The question I am asked most often, second only to, "Isn't AIDS over?" is how I met Edward, 13 years ago this month. It must seem odd to outsiders that a grade six student, who up to that point had lived a textbook sheltered life, should suddenly meet an HIV-positive man who is in his mid thirties, a stranger, in the course of a school science project about a disease.
The teacher handed out a two-column list of diseases and told us to pick one to research. After giving us a few minutes to mull it over, she called on us one by one, in alphabetical order. My last name then being Palmer, it was a long wait and all of the easy to research diseases were gone, so for some reason I never could quite remember, when my name was called I said "AIDS".
Our library may have been well-stocked by the standards of 1997, I'm not sure, but by today's standards it would be seen as sorely under stocked. For example, it had only one book about HIV/AIDS, an older book published years earlier by David Suzuki. I took this one book out of the library and somehow found myself at the back of the book where there was a list of Canadian AIDS organizations. There were two listed in Nova Scotia, which turned out to be, in fact, one -- the two had joined forces -- and I called the number.
In hindsight I must have been better on the telephone then than I am now. I explained the purpose of my call (to find out more information than the slim David Suzuki book could offer), and was put through to Edward. All I remember of this first conversation is that I gave him my school's fax number, and he told me how to spell his last name, which it turned out, was spelled exactly as I thought. No doubt I also told him how to spell my name: A-l-e-s-s-a-n-d-r-a.
Coming to school the next morning, my teacher, Mrs. Sullivan, took me aside and placed the large manual -- AIDS 101 -- that had been faxed the night before in my hands. I believe she said she had received a call from our vice principal demanding to know if she had allowed me to have something faxed -- the manual was impossibly large and I imagine it must have flooded the floor with connected pages.
That first phone call started a pattern, and I probably called every day after school, except Friday, when Edward wasn't in. Mostly I remember asking him generic questions, AIDS 101 stuff like how they knew it couldn't be transmitted through casual contact. And then I asked him if he would mind coming in to speak to my class.
The funny thing about that is, I was never one of those kids. I never wanted bonus points, I never wanted to be the teacher's pet -- although, ironically, more often than not I was -- and I did not like guest speakers. And he said "You do know I am HIV positive, right?" or something to that effect. I said "Of course!" with very fake confidence, and probably exaggerated certainty. I quickly got off the phone then, saying it was time for dinner even though it was only mid-afternoon.
I had no idea.
For years after this, every time something wasn't exactly how I had expected it to be I reminded myself that I had to be the only person who could call an AIDS organization and not expect to speak with someone who had it. When I told my stepfather that Edward was HIV positive, he said, "Of course!" in that incredulous way he has, so I always figured I was the only one who hadn't seen that coming.
Another thing I didn't expect was the sheer amount of preparation that had to be done before having Edward in. I spoke with my teacher, and then a note had to be sent home giving parents the option to keep their child home -- to my great surprise, some parents did exercise that option. My teacher also had to speak to the principal, the other teachers, and Edward.
On October 8, 1997, I dressed in a cream turtleneck, grey, red, and yellow tartan skirt, my mother's dangly earrings with the gold balls at the end, and high heels that were black with a gold decal, also my mother's. I sat in class nervously until Mrs. Sullivan sent me to the entrance to wait for Edward. Once there, I paced, and bit my nails, it was the first time I can remember being really nervous.
I'm not going to pretend I remember everything though. I don't. In fact, the next thing I remember is this: he's arrived, he's sitting facing me on one of the benches in the entrance way, and he says the words every grade 6 student who's taking his or her shot at being one of those kids, dreads. He says: "I don't have anything prepared." As in, prepared to say. I think "Uhhh what?" but say "Okay".
The funny thing, and something I am moderately ashamed to admit, is that I only remember one thing about what he said to the class, and this came towards the end. My mother asked him whether he watched movies about HIV/AIDS, like Philadelphia, to which he replied that he tended to avoid them. Thirteen years later, I totally get that.
For years my mother, who was in attendance but had up to a few days before -- this is something I didn't realize -- known nothing about my conversations with Edward, wouldn't let me live down the end. It was getting close to lunch time, which meant Edward was wrapping up, and he presents me with this book in front of the class. If waiting for Edward was the first time I had ever been truly nervous, this was the first time I was ever truly embarrassed, and whatever grace had seen me through the beginning of the day was gone. I flushed deep red and hid my face with my hair. After he left, I read the inscription. It said: "For Aless with appreciation and admiration for your kindness, courage, and compassion. Edward."
I think he expected it to end there -- he'd come in, say his piece, and that would be it for my interest, and his involvement; essentially, my project would be just that: a brief project. But it wasn't. It turns out, it's hard to just walk away once HIV hits close to home and you know someone who has it. This is a pattern that also led years later to me assisting in efforts by American youth to get hate crime legislation passed, and also to speak out against Proposition 8.
Since that day in October 1997, I have done three different presentations, another AIDS 101 one to other classes in grade 6, one about the social impact of AIDS in junior high, and one to boost my sociology mark in grade 12, and have met many people. All of their stories are different, and sadly, there are still youth and people I went to school with as well, who think AIDS can't happen to them.
A few years ago, when it was getting close to the ten year anniversary of the day we met face to face, I asked to interview Edward -- a suggestion he found odd, but to which he ultimately agreed. I didn't get much. It was almost ten years into a wonderful friendship, that admittedly some still found odd, and my emotions prevented me from being as objective as I maybe should have been. There are some questions I didn't ask because quite frankly, as much as I wanted to know the answer, I was also afraid of the answer.
One question I am quite pleased with myself for thinking of, however, is this: "What are your hopes for the future?" He replied: "To live, to love, to work, to grow, to advance my career, to obtain financial security."
Edward once wrote in a letter to me after my second report that same year that was delivered to the other grade 6 students with the same hullabaloo surrounding having Edward in, that I would be an example to my peers. I've tried very hard to live up to that.