For one whole week, I had AIDS on the brain. Not like I don't usually, considering I work in HIV prevention in the city with the highest rate of infection in the whole country. One in 20 DC residents has HIV. I know I've said that before, but perhaps the severity of the epidemic hasn't been fully grasped. And seeing as that the rate of infection is increasing, it seems that some people are not alone in fully understanding the horrors of this epidemic.
Did you know that you can actually see the effects of the virus? No, not on an HIV positive individual. But by looking at the AIDS Quilt.
Last seen in full on the National Mall, the AIDS Quilt is a part of the NAMES Project and is an active memorial to people who have died from AIDS. Each piece of the quilt is about the size of a burial plot and is decorated to commemorate the memory of someone who has passed on due to AIDS. I had seen bits of pieces of the Quilt before, mostly at AIDS Walk events that I've been to. But the Convention Center was completely decorated with quilt pieces. Also, all of the host hotels had quilt pieces hanging from up high. At my hotel, there were dozens and dozens of pieces lining all 12 floors. The sheer size of the displays was heartbreaking. The visual left an impression on me. So many lives lost. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles. Cousins, friends. Actors and dancers and nurses. Pedro Zamora. Rock Hudson. Freddie Mercury.
Some of the pieces are truly works of art. Despite their beauty, I couldn't get over what each piece represented--one life lost to AIDS.
The conference itself was wonderful. Just being in the presence of so many people who are fighting HIV in their communities was inspiring. Even more inspiring were the stories I heard from people who had overcome adversity to get to where they are now. Some were addicts. Others were sex workers. Lots were HIV positive. All of them were leading by example.
I thought often about my own life and how it led to this conference. The research I'd done. The folks I've tested. The clients I serve. I couldn't help but see just how lucky I am. I have family and friends that I love. I have a man who still gives me butterflies when I think of him. I have two adorable cats who missed me terribly while I was gone. I have a roof over my head and I don't have to worry about where my next meal is coming from.
I think of my clients now and I'm inspired by them. They are people who hit rock bottom and finally accepted help when it was offered to them. And due to that help and their own perseverance, they are healthy and sober and living life to the fullest. I couldn't be more proud of them.
Yes, I'm lucky to have the life that I have. But I'm even more lucky to do the work that I do, to help the people that I serve.