This week, I turned 53.
Though not for the reasons you might think.
Age is a number, a marker of how long I’ve been here. Some birthdays matter, like being old enough to drive, to vote, to retire. The rest, not so much.
In January 1988 I learned I was HIV+. In that particular moment in time that news was nearly a definitive death sentence. For those of us living through that horrible time, AIDS equaled death. There was no cure, no vaccine, only a few experimental medications.
In the mid- to late-1980s, once diagnosed with HIV/AIDS death seemed to follow within a few months or years. A future appeared unlikely, only sickness and death. The variable was: would our remaining time be measured in months or years. There was optimism. There was hope. But attending funeral after funeral, hope could be hard to find.
I was 22 when I found out.
I didn’t give up. I didn’t sit around waiting for death.
The choices I made in my life, however, were based on a belief that turning 30 would be lucky, and reaching 40 or 50 was wishful thinking. (I speak only for myself. I know there were people who believed they would die of old age, not AIDS.) While I didn’t sit around and wait, I believed AIDS would eventually kill me, though I vowed to fight as long as I could.
This week, I turned 53.
Imagine learning you had a terminal disease in your early 20s (HIV is now considered a ‘manageable’ disease). I decided I needed to go to college—I hadn’t gone right from high school. I needed to make a career happen even though I didn’t really know what it was I wanted a career in.
For two years I worked 40-hours a week and went to college full-time. Working retail allowed me to schedule my classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, or Mondays and Wednesdays, and I worked the other 5 days. If I wasn’t in class or at work, I was studying.
After graduating from the local community college with my Associates Degree, I questioned my choices. It had been over 2 years since my diagnosis. How much time did I have left? Medications were still limited, AZT mostly; I knew many people taking AZT, and they were feeling worse rather than better (early dosing was potent and frequent, so it caused many side effects). With work and school, what time was I making for myself to enjoy life? To do things I hadn’t done before? To travel? To “live, live, live!” as Auntie Mame would say.
I decided school needed to go. I needed to work because: money. Would I want to have worked and taken so many classes that I didn’t take time to enjoy life? I pictured myself being deathly frail, being wheeled across stage to get my degree which by that time would be useless since death was at hand.
I based the choices I made in my life on the knowledge I had then.
A few years passed.
Then a few more.
Then a decade.
Things were changing. Fewer people were dying of AIDS in this country. There were more life-extending medications, though there wasn’t a cure or a promise of longevity. Why plan a career path when I’d probably not live to make it more than a step or two up the ladder? Why save for a retirement when 65 seemed an impossible age to reach?
Here I am: 53.
I’m not complaining and wallowing in self-pity. I’m reflecting, knowing I’ll probably live to retirement age, and beyond.
If I’d only known.
But I didn’t.
And that’s okay.
Not perfect. But okay. I can’t regret choices I made based on late-1980s HIV/AIDS science, I try to tell myself. Dying young was a real possibility. What I do regret is that I didn’t make more use of the free time I had; what I do not regret is deciding that I needed free time.
Here I am, newly 53. Reasonably healthy. Jobless for 11 years because I stayed home to care for my mom. I’m 53 with no Bachelor’s Degree. I’m 53 with no savings. I’m 53 with job prospects that won’t pay much more than minimum wage.
I’m also 53 and happily in love with a man who has a perfectly beautiful soul. We’ve been together 18 years, married 3.
Here I am: 53 and still alive.
In memory of the time that has passed, of the life that’s still here, I offer this song. Beautiful and melancholy, sung by one of the most angelically pure voices: