Scores of my acquaintances have passed away.

At about 100 deaths, I stopped counting. I think that was when I realized that I was using a "number" and that the only part of that word that was relevant was the first syllable "numb." Numbers don't emanate from the heart. The heart doesn't count numbers.

For me, it started some 20 years ago when I heard that a friend by the name of Chuck was taken to the hospital with an unknown illness. Chuck displayed signs of dementia, among other things, and within a couple of weeks, he died.

We were told that Chuck had contracted this new "gay disease." Like all of Chuck's friends, I was confused. And I was puzzled when I was told that it had started showing up in New York City.

What was it? Where did it come from? Could it only strike homosexuals? Naw! Diseases don't discriminate. Diseases don't hate because of sexual orientation.

Besides, the purveyors of hate couldn't be right.

Everyone ignored this new "inconvenience." We partied, played around and had lots and lots of fun. Whatever it was, it couldn't happen to me. Besides, like any disease, all we had to do was go to our doctor, get a shot and in a few days be back into the swing of things.

Then this insidious creature started to pop up with more frequency. We started to hear about this person and that person coming down with unusual symptoms and illnesses. New words like "pneumocystis" and "Kaposi's sarcoma" began to appear, first in print and, eventually, in our own vocabularies.

We started to get concerned, then worried, when friends became ill with more and more frequency. People began dying and they started to call it a "plague." More people died and now everyone began to panic. Then, for me, it hit home.

Joey was family. He was my best friend's roommate and I saw Joey five times a week.

My friend had everything going for him: a great career, a new home and Joey was special. A fun, wonderful, caring and generous human being. Maybe too much fun. Joey liked to go out every night. Joey liked to party. Joey liked to do drugs. And Joey liked to have fun -- a lot of fun.

FUN! A synonym for sex. It was toward the end of the hippie era. A time of sex, sex and more sex. All you had to do was get out of bed in the morning and before you could blink you were back in bed, and not by yourself. You didn't have to look very far and you could get it practically anywhere, private or public. Sex clubs, bathhouses, bars, parks, just to name a few places. It was there for anyone and everyone.

Joey fell ill. After a few days he was taken to Cedars-Sinai where they performed all kinds of tests. They prodded; they poked; and then they said, "It appears that Joey has this new gay disease." A report of 20 pages or so came down to just two words: Gay disease.

Joey was in the beginning stages. After a while, he went home and led a normal existence, as far as he could under the circumstances. He went back to work and, several months later, his face was horribly disfigured after being injured at his workplace. Joey was hospitalized and, against his will, I visited him several days later.

As I walked into the room, Joey covered his face. I said "Joey, it's me, cut it out." Joey lowered his hand and couldn't look at me. "Hey, you were always ugly," I said, "you look better now then you ever did." I got Joey to laugh. In fact, we laughed together for several minutes.

I had to excuse myself and leave the room. The dam inside my heart started to crack. The tears didn't start with a trickle. No, they did not come one by one. It was a deluge and I could not control myself. When I thought that my heart was dry the tears started again until, finally, I was able to regain my composure.

Two days later, I visited Joey again. I put on my best face and walked into the room with a big smile. "Hey, you old slut," I said. Joey let out a short laugh and looked at me with a puzzled look. After a few seconds, he said, "Who are you?"

I thought he was joking. He wasn't. After what seemed like an eternity, Joey said, "I remember you. You're the funny one." I didn't think it was that funny and my heart started to come apart again. The tears kept flowing.

Joey left the hospital and went home. He was self-sufficient until he had a series of strokes that left him partially paralyzed. However, he was able to take care of himself for over five years when he decided that he had had enough. He was too tired to go on and he gave up. Joey passed away.

That was yesterday. Yesterday took many others, and the tears have never stopped. Some died horribly; some died peacefully. Some even took their own lives. I tried covering my heart with bandages only to find that they were made of gossamer.

I stopped counting long, long ago. The deaths seemed to slow down. However, the tears still kept coming, for the present and for the past.

One year ago, I was taken to the hospital. It had happened to me and I had two weeks to live. With the good grace of God, and the care, and caring, of my doctors and innumerable support people, I am still here. I'm active! I'm kicking! And I'm alive!

It's funny. My heart did not tear when it came to me. Not one tear! However, in the last two months, I have lost two close friends and my heart started crying again.

The tears flowed and flowed and flowed.

Back to the September/October 2002 issue of Positive Living.

This article has been reprinted at The Body with the permission of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA).