On Sunday, Jan. 1, I heard Bonnie had died. Olivia Ford called to let me know. I was in shock and as I sat down to take in this sad news, all of my memories of Bonnie came flooding back ... especially our time together at the XVII International AIDS Conference in Mexico City in 2008.
But before I tell you about our time together at the International AIDS Conference, I should mention that I first came to know Bonnie from my work at AIDS Survival Project in Atlanta, Ga. It was in the late 1990s and I had just been hired to run THRIVE! Weekend, a two-day workshop for people living with HIV. In addition to running THRIVE!, I also had the responsibility of writing a monthly column for the agency newsletter, Survival News.
I remember that the editor of Survival News would occasionally talk about this woman in New York who wanted to highlight some our newsletter articles on her website. Before I knew it, many of my articles were posted on TheBody.com. For some reason Bonnie chose many of my articles. I was surprised and flattered but didn't give it much thought until several years later when I decided to go back to school to get my Ph.D. I thought about Bonnie and the possibility of spending my summer in New York City in some type of internship so I could get an elective credit toward my degree.
It was in the summer of 2007 that I decided that I would rather spend my time in an HIV-related internship than a classroom, so I called up Bonnie and asked her if she remembered me and if she would consider having me as an intern. She said that she would and I quickly made arrangements to live in NYC for the summer and work at TheBody.com.
It was an amazing summer and I learned a great deal from Bonnie. She let me interview people from all over the country about their experiences living with HIV, and develop a new booklet on HIV and hepatitis. I even interviewed a person about his experience living as a long-term nonprogressor! It was exciting and felt like I was involved in something really big.
I got to know Bonnie socially as we would hang out after work or go to lunch during business hours. She told me about her brother who had died of AIDS in the early years of the epidemic, and how she would go to ACT UP meetings with him to learn more about what was happening in terms of treatment and policy. It was obvious that she loved him deeply and that his memory was what drove her to create the best HIV-related website in the world.
I often worried about her and remember telling her on one occasion that I didn't think she had completely dealt with his death. I knew that she was dealing with it the best way she could but I worried regardless. I encouraged her to talk about her experience with him and even write about it on the website.
It was also during this time that I met her amazing daughter Hillary. She was a "mini me" of Bonnie. She had Bonnie's confidence, intellect and "spicy" personality, and I know that she will go on to do great things ... most likely helping people in some way.
After I finished my internship and headed back to Georgia for fall semester, Bonnie contacted me and asked me if I would be interested in writing a blog for the website. I was really surprised that she asked me as I am not that great of a writer (as you can see here!). I asked her why she wanted me to write a blog ... I mean, I am not living with HIV, and there are people who have provided services in HIV care for longer than I have, so I was a little confused. She told me that she thought it was important for me to share my perspective as a social worker who had worked and volunteered in HIV since 1989. I told her that I would give it a try and in August 2007 my first blog, and the website's first blog, was launched.
Bonnie was great at getting me to dig deeper and share more about my thoughts. She constantly reminded me about how important it was to give people accurate information and to make sure that everything I said was factually correct. Now ... we would fight like sisters over some of my content, but in the end it was her quest for quality that drove her to push me to write the best blog I could. I hope I didn't fail her.
I really liked Bonnie and valued her input, even if I didn't always tell her. Our friendship grew and my involvement in the website expanded to the point that I got asked to go to the International AIDS Conference with TheBody.com team. Bonnie was the reason that I got to attend my first ever International AIDS Conference. I had mentioned to her that I had always wanted to go to an international conference but never had the opportunity. I wanted to hear all of the latest research, be witness to all of the activist protesting, and just take it all in. I think I only mentioned this to her once ... and the next thing I knew I was on a plane to Mexico City to attend my first International Conference as a writer/reporter for TheBody.com.
I remember Bonnie and I running all over Mexico City. She had so much energy that I could barely keep up. She would get irritated with me if I wanted to go back to the hotel room and take a nap. We took pictures and had digital recorders and Flip cameras to interview people so that we could capture the latest information on HIV. It was important to Bonnie that we cover as many oral and poster presentations as possible so that it could be documented and sent out to the approximately 1 million people who visited TheBody.com each month. They depended on us. She encouraged me to ask the hard questions during my interviews, and if I hesitated to ask a question, to ask it anyway because it was probably the question readers wanted to know the answer to.
While at the conference, I told her that one of my friends with HIV had been diagnosed with Castleman's disease and that I absolutely had to go to the session on this topic. I told her that it was important that I interview the researcher and that I needed her to put the interview up on the website. She did not hesitate or second-guess my desire for this to happen. She put it up. No questions asked.
One day, Bonnie and I interviewed tons of people living with HIV/AIDS from literally all over the world. Bonnie had met with one of the conference organizers to arrange a time for us to interview conference attendees who were living with HIV. We divided and conquered. She went in one room and I went in another so that we could interview as many people as possible.
I remember peeking into the room she was in after I had completed my final interview. Bonnie was interviewing a transgender person who was Spanish speaking. She was intently listening as this attendee told her story. It was important to Bonnie to hear people's stories and document them so that people knew about the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS ... all people living with HIV/AIDS. It was important to her that they tell their story and not have it told for them.
I have probably not talked with Bonnie in more than a year, but I thought about her often. I tried to call her several times but I guess life circumstances got in the way of us connecting and for that I am very sad. I would have liked to have told her how much I appreciate the opportunities she gave to me. She allowed me to spend a whole summer interning at the website, helping to create content that people literally all over the world would be reading (despite my reputation as a horrible writer!) and most of all, she taught me to be even more passionate about the HIV community than I was before.
Her passion for the HIV community was never-ending ... it consumed her ... and for that I would have liked to have told her that her life made a difference to the millions of people around the world who visit TheBody.com every day. I would have liked to have told her that her life's work in memory of her brother who died of AIDS was inspirational, courageous and moving. I know that Bonnie helped a lot of people and the selfless way in which she did it was truly amazing. It is hard to find people who do this kind of work and genuinely want nothing in return but the satisfaction of knowing that they helped someone.
Through Bonnie's death I am even more motivated to help people with HIV/AIDS live the best possible life they can live; and this Sunday I will be volunteering with Visual AIDS' Postcards From the Edge annual benefit in her memory. She spoke highly of this group and it feels right to support them so soon after her death.
I am not having an easy time accepting the news that Bonnie is dead as it doesn't make sense to me. It feels unreal and I don't want her to be gone. For the last several days I have read over old email exchanges between the two of us, been tempted to call her cell phone number, and listened to several of her podcasts on TheBody.com just so I could hear her voice again. I will need to come to terms with her death and the amazing gift she gave to the HIV community. I know it will take time but it is hard at the moment.
Bonnie, I want you to know that my life would have been a little less meaningful had you not been a part of it. I will miss you and pray that you are at peace ... and that your heavenly reunion with your brother is everything that you had hoped it would be.
I love you. Terri
Terri Wilder is an HIV education and training director currently living in New York City.