Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Thanks for the Memory, Elizabeth

It's been a while since I've blogged:  three ideas in the hopper but this being spring on the farm, not enough bath time to fully flesh them out. I am prompted to write something not fleshed out at all today, though, on the occasion of Elizabeth Taylor's passing, after NPR replayed of some of her remarks from the height of the AIDs epidemic. I got goose bumps remembering her words, and those times. With a voice soft as the girl who starred in "National Velvet" but the dagger-like inflection of Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," she told George H. Bush and Dan Quayle they were wrong about AIDS  --  "and you know it. "

It may seem common now, to think of celebrities stepping into a political spotlight and saying something "brave," but it wasn't then. I remember the eye-rolling and snide remarks  --  many people seemed to think Elizabeth Taylor was carried out of her diamond-studded tower on the shoulders of eunuchs, frothing at the mouth slightly, defending the "kooks" and "crazies" she kept as living performance art.

Please bear with me here, because this story may, at first, seem a conceited attempt to tout my own bravery. I assure you, it's not.

In 1993 or 94, I was working in marketing and public relations for a home health care company, and found myself a liaison of sorts, between my employer and an AIDS support group associated with the Veterans Administration. Several members of the group came in for our first meeting through the large pharmacy that was part of the sprawling complex of this company; no other entrances were available to the general public in a place that literally had a warehouse full of opiates in stock at all times, and a lock-down protocol in case of armed robbery. The AIDS group leader was very sick and in a wheelchair, pushed by another member whose disease had not progressed to that stage. They had a complaint about their treatment by our company, as I recall. All looked a little angry, ready for a fight.

I did what I always did for every business meeting that involved people I didn't know:  I shook their hands and introduced myself. The fellow in the wheelchair was at first dumbfounded, then burst into tears, pressing my hand against his face. "People don't-- " he tried to explain, but couldn't go any farther.

The pharmacy, big enough that at least six of a dozen or more pharmacists hustled like crazy behind the counter at any given time, was suddenly empty. I can't say why, in all honesty. Maybe they were very worried about the accusations that we were expecting from this group. Accusations that completely disappeared from the minds of the accusers with one handshake.

Here's the thing:  It was not brave, not even remotely. It was the beginning of a business meeting, begun robotically as any other. I wasn't even one of the courageous nurses in that organization, administering home infusion and holding the hands of dying cancer patients every single day. I wore expensive clothes and reported back to a conference room full of Suits who said things like "Show me the money!" all the time. It was 1993 or 94. By then my brother-in-law had been dead from AIDS for a few years; I'd already stood down many members of my family who thought it foolhardy that I would allow him anywhere near my babies. Even then the CDC had made it clear AIDS could not be contracted through casual contact  --  by 1986, two years before my oldest daughters were even born, Reagan-appointed Surgeon General C. Everett Koop had made a statement to that effect.

Yet at least six years later, a dying man burst into tears when a woman from outside his support circle shook his hand. This is the memory that brings tears to my eyes today. How much more horrific would the whole sweeping tragedy have been, without Elizabeth's powerful voice?

The NPR story on Elizabeth Taylor:

An excellent AIDS timeline: