Sunday, 13 July 2008

"Teach them well," he said.

On January 20th, 2000, my brother, Gil, was admitted to hospital with pneumonia. A week later, on January 26th, on a bitterly cold Sunday evening, surrounded by his family, Gil took his final gasp of breath, aged 36.

His funeral was a simple and dignified affair: my mother played Schubert’s lullaby on the flute and friends read out tributes to the life he had lived. There were many in attendance. They stood there, stunned, stupefied and grieving. As the coffin was carried to burial, we heard a recording of Gil’s singing. It was the song I had written for him, shortly after he was diagnosed HIV+. He set it to music and later recorded it in a recording studio. It was a truly moving experience hearing him take part in his own funeral.

For more than eight years Gil battled with the HIV virus which had invaded his immune system. His struggle with Aids was remarkable; his zest for life awe-inspiring. Gil was an exceptionally handsome man with a personality that drew crowds around him. In the course of his short life he accumulated a vast network of friends who fell captive to his charm, his childish humour and his charitable spirit. Many of his friends still call me to share something funny Gil had once told them, which they had just remembered. "Not a day goes by that I don’t think of him’ told me Anne, one of his many friends.

For eight years we lived in hope and fear: walking the tightrope between resignation to the inevitable and hope that a cure would be found. "One day we will grow old together" - he wrote in a letter he sent me in 1992, in which he told me that he was HIV+. Eight years we had to prepare for the end. And when the moment came, it took us by surprise. The end is so final; it is impossible to prepare for it. It grabs you unaware.

During eight years we kept Gil’s condition our secret; the family secret.

I grew up believing that Aids was something that happened to other people, elsewhere. And then one day I discovered that we had become these ‘other people’. We went about our lives in much the same way. And no one knew that we had become these ‘other people’; that we were a family awaiting a pending calamity. And we walked under our dark cloud alone, in silence, because, unlike cancer, Aids doesn’t elicit much sympathy. Aids carries with it a tag of shame; a mark of Cain. And in the small area where we grew up, the neighbours always had something to say. So we never talked about it, and no one suspected.

And yet Gil was never embarrassed or ashamed of his condition. He was proud of his life; proud of his achievements and proud to be himself. He read the literature on existing therapies and helped other HIV+ men and women. He raised money for Aids charities and designed T-Shirts for the international Aids day. His courage, humour and incorrigible optimism were contagious. We thought he was invincible.

A few months before his death, I told Gil that I was starting a new career: I was going to become a maths teacher. "Teach them well" he replied.

After his funeral, these words returned to haunt me. They keep me awake at night. What did he mean? What was he trying to say to me? I cannot help but feel some reproach in these, his last spoken words to me. I feel remorse when I think of all those years that I could not bring myself to mention that my brother was HIV+; that I did not celebrate in his celebration of life.

"Teach them well" he said. And now I recall and regret. On world Aids day, I shall talk to my students. I shall urge them to protect themselves. I intend to tell them that Aids is not someone else’s disease; that it doesn’t happen to other people in far-away places. That I, too, thought it had nothing to do with me. And that one day it arrived, uninvited, on our doorstep. I will tell them about Gil; about his love for music, his silly practical jokes, and his life which was so cruelly cut short by the HIV virus.

The figures of the spread of HIV are staggering. In Britain, an estimated 50,000 are HIV+ and 12,000 people have died from Aids-related conditions. Aids has claimed 21 million lives globally and there are some 28 million people infected by the HIV virus. A growing number of those carrying the virus are children and youngsters. Girls, especially adolescent girls, are being infected at a galloping rate. AIDS infects indiscriminately, cutting across all sections of society. These anonymous statistics are someone’s neighbour, someone’s child, and someone’s sister. They are someone’s pupil in class and someone’s best friend. And due largely to ignorance, prejudice and complacency, their numbers grow.

Gil is now gone and with him his words, humour and music. I think about him often. I recall things we did together when we were children. I remember conversations we had as adults. Scenes from his funeral remain etched in my mind and revisit me at unexpected times. But Gil’s legacy lives on. Even if they cannot solve one simple equation, I shall make sure they know how the HIV virus is transmitted. Even if they cannot draw one simple graph: I shall make them describe the boundaries of safe-sex. Even if they do not pass even one maths test, I shall make sure that they know how to preserve themselves. I shall teach them well.

The writer is a teacher of mathematics.

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