His name was Ed, and I suppose he was middle-aged. That means he was probably younger than I am now, but when you're in your 20s, anyone over 30 is middle-aged. I was assigned to do a newspaper story on him, to be featured on December 1,World AIDS Day. Ed had AIDS.
He lived alone in a little one-bedroom home in Florida, far from his Chicago family. He had medications lined up on his windowsill, a constant reminder of the illness he lived with. He was plain spoken and not afraid to talk about AIDS, or as he called it, "hiv disease." The "hiv" was lowercase, he said, because he didn't want to give it any more power. Ed had a picture on his wall, a drawing of the Biblical Daniel in the lion's den. That was his inspiration, he said. He was facing down a lion of disease without fear, even though he knew the odds were against him. He believed God had his back, just as God had Daniel's back.
I was young and gung ho. Look at me, writing about this disease that grabbed the headlines. Give the girl a star. Every year, more people were affected by AIDS, and more people died. The medications back then were just a Band-Aid, something that probably gave people like Ed a few extra months of life. He was a man living a death sentence, and I was the reporter who was going to tell his story. I gave myself so much credit in those days. It was Ed's story to tell. He told me what it was like to live with hiv disease. He told me about how he kept the disease a secret from his parents, even when they visited and saw the line of medications on the windowsill. A few weeks after they headed back north, his mother called him. "We're going to talk about your damned health," she said. The only thing he wouldn't talk about was how he contracted the disease. If Ed was gay, he didn't say so. I didn't press him. He didn't want the focus of the story to be on how he got the disease. He wanted the story to be about how he had the disease.
After the story ran, we stayed in touch. Again, life back then was all about me. I selfishly called Ed when I needed perspective on life. A rotten boyfriend had nothing on living with AIDS. I'm not sure why he let me ramble. Maybe he needed something to distract him from the row of medications on the windowsill. Maybe he needed someone who needed him. Somehow we became buddies. When he was hospitalized with an infection, I visited him. He was Ed.
I generally felt quite proud of myself for befriending the guy with AIDS. God, how I'd like to shake my 20something self. But Ed, I think he had my number. A few weeks after the story ran, he brought in some homemade cookies for me. Yup. Homemade. By a guy with AIDS. Put your money where your mouth is, Lori. Even back then, we knew you couldn't catch AIDS from cookies. But before I took the first bite, I had to swallow a bit of pride.
I did a follow-up story with him the next year. That year, I was braver. During our conversation, I asked him to tell me he contracted the disease. He tried to change the subject, but I was going to be a real reporter this time. Just tell me, I said. He laughed, shook his head and grabbed my tape recorder. "I was screwing around. I was partying and having sex and screwing around and I got AIDS." I pushed a bit more. Heterosexual or homosexual sex? I asked. He looked right at me. "I don't know." I wrote that in the story. I'm sure some people recoiled when they read it. I'm sorry, Ed.
I left Florida while Ed was still alive, and we kept in touch minimally, the way people kept in touch back when email was just in its infancy and "friend" was not yet a verb. My new job in the corporate world took over my life, and I was at that desk when I received a phone call from a mutual friend, telling me that Ed had died. Damn that hiv disease.
I think about Ed every year on December 1, as I read about World AIDS Day and think about the two stories I wrote that were going to change the world. I'm sorry I didn't change it, Ed. I'm sorry I didn't tell you how much you enriched my life by letting me into your home and sharing your world. I wish you had been stricken a decade later, as maybe your windowsill would have had a different and better combination of drugs. I wonder what you told God when you met Him. Did you tell Him about Daniel and the lion's den? Did you thank Him for having your back?
During the other 364 days of the year, I don't give much thought to AIDS. AIDS is much scarier when you're young and single and – Mom, don't read this next part – you occasionally do things you know you shouldn't do. AIDS isn't in the headlines as it used to be. Magic Johnson is still alive. Who would have thought it? But Ed is gone. Still, he's going to be with me forever. He let me tell his story, and for that, I am humbled and honored.
Here's to you, Ed. I know God still has your back.