Michael Harris’s beautiful personal essay “Life after Death,” published in The Walrus (Sept 2011), crystallizes the history of HIV through the lens of one who has grown up with the virus as an ever-present force. Harris moves deftly through the years and the changing stories of HIV: the shift from death sentence to chronic condition as treatments improved; the modern-day shock he experienced when he realized “that people still suffered, even died, from this virus”; and how fiercely young gay men have tried to put the plague of AIDS behind them.
Sam grew up in an Alberta hamlet, a place of no consequence to anyone but those fortunate enough to have been born there. The kind of place where you raise two fingers off the steering wheel in greeting when you pass another car on the road. Sam was a good kid, though a hurting one. He had journals filled with dark confessions. He had legs covered with scars from the time a pot of boiling water had spilled onto his three-year-old body. He was also gay and needed to get to a city. By his twenty-eighth birthday, having rolled through a few towns already, he found himself in Vancouver and searching for love. One night in October 2001, he let a man inside him for ten seconds before muttering, “Hey, you should probably put on a condom.” Symptoms showed up almost immediately. Sam’s hands and feet became swollen. His tongue got itchy. His glands ballooned. There was dandruff in his golden brown eyebrows. He flipped through a book called The New Joy of Gay Sex and learned that after HIV enters your body, there are seven typical symptoms. He had all seven. For the next eight months, he sat with his self-diagnosis, unwilling to get tested. When he finally went to the clinic on Davie Street, a nurse gave him his results and said, “Do you need a hug?” […]
I’m the same age as the epidemic. By my first birthday, eight young gay guys in New York had developed purple tumours on their skin, which turned out to be a rare cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma. Those boys had AIDS, though there wasn’t a name for it yet. That year, 1981, an unknowable number of men slept (shamefully or shamelessly) with each other and unwittingly consigned themselves to early deaths. That year, before the tears and the placards, before the suicides, the broken families, and the funerals, an inferno began its relentless unfolding. (One of the most insidious characteristics of HIV is that it can take years before its effects are felt, which leaves one plenty of time to unknowingly pass it along.) That year, my future best friends and I, seemingly far removed from AIDS and from each other, learned to crawl in the undestroyed homes of our parents.