A guest column that originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 5, 2020.
My daughters live a thousand miles away in Brooklyn, but we talk daily in this age of the coronavirus. “Do you remember anything like this ever happening?” my older daughter asked shortly after she was mandated to work from home, her husband was laid off from his restaurant job, and her children’s daycare closed. “No,” I said.
On a personal level, the answer was only partly true.
In 1987, when the AIDS epidemic was relatively new, my husband was diagnosed with the disease. Within a year he would be dead and I would be a single mom with two children, ages 1 and 3.
While analogies are always problematic, there are disturbing similarities between AIDS in its early years and the coronavirus of today. Especially the omnipresent realities of fear, uncertainty and death.
AIDS, first reported in the United States in 1981, afflicted a smaller slice of the population, but the individual stakes were high. It was years before antiretroviral therapies would become common, and the diagnosis of AIDS was a death sentence.
It was a painful, prolonged death, with people literally wasting away — one reason AIDS was referred to in Africa as “the slim disease.” From 1981 through 2018, an estimated 32 million people around the world died from AIDS-related illnesses.
As with the coronavirus, misinformation was rampant in the early years — that one could get AIDS from a kiss on the cheek or, at the other extreme, that the disease only affected gay men and if you were straight, why worry? Then, as now, an amazing number of smart people did stupid things and turned a deaf ear to the advice of experts.
Shortly after my husband was diagnosed with AIDS, I wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times. Re-reading it brought back memories I had preferred to forget. (I have learned from my Irish ancestors that denial is a form of survival. If we remember too much of the pain, we forget to go on living.)
In the article, my 36-year-old self seems to be speaking to the realities of today. “I have learned the hard way,” I wrote, “that AIDS is everywhere. Wishful thinking and pious sermonizing cannot obliterate this plague.”
My concerns centered on my children. A main difference is that I now include my children’s partners and my two grandchildren in my circle of worry. In a coincidence seemingly borrowed from a Netflix thriller, my grandchildren’s ages, 8 months and 2 years old, are roughly the ages of my children when my husband was diagnosed with AIDS.
There is, however, one thankful difference — there is far less stigma surrounding any particular person with the coronavirus, and there has been immediate pushback against racist comments linking the virus to China or to any particular demographic group. In contrast, for too many years people refused to talk openly of AIDS and viewed the disease as a moral, not medical, problem.
Thankfully, many of the fears that dominated my life in 1987 were unfounded. My children were not shunned by other children, our landlord did not kick us out. Ironically, it is my grandchildren in Brooklyn who, in line with coronavirus rules of social distancing, must forgo playing with friends.
|David, with our daughter Mahalia, at Christmas shortly before he died.|
I wish I had unique and profound lessons I could share about my experience with AIDS. But they are the same lessons that exist in any time of crisis and uncertainty, whether personal tragedy or a global pandemic. One day at a time. Enjoy the small pleasures of life. Hold your loved ones close. Don’t spread gossip and rumors. Above all, remember that you are part of a broader community and we are in this together.
And yes, life goes on. Five years after my husband died, I married a wonderful man who became a wonderful father to my children.
And yes, life remains complicated. The local health department informed my husband that he had been at an event where someone later tested positive for COVID-19 and requested he self-quarantine. That 14-day timeframe has ended and, fortunately, we remain healthy. Given our ages of 66 and 69 years old, we strictly follow the “safer-at-home” guidelines.
A few days ago, bored with lousy TV shows and mediocre mysteries, I went on a cleaning binge. On a whim, I listened to the musical "Rent," which tells the story of young New York City artists living, loving and dying under the shadow of AIDS in 1989. I started crying.
I had forgotten how much that musical meant to me. Its message of hope amidst death was important to me in the era of AIDS, and it speaks to me in today’s age of the coronavirus. As the musical’s signature song notes:
There’s only now, there’s only here
Give in to love or live in fear
No other path, No other way
No day but today
No day but today
No day but today.