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Flashback: Diana Ross in Central Park

By David Fawcett, Ph.D., L.C.S.W.

May 17, 2013

She arrived on the stage covered in colorful braids amid stylized African dancers. Drums played exotic rhythms as she unveiled herself before 800,000 people -- the largest in the history of Central Park. Dressed in a glittering orange suit with billowing fabric, Diana Ross welcomed the cheering masses as an ominous summer storm darkened the sky. She created a magic spell with song and, at one point, implored the audience to "make a wish and let it go." As dusk fell the winds picked up and sweeping veils of rain moved in over the park. Television cameras captured her soaked hair and face. Oblivious to the torrential downpour, she became one with the crowd.

That concert took place on July 21, 1983, nearly thirty years ago. I recently happened upon a video of the concert and was transported back in time. I wish I could say I was in Central Park that night (doesn't it seem everyone of a certain age was at Woodstock?). Unfortunately, I was not, but I was nearby on the Upper West Side. Like millions of others, I was caught in the dramatic summer storm and clearly recall thousands of people streaming out of the park seeking shelter, running with fear and excitement.

I was spellbound watching the video and recalling that night so many years ago. I had spent it with a man I met the year before who would be my partner for the next twenty. That summer evening I was filled with hope, promise and happy anticipation. Yet, as I watched the video I began to experience a physical pain in my heart and a sadness which radiated out from my throat. I was transported back to that night when I was blissfully unaware of the tragedy that was, even then, beginning to drop out of the sky like the rain onto the city and community that I loved. It had become apparent that something was terribly wrong as early as the year before. GRID had become AIDS, but no one then understood the terrible impact it would have.

In 1983, I already had a few years of sobriety. My life had been literally saved by gay 12-step meetings, which became a place of safety and refuge for me. That same summer acquaintances began getting sick. My friend Andrew got pneumonia, went into the hospital, and was dead in three days. Then it happened to another, and yet another. Although I wouldn't discover it until 1988, I too was infected. Dark clouds were descending on my city as a generation still exuberant from Stonewall began to fall.

Over the next few years it just got worse. More friends died. Survivors became discouraged and sometimes bitter, yet true courage surrounded us. Gay men, lesbians, and our straight allies stepped up to create homegrown systems of care where none existed. Advocates spoke up for medications and the right to have a voice in the epidemic. Yet it was difficult to keep hope alive. Even the medications were deadly -- my own physician died of severe anemia caused by AZT.

Watching the Central Park concert a hundred images flashed through my mind. I don't often let myself feel the emotions from those days. It can lead to self-pity, discouragement, and almost always tremendous sadness. Despite years of self-work and time spent feeling and expressing emotions, I carry a well of grief that I will probably always retain.

When Diana Ross appeared on my television I was transported around the pain and dropped back into that magical night. For a moment I forgot and once more felt the wonder of my young life before AIDS. Then, as if waking from a dream, it all flooded back to me.

Will I be okay? Yes, of course. I base my life in gratitude and there is much for which to be grateful. I have medications that work, stable health, a partner and family who love me, and a rewarding profession. But even on my best days it is hard to forget friends like Andrew or that man I was with in 1983 -- the one I had met a year earlier. The virus claimed his life years later, in 2004.

That summer night Diana Ross was an other-worldly figure -- rain-soaked in her flowing gown -- not giving up while encouraging the audience to stay connected and strong in the storm. That concert holds many lessons for how we have fought this epidemic, but for a brief moment I allowed myself to be back in 1983. I made a wish and let it go.

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