March 17, 2014
David was at Kroger's, the one down off Chapman Highway.
I was outside working in the garden off the front porch. It was a nice size one, with large wide seat railings, banisters really, that stretched the entire exterior of the front half of the house. It was hot in Knoxville, as it always was in August, but you get used to it. Born in Midland, Texas, raised in Arizona for a while, and having spent the last half decade in western and now eastern Tennessee, I definitely was used to hot, but not necessarily happy about it. Sweating, digging or cutting, or maybe weeding (I hate weeding), and probably drinking a bottle of cheap beer, I got up to go inside and answer the phone.
At that first moment, when you know, it's like a little light get's turned on. Not a flame, or a spark, but a little light. One that doesn't ever get turned off. It's always there, like a nightlight, an old one, with a clear incandescent bulb the size of my thumb. The moment was the split second the voice on the now defunct princess phone beside the bed said, "Hello, can I speak to Randall Stringer?"
Two things immediately turned on that light that still glows in my mind. One, the word "hello," because it was a bit formal for the South, no matter who was calling, and as long as they had that slow Southeastern drawl, casual and lazy, "hello" was a formal call. Second, they used my first name, which only teachers, police and -- in this case -- strangers would use.
I was on the side of the bed, facing the living room, and for the moments that passed right then, while they were saying their assorted "we'd like to speak to Randall ... should come in and see us ... here in the office, etc.," I sat there and said to myself, "I wish they had called while David was here ... why couldn't they call when I wasn't alone?"
I told them I didn't need to come in to the "office." I knew that if the news were different, I would have been told on the phone something like, "Good news!" Or, "Hi, can I please speak to Randall?" (Note the word "Hi.")
I sat on the side of the bed, hung up the receiver and started crying. Slow, alone tears, the kind that you don't have any drama with. Why drama with no one to see? Minutes passed, David came home and I cried for a long time. Decades.
In 1984, testing positive was a death sentence. When I finally did make it into the office, someone, some counselor or caseworker provided my prognosis. "Let's see, you're 21, so that means, approximately eight years. So you could live to see 30!"
Thirty came and went, and so did 40 and now 50. So everyone was wrong, including myself. I have lived to die for over 30 years, and now face the battle for my soul.
Meth addiction has the same strange and debilitating prognosis as HIV, in a way. Only, you see yourself taking your life like you are the virus, slowly, deliberately removing your ability to fend off the world, through the removal of all material things (jobs, friends, homes, fortunes, futures), but you continue to live the life anyway. With a strong, proud, misplaced bravado, you scream, "So what, I'll prove them all wrong."
The addiction also has the same tilted, prolonged and deadly public stigma that HIV did in the '80s (and still today to be honest). A public stoning of looks, smirks, shunning and dismissing and, finally, just ignoring. There are an estimated 40,000 teens with meth addiction in N.Y., and because of this stigma, most of them face a huge probability of HIV diagnosis, illness and probably death. They refuse to go to get tested and treated because of public health employees treating them as if they were walking scabs, not to be touched, recognized as human or treated with compassion.
And so for those of us suffering from the gay virus of the 2010s, the same cyclical process of vortex to vertex swirl begins and ends. I hope the prognosis this time is as wrong as that day that summer of 1984. I fear the combined viral impact may be the last battle my body and mind could take on.
I hope though, that unlike the boy who sat on the front porch that summer thinking life was over, I can make this man today stand up and say that life has only just begun.
Want to share your own "Day One With HIV" story of finding out your diagnosis? Write out your story (1,000 words or fewer, please!), or film a YouTube video, and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. In the coming months, we'll be posting readers' "Day One" stories here in our HIV/AIDS Resource Center for the Newly Diagnosed. Read other stories in this series.