also noticed that this Gift is lost when I forget the individuals behind the statistics, economics, and politics. I pray that I never forget that love can only be given and received by people, not from beliefs, knowledge, money or power. I pray that I remember each person, each smile, each tear.
Losing them is almost unbearable
Forgetting them will be impossible.
(Mom and Dad A.)
THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
Few people receive the gifts of intimacy, surrender, community, service, wisdom, presence, meaning, and love, in such abundance as those who work with people with AIDS. Most live in numbness and quiet desperation. To care for the seriously ill and dying is to touch the face of God, and to stretch the limits of patience, compassion, and human potential. These are indeed difficult tasks, and the reward is equally large. I am grateful for these Gifts - for the opportunity to be alive, to feel, to be here, for the opportunity to be stretched to my limits, to reach out and truly touch and love another human being. I have learned so much from the dying. The dying have so much to teach the living, and the living are enriched in the process.
Life has touched me and I have touched life.
I have been blessed. (Anonymous)
THE GIFT OF GOD
When I first started working in HIV AIDS many years ago, I seriously doubted that any God of Love and Mercy could allow such suffering and human indignity. For years I was very angry at God for not intervening in some way, shape or form. I was angry that My God would let me love someone with all my heart only to take them from me and leave me to pick up the pieces of my life, not once, but twice. It was the death of my first partner that started me on the path to realising that God gives us choice, with no strings attached. I watched my lover die, and reaching out his arms to hold God's love. He was so brave. Touching the face of God made me see that there was nothing 'wrong' with AIDS, human sexuality and even death. It was not a judgment or punishment or retribution for being who we are.
Death is simply a part of the cycle of life. Once I had removed my judgments about it, I could accept that I had to 'let go and let God'. In this act - which was not simple by any stretch of the imagination - I found a friendship with God unlike any relationship I have ever had. It became very clear to me that I could ask my friend God for any kind of help, as long as I was willing to do my part. It was as if I had been told that if I wanted something, I had to pray for it and then hand it over to God to do something about. For me it became letting God work through me. It became a process of recognising God in everyone. Truly a case of the God in me recognising the God in you. Knowing - not just believing - that God loves me, has given me the strength and will to do God's work without questioning and constantly asking 'why'?
Have faith and trust God. He'll always bring you through. And when you walk through a storm, keep your head up high. I am.(Mike)