Photo by Gregg O'Connell
Reflection by Stephanie Anderson

Last week I felt a twinge of guilt. Wasn’t the Kidney Walk this weekend? This was the first time I’d missed it in quite a few years. Since my step-father’s transplant, life had started to get back to normal, and slowly the effects of his renal failure were sliding away from our daily lives. Slowly…

But here I am anyway, only not on the wooden bridge by the Boys and Girls Club in Bay City while people cheer on transplant recipients and organ donors. This time, I’ve been drawn to Wenonah Park for the AIDS Walk to sympathize with those affected by another disease, surely as devastating as cancer or renal failure, but one that seems to say so much more.

Growing up in the Eighties in the green shelter of the country, I heard about AIDS. Celebrities whose personal lives I had never questioned introduced AIDS to me. Suddenly, it was all over the TV. AIDS was rampant in gay communities, and it was killing children in Africa. People became thin and weak, developed skin sores, and then pneumonia. They died. The warnings, however, of sharing dirty drug needles and having sex with people who’d had multiple sexual partners or who had recently been out of the country were no match for the bubble I lived in. The safety of memorizing Richard Marx and Debbie Gibson lyrics, mastering the moves to Thriller, and bouncing through junior high in stretch pants and oversized, button-down shirts was all the protection I needed. AIDS would never touch me. Those warnings were as foreign to me as the words Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

Unlike the kidney disease that, twenty years later, had me contemplating which six weeks of my summer would be best to recover from donor surgery or the cancer that eats through my family, AIDS was a villain I didn’t give much thought to… until I held it in my arms.

In the Nineties, I stood in front of a photographer at my father’s wedding, posing with the grown children of previous marriages and the young, special-needs children his new wife had adopted. Someone walked up and placed Ramel in my arms.

Ramel clung to me and looked up into my face with scared, dark eyes.

"You’re okay," I said squeezing him tightly. "You’ll be okay."

But as I smiled for the photographer and Ramel buried his face in my chest, I admitted to myself that he was not okay. Ramel had AIDS.

Ramel only lived two more years. Only a few people in our small town knew what was wrong with him. AIDS was a secret he carried until it won. Then people talked about it, almost awed that something like this had gotten so close to their lives. Like all small town news, the story spread and then died within a few weeks. For me, though, AIDS had found its way into my soul, where it would cling to the inside of my chest and occasionally look innocently up at me with large, dark eyes.

At the Kidney Walk, I wear a team T-shirt. I belong as part of a support system. At the Relay for Life, I light luminary bags that whisper the names of my grandmothers. There, I am labeled a care-giver. But at the AIDS Walk, I sit alone on the steps like a voyeur, watching all the people whose lives have been changed by AIDS. I feel like an outsider though I am far from alone. I see Ramel in the crowd, adorned in a bright, yellow T-shirt, and I feel him clinging inside all of us.

© Stephanie Anderson, 2010