I well remember the first time that a book made me cry. It was December 1992, on one of those long, gray winter afternoons when the world seems unbearable. For reasons I don’t recall but I surely thought were dire, I’d had enough of life, at least for the day. So I skipped the class on the history of Canada with Dr. Mary Wickwire, footslogged across the dank, windswept campus and climbed the stairs to my dorm room, 8 feet by 12 feet of white painted brick and beige laminate tucked into the northeast corner of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Much like the solipsistic protagonist in “I Am a Rock,” that homage to loneliness by Simon and Garfunkel, I fancied myself an escape artist of sorts: “I am shielded in my armor/ Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.... I am a rock/ I am an island.”
The “rock,” however, had left his bag at the student union and the only book in my room was And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, by Randy Shilts of The San Francisco Examiner. A cutting, heart-rending account of the first five years of the AIDS epidemic, the book is hardly escapist fare. Still, I wasn’t about to traipse back across the tundra. Six hundred pages and several hours later, I closed the book and cried. Like most men, I have some vague yet persistent memory of a person I’ve never met telling me that men shouldn’t cry, so this was a big deal. I cried that night for the people I knew who were living with AIDS and for the thousands who had already perished. I wept as well for my country: our national conscience had catastrophically failed us. Too many decent people had allowed too many decent people to die simply because they thought that AIDS was something that happened only to drug addicts and homosexuals, the kind of folks that “decent people” don’t mix with.
America’s sluggish, half-hearted response to the plight of people living with AIDS was a mortal social sin, one for which our country has yet to fully atone for. The crisis also brought out the best and worst in the church.
According to Jon Fuller, S.J., while most Catholics didn’t engage in the overt scapegoating dished up by the nation’s televangelists, “some [Catholic] ministers focused their response to infected persons on a reiteration of the church’s teaching on homosexual activity and drug use, rather than asking those facing life-threatening illness how the church might help them to be reconciled with God.”
At the same time, says Father Fuller, “in the earliest years of the epidemic, the church responded with its tradition of pastoral care for individuals and families.” The Jesuits in Boston’s South End, for example, opened the doors of the Church of the Immaculate Conception to people with AIDS who had been rejected by their neighbors and even their families, devoting themselves and their resources to that most basic corporal act of mercy: burying the dead with dignity.
For my part, reading And the Band Played On belied the notion that I was ever really alone in my dorm that day. The following spring, I volunteered for the Names Project, the organization that gave us the AIDS memorial quilt, the hand-sewn tribute to those who had died. By October 1996, the quilt covered the entire National Mall in Washington, D.C., and as of 2012, the quilt had more than 48,000 panels. As a volunteer, I was what they call a quilt monitor, someone who ensures that the panels are not touched or damaged. I’d stand there for hours, a silent, virtually unseen witness to a cavalcade of human grief, in all of its strange, tragic beauty.
I learned anew, contra Simon and Garfunkel, just what John Donne had meant: “No man is an island.... Any man’s death diminishes me/ Because I am involved in mankind/And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls/ It tolls for thee.”