The Bitter Sweet Pain of Remembrance

Memories, may be beautiful and yet
What's too painful to remember,
We simply choose to forget.
Barbra Streisand: The Way We Were

Dave R.
Dave R.

As you get older things come back to you out of the blue. They do. Unannounced, unexpected and unwanted most of the time and usually in the quiet, more contemplative moments when you just want to switch off and not think of anything. When you're young, you're busy building up libraries of experiences and memories and filling your head and heart up with trivia and absorbed knowledge. When you're older, your memory banks are stuffed to the gills and although you may not be able to remember what you did yesterday, your childhood and later years will burst out of dusty memory files, in spontaneous clips of recollection and without apparent rhyme or reason.

So it is with me and especially concerning HIV. Not only HIV actually but almost every mistake I ever made as a child, teenager or young adult, reappears to jab insistently at my conscience again. Some of them are still too embarrassing. I just have to shrug them off with a shudder and a, 'can't cope with that now' sort of thing. However others are things I never imagined would resurface and although uncomfortable, probably need to be faced.

The HIV memories though, are a special category to themselves and they've been interrupting my present life with unnerving regularity lately. It's probably to do with accepting your mortality and all that sort of amateur psychoanalysis and I admit, that is a tricky concept for me but I also believe that there's nothing wrong with revisiting horrors and traumas. I'm not looking for any sort of closure; people with HIV don't get closure until their last breath, but I find it therapeutic looking back and knowing that I can deal with it now when I couldn't at the time.

Here in the Netherlands, the death surge due to the virus came a short while after that in the US. We looked across the Atlantic in slight disbelief, at the stories that were emerging out of New York, San Francisco and other big cities. It just didn't seem a global threat at the time because it wasn't happening here on the same scale. Of course people were beginning to die; especially people working in the airlines and other international companies at the same time but unless it touched us personally, we carried on pretty much as normal. Then my partner and I slowly but surely learned of friends and acquaintances being infected and the hospital, house visits and funerals began.

The first memory that came back to me recently was of a friend who was what you would call a 'snappy dresser' and someone who took pride in his appearance and enjoyed life to the full. When his face and body became covered with KS lesions and his mouth was constantly surrounded by saliva, I remember still thinking that it had little directly to do with me and still felt somehow detached. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't cold-hearted or unemotional; at that time, I just felt that this sort of thing could never invade my own life. What I do remember, is how sad it made me feel that someone so vital and so fastidious about his appearance could be so quickly reduced to those purple blotches and little else. When he died, my partner and I were given some unimportant, small things but above all, his clothes. I still break out in a cold sweat remembering how odd that felt and how 'wrong' somehow. I also can't remember his funeral and that troubles me. Maybe that will come back one day too.

What these memories do allow me to do, is come to terms with my dispassion at the time. I was naïve and I realize that now and maybe it's a human reaction to separate yourself from reality in order to protect yourself. Soldiers at war must do it all the time.

Another awkward recollection that surfaced recently was that of a colleague and friend who calmly told me one day in the Staff room at school that he was positive. I was shocked but not surprised. Of course I knew he was gay and knew a little of his personal life and although his behavior was no more risky than the rest of us, we were all slowly becoming more aware of the dangers and the consequences. He carried on teaching for quite a while and to his eternal credit, told the head of the school and school governors straight away. This memory is a positive one in that I was, and still am, full of admiration of the way they handled it. These were early days and yet the school supported him through thick and thin and although he was teaching young children who had daily accidents with bleeding and bruising, they trusted him to always do the right thing and he did. I somehow doubt that school authorities would be so understanding these days and that's really sad.

I was one of the last people to speak to him as he lay dying at home and it was his compassion to me as I struggled to hold back the tears that sticks in my memory. He took my hand, said it would be okay and that he was okay with it and then said goodbye; with meaning. An hour later he was gone. Yet in the memory that recently came back, I remember most clearly the white pimples on his face which I know now were probably caused by the medication. Strange what sort of things stick in the memory!

I had to speak at his funeral in front of his friends and family, other teachers and one or two parents and it was unbearable. Needless to say, I didn't do a great job of it and only just struggled through to the end. That still feels so bad because I'm sure he would have been far more composed had it been the other way round.

His partner was the next to go in our circle. We didn't know him that well but had got to know him during the last months of Steve's life. He was a young guy, cynical and street-wise and we visited him in his last weeks too. That particular memory hit me in the middle of the night sometime last week and took me back to his small, third story apartment with white walls and dozens of genuine, religious icons, paintings and statuettes filling the place with a church-like atmosphere. It was almost surreal seeing him so ill in that context but I can still see those religious symbols and still recall how ironic I found it at the time. Then again, he collected them for their aesthetic appeal and not their personal religious significance; nevertheless it seemed bizarre.

I recently saw a documentary about how AIDS struck the Dutch national airline KLM, pretty severely in those years. The airline kept much of it hidden from the public which may seem slightly underhand now but behind the scenes, they cared for the victims and their families and went out of their way to 'share' the problem. The public silence was probably understandable at the time but the in-house after-care was impressive. We had made friends with two KLM employees a year or so before and got on with them really well but they too eventually succumbed to AIDS. Those memories are luckily of good times and laughter with these guys and not so much of the details of their deaths. By that time, nobody was surprised anymore when they heard that someone in their circle 'had it'. You and they got on with it and you did what you could when necessary. The virus had made us all into cynics with walls but also people who learned to deal with it when it happened.

That built-up experience probably saved my sanity when my partner also became ill. No details necessary here but among the memories that flood back more often than ever these days, is that of driving to the hospital every day with his mother, just hoping above hope that the doctors had found something new to try. He had a PCP type lung infection and lay there, a skeletal shell of the man he used to be and there seemed to be only one inevitable outcome. He's since told me that looking in the mirror and seeing himself as he was, shocked him into triggering a subconscious fight back which probably saved his life; plus the fact that the fantastic doctors found an antibiotic combination at the last minute which allowed him to slowly begin to claw his way back to health.

Much of that time is still a blur. More specific memories will probably emerge the older I get. I frequently think of the effect that had on his family and friends. His sister came up from France with her boyfriend, who stood the whole time at the foot of the bed like the angel of death and didn't say a word. There was something both weird and spiritual about that at the time but really, I don't think he knew what else to do. My partner's best friend since his school years also eventually visited after putting off and prevaricating because she couldn't cope with it. She wasn't much use, bursting into tears and staying about ten minutes. I understood that perhaps better than he did but he never forgave her and they never spoke again. Other disappointments with other friends and acquaintances at that time aren't worth remembering but they were there. My partner survived, recovered to his old self and despite two serious illnesses since, is still going strong and although we eventually split up, we still have a close relationship. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger eh!

So that's what's increasingly happening to me in my old age. The past drifting in and out of my consciousness like so many ghosts. I can't shut these recollections out because I can't predict them but then again, I'm glad of them because they allow you to revisit situations in glorious memory technicolor and re-evaluate what they meant. I still can't remember what I did two days ago, or who played what on the TV but memories from long ago seem to pop up via a smell, or a taste, or a tune, or just in the empty quiet times between living.

Perhaps as you get older you have more of those times and your memories get the chance to sneak in because your brain isn't so hyperactive. At first, I took it as a negative sign that I was speedily heading into senility because I remember my grandmother doing the exact same thing but now I'm glad that these things come back because we never take photos at the time; or perhaps that's exactly what our memories are.

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Read more of HIV and Neuropathy: How to Avoid Becoming a Nervous Wreck, Dave R.'s blog, at