Edward Dunn (left), a volunteer counselor, and Jim Sharp, an Aids victim: First he had to accept he had it, then he had to come to terms with it.
One night recently, Jim Sharp and Edward Dunn spent a few hours together discussing the nature of God, mortality and eternity. Edward, who has pronounced opinions on most subjects, says he has no answers on this one. Lately, however, he has been asking more questions. Jim, a transplanted Texan and regular churchgoer, will tell you tongue in cheek that his idea of heaven, “based on his childhood beliefs,” is a “canasta game with lots of coffee and cigarettes. But he has been asking more questions, too. He has concluded, he says, that God will not give him more than he can handle.
Jim, 35, has acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Edwards, 43, is his “crisis intervention worker,” a counselor assigned to him last August by the nonprofit Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), which, through its 1,100 volunteers, provide nonmedical outpatient assistance to New Yorkers with AIDS. Edward’s job is to help Jim and his lover through the many difficulties –financial, legal, medical- they are certain to encounter because of Jim’s condition. Edward knows about AIDS. His own lover died as a result of it less than 18 months ago.
After a rocky beginning last fall, Jim and Edward have become friends. In fact, their relationship has grown into one of special intensity. Nevertheless, there is a distance between them. Until recently, Jim hadn’t even introduced Edward to his lover, Dennis, perhaps because to do so would have made AIDS more irrevocably real. And Jim doesn’t know very much about Edward’s deceased lover, Robert. Once, when he asked about Robert’s death, the sadness in Edward’s eyes was so profound, he knew not to ask again.
Ultimately, however friendly they might be, Jim and Edward are both aware that Edward isn’t really there to be Jim’s friend. He’s there to help Jim live with AIDS. Now, after months of fear, rage and denial, Jim is willing to try to do that.
As scientists have come to understand, AIDS is not a black-and-white illness but a whole spectrum of conditions related to immune deficiency. Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare cancer, and pneumocystis carinii pneumonia are the two diseases most commonly used as indicators by the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta to diagnose AIDS. The most prevalent AIDS-Related Complex, or ARC, is sometimes called “pro AIDS.” Characterized especially by swollen lymph nodes and persistent fever, it falls short of a complete suppression of the immune system. Sometimes ARC turns into AIDS; sometimes it doesn’t. In Jim’s case, it did by December.
But last August, all Jim knew was that he’d be abruptly jettisoned out of the legions of the “worried well” and into the ranks of “walking wounded.” He called GMHC.
Some people fall to pieces when they receive the kind of news Jim did. But Edward recalls, at their first meeting in Jim’s apartment, he appeared quite calm.
There had been an attempt to match them; both worked in advertising. They chatted for an hour or so. Edward offered his services but, curiously, they didn’t really talk about AIDS. Edward remembers that it was “as if there were a dead elephant in the middle of the floor and we were both too polite to mention it.”
Jim was terrified. He knew what AIDS meant. He knew what happens. Your friends desert you, your lover kicks you out onto the street. You get fired, you get evicted from your apartment. You’re a leper. You die alone.
Ambitious, aggressive, Jim was used being in control. A recovered alcoholic, he had saved his life once before. If sheer willpower meant anything, Jim would save his life again.
Jim says he grew up to believe “that you get up in the morning and you pull your boots on by the straps. You get up and go.”
“This disease has taught me,” he says, “that this is not necessarily so.”
Jim still looks good. On the street he would see people with AIDS –he knew enough about the symptoms to notice the swollen nodes in the neck. He felt sorry for those men. But now his own body was telling him: You have it too.
Edward called regularly. Jim was distant and polite. No, his lover didn’t need a support group; anyway, Dennis was too busy at work. Everything was fine. Jim presented the same bland, good-ol’ boy façade to Edward he was so adept at projecting in business.
Gradually, however, Edward began to understand. Jim had his life strictly compartmentalized –his lover; his longtime psychotherapist; his doctor; his job- and it left him strangely isolated. Edward began to understand the essence of the crisis Jim was enduring. Like many people with AIDS, he felt compelled to deny he had it. Jim was in crisis precisely because he had to deny any crisis existed.
Edward saw that he represented AIDS to Jim. And Jim was determined: maybe AIDS had its foot in the door, but he was damned if he would let it into the house.
He was deluded. AIDS had moved in.
“Hi, Jim. How are you feeling?”
“Oh, I’m feeling fine.”
“You’re not at work today. Why didn’t you go to work today?”
“Oh, because I woke up and I was really tired.”
“So are you really feeling fine?”
“Well, I’m not really feeling fine.”
As winter approached, Jim started getting colds he couldn’t shake, bouts of flu. He was experiencing chronic and worsening exhaustion. And every week, it seemed, there was another hitch, another irritation: a fungus in his throat, night sweats, aches. Still, and in spite of his doctor’s warnings, Jim continued to work long hours and take on more projects.
Depressed and immobilized at first, Jim was now angry. Things were slipping. Fear and rage pinwheeled in him.
One day he found himself shouting at his doctor: “All my life I’ve been going to the doctor’s with a virus and they give me pills or a shot and I go home and I’m better in three days! Why can’t you do this for me?” He had sessions with his therapist when he wanted to leap across the space between them. Many times it was all Jim could do to keep from walking out.
Edward rightly suspected that Jim’s denial regarding AIDS was shredding. Jim could no longer ignore the fact that he was ill. Last December Jim was diagnosed with pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. Now he really had AIDS.
The apartment isn’t big enough for two people. The platform bed and a large sectional sofa take up much of the space. Most of Jim’s things are still in storage. The deer head above the little fireplace belongs to Dennis, as do the framed Erte print on the opposite wall.
A year and a half ago, Jim met Dennis, who is now 39, at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
RISE OF AIDS IN EUROPE
AIDS update: Europeans are becoming concerned with a rising number of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome infections. Although Europe’s AIDS problem is nowhere near so serious as the epidemic in the United States, the number of cases is rising substantially, the World Health Organization reports.
During the last three years 762 Europeans have contracted the disease, and 376 have died. Worse yet, 83 percent of those who had the disease for three years died.
As of March 25, the United States had 8,945 AIDS cases, of which 4,315 have been fatal.
A year and a half ago, Jim met Dennis, who is now 39, at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. They’ve seldom spent a night apart since. Soon afterward, Jim and Dennis found an apartment and moved in together. That Christmas, they exchanged rings. Now Jim’s ring will fit over his index finger.
Dennis has been tested and says he has “perfect blood”. Jim’s doctor told them how to have safe sex. But as the months went by, Dennis realized he didn’t want to touch Jim. Jim had lost so much weight that, when Dennis put his arm around Jim, he felt his bones.
There was a commercial warning against drunk driving on television. The skeleton hand would reach out and grasp the human hand and there would be the sound of the crash. When Jim touched him, Dennis couldn’t help it –Jim’s hand was like the skeleton hand.
One night, Jim exploded: “I don’t know what’s going on with us! I don’t know if we’re roommates, lovers, what!”
“I’m here every day,” Dennis said. “I see what’s happening to you. It makes me so sad. I’m engulfed by it. I’m doing all I can do.”
Nothing was resolved. Later that night, Jim said, “I want to tell you something. I am trying very hard. No one will say, if I die, that I did not go out fighting.”
Dennis had enrolled himself in a support group for “care partners” at GMHC. He brought it up there. “Somebody in group said, ‘You’re watching too much TV,’ and then everyone in group went around the room and told me how important they found touching and hugging and holding each other was in their relationships.”
That Saturday night, when they were watching television, Dennis invited Jim to sit next to him. They held hands. Dennis hasn’t been troubled by the skeleton hand since.
Jim is slowly becoming an invalid. Dennis has fantasies of escaping with Jim, but that isn’t possible. AIDS will be with them forever now. And Dennis has realized, no matter what –if Jim lives or dies- there will always, forever now, be the fear that AIDS is incubating him, too.
When Jim was diagnosed with pneumocystis carinii pneumonia in December, he refused to go into the hospital.
At first, his doctor thought he was joking, but Jim insisted on being treated as an outpatient.
Since Jim’s condition wasn’t yet critical, the doctor acquiesced and Jim took an antibiotic, the standard medication. It hit him “like a sledgehammer,” but he managed to go in to work an hour or so every day. The drug worked and Jim was able to keep the real nature of his illness a secret.
All the same, he found he was putting things off-taking a folder out of a desk drawer to make a notation, for instance- because he was so exhausted. Eventually, Jim was waking up every morning and asking himself, “Am I going to get out of bed today? Am I going to bounce out of bed, or am I going to lie here a couple of hours?”
Finally, after Christmas, his doctor told Jim he had a choice: He could work at full capacity or start taking care of himself.
Edward remembers Jim telling him coolly that he was going to meet with his boss. The, suddenly one morning, Jim was on the phone, in a complete panic.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Jim was almost babbling. “I have to go and meet the boss. I have to tell him I’m gay, I have to tell him I have AIDS. I don’t know what I’m going to say.”
Gradually, Edward calmed him down. They arranged to meet at a coffee shop near Jim’s office before his appointment that afternoon.
When Edward arrived, Jim was nervously waiting. They went over his options and came up with a scheme for Jim to present to his boss –Jim could at least finish up his current projects working out of his apartment.
“So I’ll go in and tell him I’m sorry that this has…”
“Don’t tell him you’re sorry, Jim. It isn’t your fault you have AIDS. Okay?”
That evening Jim called Edward. “He is truly a wonderful man,” Jim said. “It was very emotional. He said he thought I was gay. He said he was afraid it was AIDS. He said he’s been praying all along it wasn’t.”
Jim was elated. How many bosses would sit down with you and try to work out a way to keep you on if you walked in and told them you had AIDS?
February. Pock-marked snow lies unmelted in the gutters, but the sun is out today. From his window, Jim can watch old women and winos skirt the shadows on the sidewalk, adhere fastidiously to the fringe of sunlight along the curb. He is like them, treading a fine line.
For several weeks, Jim has been working at home, but today is officially his last day. For the first time since he went to work at the age of 12 in a little country store in Texas, he will be out of work.
Jim can feel the fires going out in his body. The medicine cabinet, which for a year contained no pills, is now full of them. Sometimes he’s too tired to say a single sentence. But it’s interesting-he still doesn’t look the way a person with AIDS is supposed to look, or at least people think you should look.
Jim is not afraid of death, but he is afraid of what dying might entail. What is he most afraid of is seeing Dennis cry. Sometimes he thinks it’s very selfish on his part. He doesn’t want to hurt the people who love him.
Each night when he goes to bed he thanks God for his sobriety and asks for sobriety for the remainders of this day and all his tomorrows. He asks God to please not let him live in hysteria but in the plane of acceptance.
He’s been lucky. His lover didn’t leave him. They haven’t been evicted from their apartment. Jim lost some friends, he made some.
He wants to be back in the office in the middle of it all, but he thinks now he will probably never go back again.