"And I Alone Survived"

Published July 11, 1996 11:04AM (EDT)

Reports coming out of the 11th International Conference on AIDS in Vancouver this week confirm a growing, if cautious, optimism in the 15-year "war on AIDS." Today, medical researchers released findings that a combination of "protease inhibitor" drugs almost entirely eliminates the AIDS virus from the bloodstream. Experts call these new protease drugs a "stunning medical advance" and suggest that AIDS may soon be as treatable as diabetes. Still, the number of people infected continues to grow, as does the number of people dying from the fatal disease -- as friends and associates and others in the plague's line of fire know only too well. And for the survivors, as Lee Dembart writes, there is an eerie feeling of living in a wasteland.

Why am I still alive?

It is a question I ask myself every single day.
I am 49 years old, single and gay. Dozens of people I know, including many close friends -- and many boyfriends -- are dead of AIDS. Their deaths were premature and horrible. My life was as action-packed as theirs. We spent summers together on Fire Island. Yet here I am, 15 years into the plague, not only alive, but healthy, and (as of my last test) HIV negative.

How can this be? I have had other venereal diseases. How have I avoided this one? Perhaps I am among those who are somehow immune to the virus. But I remind myself not to act on that theory. Another possibility is that there is something wrong with the germ theory of disease. Unlikely.

Most probably, I have just been lucky -- so far. Frankly, that is the least satisfying explanation. Not that I am suffering from survivor's guilt, the why-them-and-not-me syndrome that afflicted many survivors of the Nazi death camps. I've thought about that, too, and I have read and reread the words of Primo Levi, who lived through Auschwitz: "Are you ashamed because you are alive in place of another? And in particular, of a man more generous, more sensitive, more useful, wise, worthier of living than you?....The worst survived, that is, the fittest; the best all died." No, I do not have survivor's guilt. For I have done nothing to usurp another's place and live in his stead. Still, as with Levi, the thought "has nestled deeply like a woodwork; although unseen from the outside, it gnaws and rasps." More than 30 years after he was liberated, Levi committed suicide. But not me.

To be a gay man today is to live in a kind of Auschwitz. How can there not be guilt among the living? A whole generation -- my generation -- has perished. I have said good-bye to many good friends on their deathbeds, and I have spoken at some of their funerals. Some died before I could talk to them and hold their hand one last time. Others died before I even knew they were sick. "This is a terrible way to die," one friend told me a few weeks before he, too, was carried off.

Another man was sick for several months, and I visited him every day in the hospital. One day he asked me, "Do you think I should speed this up?" "I can't answer that," I said. "I know you can't," he said, "but what would you do?" I tried to dodge, but he continued to press. Finally I told him, "If I were you, I'd speed it up." The next day when I visited, he told me, "I've thought about it, and I've decided not to. This is a task that God has given me, and I cannot evade it." I thought that answer particularly odd, but I merely nodded. A few days later, he told me, "I look forward to your visits every day. You're the only person who will talk to me honestly. Everyone else tells me I might get better." He died a short time later.

These conversations do not get easier. Every time I am shaken. Every time I feel bad for the dying, and I feel bad for the living. And that question keeps returning: How and why have I survived? For a while, a few years ago, I thought I had shed my last tear for the dying. I had become numb; I couldn't cry any more. Still the deaths kept coming, and I went to a farewell dinner for a friend who was so desperately ill that he had to be carried into the restaurant. He had been a gorgeous man, and in my mind's eye, he still was. But at the table that night, he was sick and shriveled. He could barely keep his head up, and he slurred most of his words. He was not yet 40 years old.

I had become hardened, I thought, strong, not given to emotion. But when I got into my car that night, I put my head in my hands and sobbed uncontrollably, for him and for all of the others. I have shivered at the news of every AIDS death since. I have wept for those who have died, and I have wept at the holocaust all around me. I watch others go to the flames, and I wonder when my time will come.

Not that I have many opportunities to catch the virus these days. Since my youthful good looks disappeared, so has my social life. When you're young and handsome, being homosexual is very gay. But when you're middle-aged and bald, there's nothing gay about it. That's one of the gay community's little secrets. Which may explain why I am alive. Just lucky, after all.

Call me Ishmael.

Quote of the day

Better living through chemistry

"Triphasic pill users are sexier than monophasic pill users. The real difference appears to be in sexual interest."

--Psychologist Norma McCoy, on a new study suggesting that a new form of oral contraceptive heightens sexual desire among women. (From "New Pill Linked to More, Better Sex," in Thursday's San Francisco Chronicle

By Lee Dembart

Lee Dembart, a longtime journalist and book critic, is an editor at the International Herald Tribune. He lives in Paris.

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