Today feels like a good day to share a story. It’s a long story but an important one about something dear to my heart.
When I was growing up I wanted to be a journalist. I loved the idea of sharing stories. I watched the evening news with Chet and Nat on Channel 5 every night and then Peter Jennings on ABC News. It was on the evening news sometime in the mid to late 1980’s that I first heard about AIDS. I don’t remember the first story, just that there were often stories about people dying of whatever this disease was.
I was especially struck by the story of boy a little older than me that had this disease and was kicked out of school. I followed Ryan White’s story and tried to comprehend the panic. I remember not understanding the lack of compassion for people- anyone- who had this illness for which there was no cure. I remember writing my eighth grade book report on Ryan White’s My Story.
In the early 1990’s, like many middle school girls, I loved the movie Beauty and the Beast. I remember watching Bill Lauch accept Howard Ashman’s Oscar for Best Original Song in a room full of celebrities with red ribbons. Lauch shared that Ashman was the first person who passed away from AIDS to receive an Oscar. Two years later Philadelphia and Tom Hanks would receive top honors in another room full of red ribbons. I realized that the AIDS epidemic would define my generation, at least until there was a cure.
When I entered high school in 1993, I remember reading a statistic about the fastest growing population of new infections of HIV was post college age women. I brought that information to my high school principal, the principal of my all girls Catholic high school. With a group of freshman we organized the school’s first World AIDS Day observance that December. It continued for my four years of high school. The popularity of MTV’s Real World and Pedro Zamora’s story kept conversations about AIDS in the news as well.
The summer before I entered my senior year of high school I had a few weeks between school ending and my summer job beginning. I looked up a few of the AIDS organizations I had learned about through my outreach for World AIDS Day speakers. I called the Boston Living Center and became a lunch volunteer. I knew immediately what a special place it was. In the fall, when senior began, I learned that our theology unit on social justice required volunteering weekly with an organization and working specifically with an underserved population. I went back to the BLC as a Monday night dinner volunteer and continued well past the class requirement.
A few weeks into volunteering on Monday nights, I sat down to have dinner with a member. We had a great conversation and I soon realized that all the other volunteers were cleaning up and I wasn’t helping. I apologized to Michael, the Director of the Meals Programs and Lorraine, the Monday Night Dinner volunteer coordinator. Both responded that it was more important to sit, have a conversation and be present to hear someone’s story than to clean up. So that’s what I did every week. I heard great stories and I heard difficult stories. I learned a lot. During my BLC time I made friends I will never forget. Chris and I even stopped by before my prom because a few BLC friends wanted to see us off. I don’t remember the details of prom night but I remember how special it made me feel that BLC friends made a point to be there to see us. I know I am the person I am- and especially the parent I am- because of those who shared their stories with me.
One message I heard often was the difference between AIDS in 1997 when I was volunteering and the AIDS epidemic more than a decade before. There was trauma, sadness, loss and fear. There were also stories of compassion and hope. The stories from those early years are the ones that stayed with me and the ones that interested me the most. Who were the people early on, with little to no information, who stepped up, spoke up, care for, loved, advocated and defined the response to the AIDS epidemic in Boston? Who were all those unsung heroes during such a critical time?
This past November a BLC friend was being honored at the BLC’s Celebration of Life Thanksgiving Dinner- an event I loved being a part of. So I volunteered. I had the perfect job-updating social media. I spent the night talking to people and sharing their stories. I reconnected with a lot of old friends that night including Michael. He shared that in the Spring he would be retiring after 21 years. How had that much time passed?
Chris and I went to his retirement party – back in the BLC Dining Room, where else? I met Larry Kessler there. Larry was the first director of the AIDS Action Committee almost 35 years ago. He also came out of retirement to run the BLC at a particularly challenging time. I left the party saying to Chris that Larry’s story- all the stories of those first few years- needed to be told. I did some research and learned that a book was never written, no collection of stories ever shared. I decided it needed to be written. Those stories are important. We wouldn’t be where we are now without Larry Kessler and so many others.
I started meeting with people. And those people give me names of other people. I can’t emphasize enough how incredible people have been. I record our conversations. I listen to stories. I finish every interview with the same thought- how has this never been shared? There are extraordinary heroes who acted in extraordinary ways in the early days of the AIDS crisis in Boston. It may take a few years, but writing this book and sharing their stories is something I am honored to do.
So why share this today?
One person I have never forgotten from my BLC days is Jim Greene. Jim was volunteer coordinator when I was at the BLC. He was fifteen or so years older than me but we had a lot in common. We both grew up in Southie, went to Catholic schools and shared a lot of the same interests. I loved talking to Jim about old school Southie, people we both knew and talking about life in general.
Jim passed away 14 years ago today.
At Jim’s memorial service there were cards with a message he wrote. It included something he shared often, “Life is a Sweet Thing” an Irish proverb he had tattooed on his leg to remember to balance negative thoughts with positive ones. I’ve had that card somewhere I can see it all these years. I made it into the cover of the notebook I take to interviews.
When I made the decision to write this book I had the same message tattooed on my wrist. I see it as a type. I think of Jim and all those loved and lost.
Working on this book is a big adventure. I know will change my life- just like volunteering all those years ago did. I can’t wait to see where it leads and the amazing people I meet along the way.