Today is World Aids Day, I could give you the statistics, try and shock you, educate you, or tell you how the fight could be won, you can see the link at the bottom. Instead this is the story of my best friend.
I met my best friend at college, we instantly clicked, I’d finally found someone as arrogant, pompous and as much of a pain in the arse as I am. It was clearly destiny, especially as that first meeting involved him drinking fancy tea and telling anyone who was listening and some that weren’t how Victoria was going to be the Spice Girl that made it big, see I told you we were kindred spirits.
For a few years we bumbled along as friend doing all the things friends do in your late teens / early 20’s. He had been kicked out of home on his 16th birthday when he told his parents he was gay and had decided at that time life would be about the very same sins they condemned him for. He celebrated existence, tried to fill every waking moment with the fun and adventure he had been denied by his austere upbringing.
Then all of a sudden something utterly unexpected happened, he fell in love, (a concept he’d always viewed from a distance, he was much happier without commitment) with one of the men he met in a bar in Soho, within weeks they moved in together and would never spend another day apart.
About a year after they moved in together he got ill, what appeared to be a simple virus wouldn’t go away, he went to the doctor and still didn’t feel well, it quickly spiraled and he ended up in hospital. While he was there they ran tests and discovered he had HIV/AIDS. It was a life changing thing for him and the way many people would treat him.
His partner was the one to tell me, and it was a few days before he was back at home and I went to see him. He was still coming to terms with what he’d been told, but never once did he show anger or frustration. He knew the risks in the life he’d led and in his words “I took my chances”. It was believed that he had become infected before meeting his partner so he had a test and was all clear. The hardest part was making the list of people he should contact to test. He worried about that list and what it could mean to others. Thankfully everyone was clear and he didn’t have to live with that burden.
I remember giving him a big hug, something so natural to me, he was my best friend why wouldn’t hug him in a difficult time, sadly many times in the future he would be treated as if he was toxic waste and spraying plague into the air. People need educating about infection paths. So many people would treat him with stigma when they found out, and it spurred him on, he gave talks to people where he could as he wanted to help change the perceptions.
He still had to deflect abuse at times, he was attacked 3 times for being gay, he had grown up knowing that society wasn’t fair or accepting in many places, he had to deal with those that wanted to tell him his illness was punishment for his sexuality. He always did the same thing, rolled his eyes, said people were to uptight and that sin was fun, they were just jealous that he had more fun in life than they did and having to take a bucket of pills every day wasn’t going to stop him.
It became clear that the treatment wasn’t working well for him, the trips to hospital became more frequent, the stays a little bit longer, he bore it all with good grace, his only complaints were he couldn’t get cable TV, and god help you if you didn’t get him his celeb mags on publishing day. His way of dealing with a visible path of decline was to hold on tighter to the things that made him happy. We laughed, we laughed all the time, if a sound could define a life for him it would be laughter over the top of bad pop music.
Then christmas eve 2006 he fell really ill and was rushed into hospital, this time it was different, he was really really sick. I went to see him and there was something different this time, the light in him had been dimmed, I think I knew at that first visit we were closing in on the end. When he told me he wanted his civil partnership with his partner I knew he for the first time felt that he couldn’t win this time, we hastily arranged a wedding, and they had a civil ceremony (I refuse to call it a marriage as the law was still prejudicial bullshit on this until 2013) his lovers parents had flown back from India that morning, our mutual best friends had come back from Spain, we must have looked quite a scene in that room.
The laughter still happened that day, as tragic as it was to see the people I loved having to get married in such a way, he had to stay in bed as he was so weak, it still was fun. He had a look on his face, that look of impishness that he got when he was up to no good, the hidden smile that he was playing a joke. He had hidden something from us. His lovers parents were amazing people, but had never really moved on from their hippie commune where they met in the 60’s.
and it led to this.
Registrar : now if I can have the first groom, are you moonstone jupiter.
Me and my other bestie in unison : who the fuck is that.
Mark : Thats my real name, but I go by Mark.
We all turned round as my friend was pissing himself with laughter at our reaction, knowing it would be a WTF moment to find out. I think he also knew that for years after we would call Mark that whenever we wanted to tease him.
4 weeks later i went to the hospital to visit, he was barely awake, I read to him as I always did from the gossip columns, and he wasn’t really there, when I had to go he said to me, “thank you for being my friend, thank you for coming to see me.” I don’t know how I knew but I knew I’d never see him again. I hugged him for what would be the final time, he was so small, so frail, just a shell of the strong athletic man he’d been.
The next day I got a call from Marks parents at the hospital, my friend had died in his lovers arms that afternoon, he was 26.
It didn’t end with his death, we all hurt so much from losing him so young, but tried to remember that he had always thought you should celebrate the time you have, not the time you lose. For Mark that hurt will always be a part of him, widowed at 29. It took him a long time to come to terms with his grief.
The thing that makes me angry is we can do better, we can stop this story from being the story of others, awareness will save lives, getting tested will stop this from happening to other peoples loved ones, having an actual global plan to tackle this can change the world for millions. We increasingly have amazing drugs that save lives, stop infection being passed from mother to child and processes that lower the risk of sexual transmission. These are not statistics, they are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, friends to people, each life lost that we could have at least helped but didn’t is a waste and a crime. We can’t save everyone but we can save so many, we should save more people from the paths they are forced down because of disinterest, stigma and bullshit.
I still miss him, still catch myself thinking oh I should call him, or tell him something.
He wasn’t a statistic, he wasn’t and aids victim, he was my friend and thats all that mattered.