Ken Monteith remembers back to an important anniversary - and fifteen years of living with HIV
As I write this – 22 December 2012 – I am marking the fifteenth anniversary of my diagnosis.
This anniversary thing is funny. It may be that the event itself is so marking of our lives that it will always stick with us, the moment when I went from "us" to "them" (or, more accurately from my current perspective, from "them" to "us"). It may also be that telling our stories is such an integral part of living with HIV that it would be unthinkable not to have a well-developed beginning to our stories.
22 December 1997 is the beginning of mine, the date when I went gasping to my doctor's appointment and then with his note to the emergency up the hill. The date when I started discovering the solidity of my support network of friends and family, however geographically near or far. The date when I started to be dependent on the pharmaceutical industry for my life and health (and I must say they have done an excellent job so far).
The little new life that was born that day is now fifteen years old – who would have believed that? Now it is her time to come out and take her place, just like little fifteen year-old girls all over Latin America do when they take part in their quinceañera celebrations. So let me, with some concern for the cultural misappropriation and no small amount of irreverence, compare my experience of HIV to a fifteen year-old girl from somewhere south of here…
For many, the celebration begins with a mass. Okay, here I am going to have to diverge from the tradition right away: there won't be any role for the organization that just welcomed with open arms the Speaker of the Ugandan parliament who is pushing for the adoption of the latest incarnation of their new homophobic law. My celebration will have to begin, most appropriately, with gas. Yes, you would think I have been eating nothing but beans for the last fifteen years, as my intestinal fuel factory has been most productive since I started taking those meds.
At this celebration, we do find something with which I can get on board. The chambelanes, who accompany the debutante, put me in mind of those original four CD4+ cells I had when I was diagnosed. Yes, four, so you can understand why I might have doubted getting to this day all these years later. But my faithful chambelanes have stayed with me and multiplied, and I am all the better and more grateful for it.
Now the Quinceañera (the girl IS the event) receives some gifts to mark this occasion. A tiara! Handily, I already have one of those – bought years ago to attend a hat party in another city (surely a tale worth telling separately), so my adoring friends and family can steer clear of Swarovski this time around. A doll – my last doll as I enter into my adulthood? Not so sure about this one, either, as I tend to prefer my humanoids living and breathing. Maybe something to look forward to as I progress into my later teens? Any dolls out there willing to make the sacrifice?
The dress! If you have seen representations of this phenomenon in the movies, it really is all about the dress! Try this movie, which I am looking forward to watching as part of my celebration this year. I'm afraid I will be like the heroine and be forced to wear a hand-me-down dress and give up on my dreams of travelling in a Hummer limo. Unlike the heroine, I am not pregnant (just wanted to put that out there to squelch any rumours), but I am probably a little less chaste as well (sorry Dad: see above notes on dolls).
The other thing I have been told of is the cake. The cake! Apparently as tall and as overdecorated as it can be, but this is really not my style either. I tend to go for complexity in the flavour, but not in the look. And I don't want to be too cake-focused, either, given those pregnancy rumours I referred to above. So it's a simple looking, complex tasting work of culinary art for me, and you may also partake if you are kind to me.
This is also apparently a time of firsts: first make-up in public, first high heels…all those things that one might associate with a grown up woman. The Wikipedia entry on this notes that many of these "firsts" are no longer firsts in a world in which we all grow up so fast. It should be no surprise, then, that this fifty-two-year-old Quinceañera doesn't have a lot of undiscovered or unexperienced things left in life either. Are your visions of my purity dashed on the rocks of reality? Mine too.
All in all, I'm looking a little less like a the picture of purity and innocence on the cusp of adulthood and a little more like a drunken and gassy drag queen stumbling out of a taxi at 5 am. At least I have my dignity!
So raise a glass to me this week to celebrate my diagnosis' coming of age. And we'll see if we can't wring another Quinceañera out of the prequel – one doesn't arrive at 4 CD4+ cells without a back story – and yet another out of the sequel, as I show no signs of fading just yet.