I first heard the term 'AIDS' on the playground when I was in the fourth or five grade. The year was 1986 or 1987. It was a childish insult to call someone gay, so proclaiming that someone had AIDS just upped the ante of the remark. I vaguely remember my mother confirming that AIDS was an illness that seemed to strike gay men and that it was very inappropriate to joke about it. HIV was not mentioned at all during our sex education classes in 1990, but in the following year, after Magic Johnson's announcement affirmed that it affects the heterosexual population, my school held a special assembly. By the time I went off to University in 1994 (yikes, twenty years ago) it was well acknowledged that HIV was an equal opportunity killer, as it represented the leading cause of death among individuals aged 25-44. In 1996, I went to Washington DC to see the AIDS Memorial Quilt on display. Tears flowed as I discovered the names and stories of those who lost their lives to this disease. I participated in a candlelight march and walked past protesters who felt that AIDS was a suitable punishment for the crime of homosexuality.
Six years later my medical training brought me to a prison. My inner conservative Republican initially wondered why tax dollars were funding the expensive HIV antivirals for an inmate serving a double life sentence. A few days later I sustained a very superficial needle stick after drawing his blood. Fortunately, his viral count was undetectable, thanks to his meds. Rather than take the standard post exposure regime, the Infectious Disease specialist decided to prescribe the exact cocktail of drugs. They were horrible. Even with some accompanying anti-emetics, I had to alternate taking them every other day. I was never worried that I would actually contract the virus. The mechanism of my injury did not constitute a significant exposure. I felt it was harder on the people around me. I went through multiple meetings with the ID team to make sure I was cleared to treat patients and my then boyfriend, now husband preferred to practice abstinence until my 6 month blood test was negative. To this day, I never disclosed the details about that event to my parents.
In 2007, I gave an HIV positive diagnosis to a newly pregnant 22 year old woman. I was able to explain to her that HIV is no longer the death sentence that it was in the year she was born. With antiviral medications, HIV can be managed as a chronic condition, and most importantly we could prevent transmission to her baby. The following year I moved to California and participated in many rallies denouncing Prop (H)8. I have since celebrated the same sex marriages of four friends and feel proud that they are entitled to the same rights and recognition that Husband and I share.
I recently watched the HBO film The Normal Heart. This brilliant production detailed the disease in the days before the red AIDS ribbon and World AIDS day were declared. I knew that many stories existed, but I hadn't ever seen or heard a first hand account. Young, healthy, vibrant men were suddenly becoming sick and very quickly dying. They were dropping like flies. An epidemic was emerging. Yet no one seemed to care. The writers and actors did a masterful job portraying the struggles of the gay community to gain attention and information regarding the mysterious killer virus. It is amazing to appreciate how much has been achieved in terms of activism, awareness, fund raising and research, but the delayed response is another shameful mark in this country's history.
The true heart of the film is a beautiful love story (as well as a very hot sex scene) as the central character watches his partner succumb to the disease. It was the friends and lovers who became the primary caretakers as paramedics often refused to transport and these patients were turned away from emergency rooms. The ultimate measure of unconditional love. Simon and Garfunkel's song "The Only Living Boy in New York" is used to profound effect for the movie's final scene brings the lead back to his alma matter for Yale University's Gay Week, where as a student he feared he was the only gay man on campus and contemplated suicide. As he was appreciating the progress witnessed in his time, I felt proud to acknowledge that his merely symbolic wedding ceremony on his partner's death bed, could legally take place in the state of New York today.
Earlier in the month of May, I noticed that my cat A looked a little thinner. I checked his glucose and it was within normal range. I wasn't too concerned. I've observed over our years together that his weight seems to fluctuate. He was otherwise acting normally. I was a few weeks overdue for his yearly check up at the vet, so I scheduled him on their first available Saturday morning time slot. Then I picked him up and realised he was significantly lighter. I called back and requested a sooner appointment.
"It's probably just hyperthyroidism" I shared with the vet as I explained that he was eating well and exhibiting his usual behaviour. When his lab work came back normal, she scheduled him for an ultrasound. Despite the fact that he was eating, his weight seemed to drop a bit more. The day of his appointment, my alarm went off at 5:20 to wake me up for swimming. As I reached over to shut it off, I felt him beside me. So many times, a warm snuggly kitty was a tempting excuse to stay in bed and skip the pool, and on this occasion, I obliged. I couldn't fall back asleep, so I just laid in bed and listened to him purring beside me.
I'm going to learn that my cat has cancer. I acknowledged that fact to myself multiple times throughout the day. All the clinical signs were there. How long were they there and how long was I blind to them? I asked Husband to accompany me to his scan. The vet called us back for a consultation. Her body language revealed everything. The news was bad. A mass was found behind his heart. It won't respond to chemotherapy or radiation. Even a successful surgical resection would only give him 6 to 12 months. As he lost another half of a pound and had developed some pleural effusions, she estimates that he only has 2-3 weeks left. Clinically, I knew that was accurate, but it was still a shock to hear.
As I walked in through our front door, I recalled that he was still greeting me as recently as two nights ago. As I looked longingly down the front hall, it stuck me that he will no longer be greeting me. No longer sleeping by my side at night. No more fluffy ginger shadow following me around. Although he was primarily my cat, Husband is just as devastated. After he let me cry on his shoulder at the vet's office, when I came home from that appointment, I found him sobbing. "I just told K [our other cat]" he cried. A gesture so sweet and touching that it makes me fall in love with him a little more. He was a part of our life together and we're going to miss him so much. If it's so hard to let go of a cat so abruptly, I can't imagine the pain of losing your partner.
It marks another shitty infertility milestone. I'm losing my kitty baby before having a human one. Perhaps he just wasn't meant to share me. I often felt that I didn't want to become one of those women who ignores her cats once she has a baby. I've visited some friends just after their new arrival and their cats would flock to me, seemingly starved for attention. Although Husband speculated that he would be very protective of our baby, I also feared he could be a tired older kitty putting up with a toddler who is pulling on his tail or trying to dress him in doll clothes. Right now, we're trying to keep him comfortable and enjoy every good day he has left. When we're ready, we will get another cat. We know we're not replacing him, there are a lot of cats that need homes and we'll have a vacancy. Perhaps it will mark the start of a new chapter, as a mother to my kitties and biologic progeny.