Customs house STORIES FROM 'THE CHRONICLE'

'Touch People. Hug Them When You Need to.'


By Lawrence Biemiller

Washington -- So little was known about AIDS in the fall of 1985, when I met Terry Weisser, that epidemiologists couldn't conceive of its killing more than a quarter of the people it infected. Terry was 31 then, studying environmental economics at the University of California at Berkeley, and he'd lost his lover to the virus that spring. He'd had a few minor symptoms himself, but even so it seemed like the numbers were on his side. "Over all," I wrote in a story about Terry that ran in The Chronicle that December, "researchers at the Federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta say that between 5 and 25 per cent of those exposed to the AIDS virus will contract the disease eventually."

How naive we all were. By the time I hugged Terry goodbye the last time -- leaning over his hospital bed in New York University's Medical Center at the end of 1992, wary of the oxygen tube that led to his nose and the suction line draining fluid from his chest -- by then we knew that sooner or later the virus would kill almost everyone it could sink its R.N.A. into. We knew a lot more besides: We knew how it attached itself to blood cells and that it often mutated when it reproduced; we knew it could take our tennis players, our priests, and our professors; we knew it could inspire Americans to unimagined ugliness and unexcelled compassion. We knew a lot more than we'd ever wanted to know, really, except we still didn't know how to stop it.

None of which anyone was predicting the day I was introduced to Terry. I had written my first AIDS story two months earlier -- campus AIDS-education efforts were just getting under way -- and Terry had recently volunteered to join a speaker's bureau set up by the student-health service at Berkeley. Over lunch he told me, from beginning to end, the story of Paul's illness and death. I took notes for something like two hours; Terry, his gaze steady and his voice rolling as gently as the Minnesota farmland of his youth, gave one of the most compelling narrative performances I've ever seen. I thought the story I wrote was a good one, but not nearly as good as the story he told.

The next time I was in California, I met Terry for dinner in San Francisco. It was a rainy, chilly night, and while we were waiting for our table Terry ordered what he said was "an old-lady drink" -- some aperitif I'd never heard of. He explained that he hadn't been feeling well. I was instantly terrified. But Terry didn't seem worried, and after he started eating he seemed fine, so I relaxed. I think that was the last time the virus actually scared me: Terry had a matter-of-fact approach to both life and death, and hysteria had no place in it. Of all the things I've learned in this sobering age of AIDS, not to be afraid of it is the most important.

The next summer Terry came to visit in Washington after speaking at an AIDS conference. He fell asleep in the Senate visitors' gallery, and later he talked me into riding the merry-go-round in front of the Smithsonian's Castle. Then I stopped in Berkeley to meet his new lover, an English major named Randy Wickstrom who was also a gymnast and a dancer, and the three of us went to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge on the 50th anniversary of its opening (it was so crowded that we never even got out over water). When they had both graduated they moved to New York. Randy was determined to dance professionally; Terry studied Shiatsu massage and became a licensed masseur.

But I see I'm giving you no sense of what made them so special. That's another thing AIDS has taught me: Once people are gone, it's impossible to remember them as vividly as you want to. I can remember what Terry and Randy looked like, I can recall their voices, I can remember that they made me laugh, but I can't recreate the richness of the time we spent together. Even the bits of conversations that I copied into notebooks afterward don't help much -- a minute's exchange from two-hour brunch, 90 seconds from an entire evening. And now these bits are all I have.

"Terry cooked dinner, and in the middle of the meal Randy got the hiccups. Ever the performer, he opened his eyes wide with each hiccup, thrusting his chest out and then lapsing into a dizzy wobble in his chair. 'Heee-rold!' he said, in two exaggerated syllables.

"'Harold?' I said. I looked at Terry.

"'Our friend Harold used to get hiccups all the time,' he said.

"'Harold died last year,' Randy said. 'So whenever I get hiccups, I think it's him coming back to visit.' He opened his eyes wide and thrust his chest out again. 'Heee-rold!' he sang, a note higher than before. 'Stop it!'"

By then I knew what Randy meant. I'd had frequent visits from my friend Miguel after he died, although I must say he had never appeared as a hiccup. Mostly he appeared on the street: In an instant I'd recognize his walk or the slope of his shoulders half a block ahead, and delight would surge through me like adrenalin. The next instant I'd remember that Miguel was dead, and whatever feature I thought I had recognized would turn out to belong to a complete stranger.

I met Miguel because the American College Health Association had hired him to work on a project we wanted to cover: a study of H.I.V. seroprevalence on college campuses. A few months after he and I were introduced, he was hospitalized with Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, his first AIDS symptom. By then I knew not to be scared, but even so Miguel was a challenge. Younger than me by several years but easily twice as stubborn, Miguel insisted on going to see the Names Project's AIDS Memorial Quilt on the Ellipse here in Washington just a few days after he got out of the hospital. Six years ago this past weekend, in fact. I told him I would not let him go alone.

The unfolding ceremony was scheduled for Saturday at sunrise. When we got to the Ellipse, fortified with doughnuts and coffee, we found a grid of white canvas walkways on the grass and the still-folded quilt panels waiting within. It was cold. As the sun rose over the Commerce Department's long, neo-classical facade, volunteers began the simple choreography of unfolding -- open, open, billow, turn; open, open, billow, turn. Miguel reached for my arm and I saw he was crying and I pulled him as close as I could.

If not being scared was the most important lesson I learned about AIDS, trying to see it through the eyes of someone who's H.I.V.-positive was the most searing. We walked from panel to panel to panel, and I tried to imagine, without asking, what was going on in his mind. Later a friend of his from Los Angeles gave Miguel a pill box with a built-in alarm to remind him when it was time to take his AZT. I realized that no amount of trying would let me see the world as Miguel could see it then, its realities shimmering in the sudden light of his own mortality.

Miguel died a year later. When the report of the seroprevalence study ran as a "special article" in The New England Journal of Medicine, an asterisk appeared beside "Miguel Garcia-Tunon" in the list of authors; at the bottom of the page was "*Deceased." Randy died in 1990. Senta Driver, the choreographer whose company he had joined, put a notice in The New York Times: "Champion gymnast, beloved dancer. (Run to her) But to me (she lifts you and cartwheels you) you're as fair as you were, Maggie (begin the jumps around the space), when you and I were (she lifts you, takes you over her head, and now, now you will always be flying) young." Terry died in early January of last year. I learned more from him than I can say.

It is the business of writers to make sense of things, but I can't make sense of this. You're on your own. All I can tell you is that I learned one other thing from Terry and Randy and Miguel: Touch people. Hug them when you need to. At first it may not seem like much, but it makes all the difference in the world.

Copyright © 1994 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published October 19, 1994.