Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Party of a Lifetime and the Virus That Caused It

The photo album has been in this house for twenty-five years.  I found it stashed away in the meditation room upstairs with about fifteen other yellowed, crumbling volumes of photographs.  I'm not sure whose photo albums they are.  Some may have been taken and collected by staff over the years, others appear to be personal albums from patients who passed away, and who had no one willing to store the memories for an indefinite time.

I am upstairs at Coming Home Hospice in San Francisco's Castro, and the pictures I'm talking about are of some of the earliest victims of AIDS from 1985-87.  The photo above is titled "Hospice Prom."  Keep in mind that a hospice is an end-of-life home that serves patients who are diagnosed with six months or less to live.  The outrageously dressed people in the picture, I assume, are some of the dying patients together with staff and friends who visited them.  They are literally celebrating like there's no tomorrow. 

As I turn the pages, there is one picture after the next of young handsome men, first in their street clothes, and as illness progresses, they appear in their hospital gowns, bed-ridden.  Very noticeable are their visitors:  few family members, but lots of friends.  And wigs, sequenced dresses, platform shoes, and glitter lip gloss. 

Needless to say, they don't party like that at Coming Home Hospice anymore.  The patients I talk to once a week are mostly older, suffering from dementia, or phasing in and out of awakened states as they wait out advanced stages of cancer.  A World War II veteran, a 100-plus year old great-grandmother, a 85-year-old stroke survivor whose nephew and niece placed him in care.  But these young patients in the photographs flinging feather boas and sporting tiaras?  That was yesteryear.  Those parties are gone, because the illness that claimed them, AIDS, has nearly ceased to exist in this city.  
Meanwhile, the virus lives on.  And these images remind me of a certain grace that the first AIDS patients had as they faced not only the harrowing diagnosis of a new, incurable disease, but also the global stigma of being "punished" for being homosexual, one example of this being Pope John Paul's decision to cancel a planned visit to Coming Home Hospice during his stay in San Francisco in 1987. 

Twenty-five years later, the experience of being diagnosed HIV-positive remains devastating, yet living with the virus has drastically changed.  The disease which once grabbed headlines has long been relegated to being out-of-sight, out-of-mind, by the efforts of modern medicine that raced against the clock to stop it.  A blessing, which also made the fantabulous parties at this house history.