He Made A Difference!
In September 1997, five people were invited to a roundtable to discuss the pros and cons of harm reduction versus twelve-step abstinence. My brother, Harry Levy, a thirty-year addict in recovery, was a participant. Harry was pumped up and ready, as always, to speak his mind. He believed in complete abstinence. He didn't believe a drug user could be responsible.
"I'm going to give a personal experience about sharing syringes," Harry began, sounding as mellow as the drug addict he once was and as knowledgeable as the AIDS activist he had become. "I think it's when I got the HIV virus. I remember being with three other people and that I was high on drugs. I used to shoot speedballs. That's heroin and cocaine," he explained.
"I remember a guy who shot dope first, passed it to the second guy, and then after he used it he passed it back to the first guy. I was on the end. The guy took the works [the hypodermic needle used to shoot drugs], threw it, and it stuck in the carpet. I pulled the syringe out of the carpet and used it. I mean, that's how responsible I was."
"What if you had ten syringes located near you? Would you have picked that one up from the carpet?" a harm reduction advocate asked.
"If somebody had offered me clean syringes, I probably would have taken them. I might have used half and I would have sold the rest," Harry said in a way that cracked everyone up in laughter.
Harry was like that. He was inflexible about some things -- like the need to abstain from drug use completely -- but he would always share a funny common experience that would bring everyone closer together.
My brother Harry died of liver cancer on September, 1999, at the age of 53. Hepatitis C was the official cause of the cancer. The toxic effects of the twin diseases of addiction and AIDS, multiplied by that of the new AIDS drugs, finally destroyed his liver. The cancer sapped his strength, his fire, but never his determination to survive. He struggled to get up from his sickbed right until the end. Finally, he fell into a coma for the last few days of his life.
It was painful for me, but this is not a story of Harry's last days. This is a tribute to Harry's triumph over drug use and AIDS. It's one man's story of living life on life's terms.
There were ten of us kids. Harry was the second oldest. Next was me, then Dot, Rick, and so on, with a couple of years between.
Harry, Rick and I were close. When Harry was 17, he started hanging out in the streets of Cincinnati, Ohio, and experimenting with alcohol and drugs. Heroin was his drug of choice. Harry became a white-collar criminal, specializing in stolen check and credit cards to support his heroin habit. Three stays in prison sharpened his forgery skills, and he traveled across the country living off forged checks. In 1977, Harry moved to New York City because "it was the drug capital," he said. He spent years in a drug-crazed blur with nameless women.
One day in the early 1980s, Harry met a woman and fell in love. He got married and became the father of a daughter who changed his life. Harry loved his daughter, and he wanted her to be proud of him. He worked as a luxury car driver for many years.
At some point -- nobody knows exactly when -- something went wrong in Harry's life. He returned to drugs and women. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1987. Doctors put Harry on AZT, but he said the HIV drug interfered with his drug high, so he stopped using it.
In 1993, Harry came down with a disease the doctors couldn't recognize. He was hospitalized. The physician in charge said, "Mr. Levy, if you believe in God, it's time for you to pray to Him, because we have done all we can do." My grandmother, a pastor, prayed with Harry day after day, and, miraculously, he got better and eventually made a full recovery. "I wake up in the morning and just feel like, 'God, I'm glad to be alive,'" he said afterward on many occasions.
Harry became a member of Narcotics Anonymous and a regular at NA meetings in the Bronx. In 1997, Harry became a self-taught HIV treatment educator, with firsthand experience taking many of the new AIDS medicines. He co-founded the Black and Latino AIDS Coalition with me, and we began speaking to people living with HIV around New York City. I can testify that Harry was my strongest supporter. He stood with me regardless of the issue . . . if he agreed. We argued endlessly if we didn't agree, and many times we would stop speaking to each other for weeks. But we always got back together. Best friends as well as brothers!
Harry also wrote when the spirit moved him. He wrote one of the first articles about the silent epidemic of hepatitis C among substance users in the black and Latino communities, and he fearlessly addressed the need to educate recovering addicts in NA about HIV. Harry educated many people in the AIDS community, and it wasn't until after his death, at his tribute, that I fully discovered how he touched the lives of people.
At Emmanuel Pentecostal Faith Church in the Bronx, Bishop Betty Middleton hosted a tribute for Harry that drew a hundred people; the small chapel couldn't hold more. One after another, ex-drug users, HIV-positive people, ex-cons, and just regular folk came forward and told stories about how Harry had touched their lives. Some credited Harry with helping them stay off drugs. Others spoke about Harry's compassion and sympathetic ear when they were confronted with a crisis. A lady with tears in her eyes remembered how Harry always listened to her no matter what time of day or night she called. Another said Harry helped her to build confidence in herself. "He taught me how to drive a car," she said. "Nobody ever believed enough in me to teach me anything except Harry!"
It was very moving to me, and a revelation. I suddenly realized that it's the small, personal things, like Harry did, that sometimes make the big difference in someone's life. We don't have to be a big star, celebrity, or millionaire to make a difference. All we need is love. It's simple. Love is the answer.
Interestingly, everyone fondly remembered Harry's 1985 beige Cadillac. It was clean. He bought the car in 1997, from money he saved by not using drugs. He never hesitated to give someone a lift or carry another one to the hospital or shopping. Harry loved that car. You could find Harry nearby if you saw his Cadillac. Last year, someone stole his Cadillac, and he never got over it.
A brother of mine in Cincinnati, who couldn't make the tribute, said he had a dream a couple of days before Harry's death. He said he was riding down a highway on a bike, and suddenly he saw a car approaching from the other side of the highway. As the car got closer, he recognized a beige Cadillac, and as it sped past him, he saw Harry at the wheel. Harry turned with a smile on his face and waved at him. As fast as my brother could turn around, Harry and his Cadillac were gone! Well, it might have been a dream my brother remembers, but I like to believe it was Harry saying goodbye.
For the record, goodbye, Harry. I'm going to miss you!
Dennis Levy is Executive Director of the Black and Latino AIDS Coalition, an alliance of black and Latino women and men infected and affected by HIV in New York City. The organization's mission is to slow the spread of HIV in minority communities. For more information, call (212) 722-AIDS.
This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.