June 13, 2005

NJ AIDS Walk 2005

NJ AIDS Walk 2005
Originally uploaded by butwait.

I had my first and last blood test for HIV in 1992. At the beginning of a relationship that felt like it might be going somewhere, I wanted to make sure to start things out right. To my mind, that included both of us committing to taking the test. I had to talk my doctor into it, because to an external observer, there was no reason for me to be taking this test; my identity as a monogomous lesbian put me in one of the lowest known risk groups. At the time, amidst all the talk in fundamentalist circles about AIDS being a punishment from God, the joke in the lesbian community was, “If AIDS is a punishment from God, then lesbians are God’s chosen people!”

But I prevailed, and on a crisp winter morning walked to my doctor’s office in West Philly to have my blood drawn. The results would come back negative. I knew they would. And my doctor’s office was only six blocks from my third-story Cedar Avenue walk up. So why was my heart pounding?

So much has changed since then. A different century, a different world, a different life. Same partner, though. And still the spectre of AIDS, menacing families and communities. The power of AIDS to make my heart pound stayed with me. When Ronald Reagan passed away and the news was full of rosy-tinged remembrances of all he had done for our country, I seethed. I was suddenly flooded with memories of my college years, during which Ronald Reagan remained silent on the subject of AIDS for years while the death toll inexorably rose. The daily undertow of fear and sadness that was the aftermath of the September 11th attacks reminded me of nothing else so much as that time in the mid-80s, when everyone I knew was waiting to find out which of their friends had been sentenced to die. AIDS is now less of a death sentence than it once was, at least for some people – e.g. those fortunate enough to live in America and have healthcare coverage – but its power to disrupt and destroy remains undeniable.

The last time I had truly engaged the AIDS epidemic in a personal way, was when I was living in Philadelphia and singing in the Anna Crusis Women’s Choir. One spring, a small group of us sang at an AIDS Hospice. It wasn’t a very large facility, but every inch of it felt sacred. The residents of the neighborhood had initially fought tooth and nail to prevent the hospice from opening, but it had since become a kind of accepted oasis. The patients, all in the end stages of AIDS-related diseases, were busy with the hard work of making peace and letting go. Not everyone was interested in having a bunch of strangers seranade them. In one room, though, we discovered that the Gershwin song in our repertoire was an old favorite of the man in whose room we were singing it. He struggled to a sitting position and quietly sang along as tears streamed down all our faces. In the intervening years, friends of mine had participated in events designed to raise funds and awareness in the fight against AIDS. Hearing about the upcoming NJ AIDS Walk made me wonder… was it my turn again?

As anyone who knows me could tell you, I am not a particularly fitness-oriented person. In grade school, I was truly talented – at sit-ups. While working at Penn, I played softball on a C-league team, C-league being Penn’s euphemism for “no skill required.” Since then, pretty much nothing.

Although I do come from good walking stock – if you visit my parents, good luck keeping up with them as they embark on their daily constitutional! And I live in an eminently walkable town. I heard about the NJ AIDS Walk at about the same time that DFA (Democracy for America) was calling on its members to give back to their communities in June; the more I thought about it, the more the walk moved into “I should do this” territory. When I heard about fellow NJ DFA’er Jeff Gardner’s commitment to make the walk, and then learned that the graduation ceremonies at Rutgers Preparatory School were later the same day and just minutes away from the walk site, the stars seemed aligned. I logged on to the awnj.org site and signed up.

So it was that I found myself soliciting my more athletic friends and family members for advice about how to prepare for the NJ AIDS Walk. They really came through for me. Stretch your achilles tendons and your hamstrings. Drink lots of fluid in the days leading up to the walk, but don’t over-hydrate on the day itself. Smear Vaseline all over your feet, taking special care not to neglect your toes. Check, check, check.

As the day of the walk approached, I was relatively confident of my ability to do it physically. It’s just a 10K, after all. But my heart was pounding again. I’d only ever seen pictures of events like this. And heard or read my friends’ accounts. As I’d been talking with family and friends and soliciting their donations, the reality of the enormity of the cause started to sink in. Not knowing what to expect, I set a fundraising goal of $200… my friends and family blew through it in just a few days. Every donation added to my sense of responsibility.

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