Thursday, 18 November 2010

AIDS is not someone else’s disease

When he was a child, my brother, Gil, returned home one day with a small charge in his hand. He had found a rabbit and did what was most natural to him: he gave it a home. Gil named the adopted guest Sapojnikov. For three months we went around the flat cleaning up Sapojnikov's droppings. Then, inexplicably, the bunny disappeared.

Gil is now gone. What remains of him is a collection of memories. God, they say, is in the details, and with Gil there were lots of details. It is difficult to piece them all together, not just because there were so many, but also because everyone knew him differently.

To his friend Anne, he was a remarkably handsome man, of ‘movie star quality’. Others remember him as a military officer; and there are those who knew him as the head of their choir and recall his phenomenal musical talent. When I think of him, I see him playing with our cousin, Dror, making it seem so easy to bring down the barrier of communication which Autism put between this cousin and the world. For many others Gil was their friend. And they loved him very much. The mention of his name still triggers a peel of laughter over something he’d once said or done; a glance at a photograph of him still precipitates a deluge of tears.

When we grew up there was no AIDS in our universe. It’s hard to imagine now a world without the HIV virus, but, growing up in a small village, we were blissfully oblivious to the ill winds that were blowing far away. Even as we left the eighties AIDS was something we believed happened to other people, elsewhere. A divine retribution to sinful and wicked people for their transgressions. We didn’t know such people.

The year 1992 was a sad year. It was the year we learnt that AIDS is not someone else’s disease. The year Gil was diagnosed with the HIV antibodies.

Gil’s optimism was indomitable; his determination awe-inspiring. A few years ago, I received a letter from someone who knew Gil in which she recounts an incident of which I was unaware. When Gil was in hospital for routine check up, he met a woman who had been diagnosed with HIV. In the course of their conversation it transpired that she had no family to turn to or friends to support her. Gil sat with her all afternoon. They chatted, laughed and cried together. When she went in for her consultation with the doctor, he waited for her until she emerged from the room. Then he did what seemed most natural to him: he invited her to stay with him. In this he saved her the worst suffering a person can endure: the pain of rejection. The letter was from this woman.

His last few years were his most creative. He set up a company selling T-shirts which he designed; he founded a choir; he wrote and composed; and he raised funds for AIDS charities. He was an arrow on a mission. We believed he’d go on forever. But we were wrong.

In January 2000 Gil plunged into a coma. Ten days later he took his last gasp of air, aged 36.

Gil now lies at the cemetery in Kibbutz Shefayim. It is a beautiful and serene place. You can sit on a bench and collect your thoughts with the rhythmic sound of waves in the background. I know he would have made a joke about it having unobstructed ocean views for the residents.

This Wednesday, the 1st of December, is World AIDS Day and I shall be wearing a red ribbon. The red ribbon is the international symbol of AIDS awareness. I shall wear the red ribbon because it is a symbol of respect for those who have died of AIDS-related illnesses and a tribute to the millions of people who have lost friends, family members or loved ones to this scourge. It is also a show of solidarity with people living with the HIV virus; a symbol of hope that one day a vaccine for this terrible affliction will be found.

The red ribbon is about increasing awareness, fighting prejudice and improving education. What we could pretend we didn’t know two decades ago we now know beyond any doubt: AIDS targets all people, regardless of their religion, age, gender or sexual orientation.

The ribbon is also reminder to us all that HIV has not gone away. Treatments have advanced significantly in recent years, but people still die from AIDS related complications and there is still much work to do. We need to keep raising funds to support medical research, educate those at risk so that they can protect themselves, and support those living with HIV. Our support, whether material or emotional, can significantly improve the lives of those affected by this scourge.

When you next walk down a road of houses ask yourself: in how many of these houses is there someone living with HIV? Above which doorway hovers the shadow of AIDS? How many families on this street are treading the fine line between hope and despair?

AIDS has already claimed the lives of over 6,700 Australians. At present, some 16,500 people in this country are living with the HIV virus. Each week 20 more Australians are newly diagnosed. In addition to them, millions of people around the world are infected. These people are someone’s neighbour, someone’s best friend, someone’s colleague. Maybe someone you know.

This year’s World AIDS Day theme is 'Universal Access and Human Rights'. It provides an opportunity for all of us - individuals, communities and political leaders - to take action and ensure that human rights are protected and global targets for HIV prevention, treatment and care are met.

Gil is now gone. His life was a gift to all who knew him; his death a statistic in this vast death toll. But his legacy lives on, and the memories and optimism he left remain unchanged.

I hope you too will wear a red ribbon this World AIDS day.

The writer is a journalist living in Sydney and a volunteer with the Ankali project.

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