Today is World AIDS Day, a big day for us at the Institute. Fittingly, I’ve spent this week thumbing through a binder, heavy as a bag of bricks, full of obituaries of those who’ve died from AIDS.
It’s ostensibly busy work: from K to Q (one of four equally weighty binders), find the New York Times obituaries from 1993 onwards of those who’ve died from AIDS and make a list. Name, occupation, and age.
It feels like anything but busy work.
Each turn of the page is another name, another face, another story about a person who died too soon. Another list of accomplishments, another list of loved ones left behind. Some are poetic and full of emotion, but most are terse, factual. Even with this straightforward style, the pain can’t help but eke through the page.
These men were professors, dancers, psychologists, lawyers, executives, composers, sociologists, activists, historians, publicists, writers, editors, conceptual artists, producers, actors, architects, advocates, boxers, playwrights, priests, musicians, comedians.
They died at 36, 53, 41, 61, 28, 30, 49, 56, 20.
They spent their lives pursuing their passions, or not. Some lives were cut short before they had a chance to cement their legacy. Some abandoned their initial paths to advocate for others with AIDS or HIV, or found gay rights groups, or provide support to the terminally ill.
Each black and white face that peered out from the faded pages was a heart that beat and then stopped beating too soon.
To log the accumulation of bodies like this — even just the fraction of bodies from K to Q — made so tangible the human toll that this disease has taken and continues to take on us.
Out of the 37 million still living with HIV or AIDS worldwide, 16 million don’t have access to life-prolonging medication. About 1 million people are still dying every year. We like to pretend it’s an 80s throwback, but the AIDS crisis is far from over. If we’ve learned anything this past year, it’s that history is no straight line forward, and even progress made is not guaranteed to remain. There is so much work still to do to create the world so many of these men died trying to realize.
What might they have been able to do if their time hadn’t been taken from them by a cruel disease, an insufficient healthcare system, and an indifferent government?
One obituary about a writer and editor began, “Robert would have known how to write this.” I still don’t know how.
At the top of this post I’ve attached some clips (click the image to see it expanded) in the hopes that even this fraction of a fraction of a fraction might jog your heart the way it has mine.