Of HIV and UNO

I was 20 when they told me I was going to die.

This was not an existential revelation about the transitory nature of human existence. It was much more immediate and personal than that. They told me that my death was imminent.   In this instance, the ‘they’ were doctors, one of whom was the president of the Frankfurt, Germany mission in which I was living at the time. How did this come about? According to my diary for September 3, 1993, it started like this:

“I was in an accident. I was biking down the street (sidewalk) in Laemmerspiel when a car pulled out of basically nowhere and thumped me. I flipped over the car and landed on my head. I bled quite a bit and by the time the ambulance arrived I needed an I.V. (cool!)”

Well, like any dumb kid writing in a journal, I didn’t really take the time to preserve accurate details for posterity. I was hit by a car (an Italian man driving a Citroen, actually), and I did fly over the vehicle; I hit my head and lost consciousness for a brief time, having only vague awareness of the blood transfusion I received. Fast forward a couple of months and you find me, at Christmas time, battling pneumonia yet feeling no small excitement as I call home for the holidays, speaking with my family for the first time in a year.

“Did you hear about the German Red Cross?” My mother asked.

“I don’t get the news these days, Mom.”

“Apparently they accidentally distributed blood that was contaminated with HIV and Hepatitis C to German hospitals in your area a couple of months ago – when you were in the hospital. Merry Christmas!”

Okay, that’s not verbatim, but it’s closer to it than you might think…

According to this website, http://chealth.canoe.com/condition_info_details.asp?channel_id=0&disease_id=291&page_no=2, the odds of getting HIV from a blood transfusion are approximately 1 in 4,000,000. Apparently, the odds go up significantly if the hospital you are admitted to was mistakenly given HIV contaminated blood. Apparently they go even higher if the blood you receive came from the contaminated blood batch. I don’t really mind the 1 in 4,000,000 odds so much. The, “you have AIDS” odds that I was given, were less encouraging.

Thus I found myself a few thousand miles away from home, with pneumonia, and apparently AIDS (how do people with AIDS die, I asked rhetorically, PNEUMONIA!). The cherry on this particular sundae was the Dear John letter I received from a certain young lady, which I will discuss at greater length another time. It would be fair to say that I was a little ‘down’ at this point in time.

Fortunately, it was in this dark moment that I found the spiritual guru who provided me with a change in perspective that completely changed my life. His name was Shaun Frost, and he was a hockey enthusiast from Arizona with a prominent nose and already slightly receding hairline. He was the one who came shuffling through my apartment door, bearing Coca Cola and UNO cards, and uttering the phrase that changed everything: “Let’s play.”

Despite the ridiculous simplicity of this statement, this was a transformative moment for me. Dark nights of the soul still come, and I find myself often tempted to surrender to self-pity, cynicism, or even nihilism. But then I remember the dopey dude from Arizona and his UNO cards.

As the story ends, apparently they were wrong.  After months and months of more tests than I care to remember, it was determined that I was not HIV positive, either I had never been, or I ‘got better’ (they were never clear on that – doctors and Germans neither one liking to admit error).  But, while my life continues on 20+ years later, I hope to never forget the lesson: life goes on for a few more days, or a few more years, we cannot know.  So let’s wring the last drop of living out of that life.  Let’s laugh, love and learn.  Let’s sing in public to embarrass our children.  Let’s be open and honest with one another, but never cruel.

Let’s play.

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Dancing

ballerina

I was never much of one for dancing.

Too long, too lanky, too much like a baby giraffe on his sister’s roller skates. I don’t like dance music. I don’t like dance competitions. I don’t like movies about dance. In high school, I didn’t ask girls to dances. Unfortunately, I lived in an ‘enlightened’ era with increased opportunities for those most uncomfortable of adolescent rites of passage, the ‘girls choice’ dance. When I was asked, I always accepted, because that’s what a nice boy did. The evening of the dance, I would dress up in a suit and buy a corsage for the girl. She would drive up and I would come out to meet her without her needing to come up and knock on the front door. I would open her door, whether she were driver or passenger. All of this I did, because it was gentlemanly, because it was nice. But once the date properly began, I sought with concentrated effort to divert the night away from dancing, coaxing my would-be Ginger Rogers to engage in other activities, whether they were activities befitting a nice boy or not. No, I was never much of one for dancing.

For her, dancing was an imperative. It didn’t matter if she were engaged in something exciting or pushing through one of the more mundane demands of life. She had been dancing for as long as she had been standing. As though she were a marionette compelled by some unseen hand, her body was wired such that when the music played – she moved. Sometimes she would simply tap her foot. Other times her arms would move, conducting the unseen orchestra. And in those rarified moments when she felt nobody was watching, or if she felt confident and safe, her inhibitions fell by the wayside, and her entire body would bounce, sway and turn in time with the pulse of the music around her. Her eyes would gloss, her head would fall back, and she would dance. Oh, how she would dance! It was plain from the rapture on her face that she did not need to look for her heaven; her pilgrimage was at an end.

I will not forget the evening when our eyes met from across the room. The music was playing, and we were doing what we both did best. She was responding to the compulsion of the beat in full fever of movement while I was – with equal fervor – not dancing. Despite myself, I was unable to keep my gaze off of her. There was a grace and purity in her movement that left me ensorcelled, caught entirely within her spell. I saw her move, at first haltingly, but then with ever greater confidence. She swayed, leapt, pirouetted her way across the floor. Then, as she swiftly spun herself about, her eyes tripped over mine, and for a moment we both stopped short. She paused in her dance long enough to take a few halting steps in my direction as though she were being pulled by some unseen force towards me. She smiled. I was similarly drawn to the dancing beauty whose eyes sparkled under my gaze.

No words were spoken, there was no need. The siren’s call of the music and the strange, invisible connection we felt, predetermined our actions. I strode across the floor to her with much greater confidence than I truly felt and I took her in my arms.

I danced.

We danced.

I spun her around, held her close, dipped her low to the floor then lifted her high into the air. She was light as air in my arms, and her gift to me was the grace for which I had longed, but despaired of ever attaining.

The music stopped. With rapid breath and racing heart, I reluctantly set her down again, an angel returning to earth. Barely suppressed emotion welled behind my eyes as she smiled, and turned away from me. Looking about, she spotted her next dance partner: the stuffed bear she had just received for her third birthday.

I was never much of one for dancing… until I danced with her.