I never heard him approach. I was buckling my 3-year-old into her car seat when a voice behind me said, “Don’t be afraid.” I turned, expecting the worst.
A tall, gaunt man stood six feet away, holding up a beat-up old bike as a shield. “I have AIDS,” he said.
“Spare any change?”
He could have been anywhere from 25 to 40 and had long, unkempt dreadlocks. His eyes were red, and his lips were cracked, but he stood proudly, staring me straight in the eye. He looked like the AIDS patients I had seen on television, and my gut told me he was very, very sick.
I, meanwhile, was feeling great. We had just left a nice restaurant, and I was pleasantly full. And I was not afraid, even though we were parked in a dark lot. However, this was the first person who’d ever told me he had AIDS. I stepped forward warily.
Saying nothing, I handed over three dollars. My fingertips brushed his palm, which was callused and hard, like aged leather. Our eyes met once more, then he thanked me and was gone.
I slid into the driver’s seat. “He was asking for money?” my wife asked. “Yeah, he said he had AIDS.” Then she said, “Oh, that’s too bad.” What, I wonder, would she have said at that moment if I’d told her that I myself was carrying the virus? Because I was—but didn’t know it yet.
Six years have passed; I am 44 now and divorced. Diagnosed four years ago, I’m on medication, and my health is excellent. Same for my ex-wife and daughter, both HIV negative. My ex-wife knows my status, but my little girl, now 9, isn’t ready to understand this, though I try to teach her life lessons every day.
We learned one while out driving recently. At a stoplight, I spotted a man holding a cardboard sign, asking for money. He didn’t say he had AIDS; this time, I played that role, albeit silently. He wore brand-new tennis shoes, had a new backpack and was drinking cold bottled water. No doubt the cooler beneath him held more. Across the intersection was another man with the same backpack and sign. I smelled a scam. From the backseat, my daughter piped, “What’s that man doing, Daddy?”
For the next few minutes, I tried to explain the difference between need and entitlement. Finally, she said, “So we aren’t going to give him any money?” Slightly ashamed, I said, “No, sweetheart. Other people need it more,”but I doubt she understood. Now, I wonder whether I made the right choice. Maybe it was a scam, or maybe I was equating “need” with appearance. As I’ve said, I’m in excellent health and protective of my status. What if he had AIDS but just didn’t want anyone to know, like me? If I asked someone for help now, help of any kind, would they believe I truly needed it?
I thought back to the callused hands I’d touched outside that nice restaurant, beside my new Lincoln. What if I were to meet that man today? Would I ask whether he takes medication, whether he has a support group? Would I have the guts to tell him, “I am positive too”?
Lately, I have been feeling sorry for myself because there is no mate in my life. But I’m trying to fill that void with the support other people with HIV have offered me. At the same time, I realize that maybe I can help support others.
Looking at my own hands as I write this, I realize that my only calluses are from the gym. These are the softer hands my daughter still reaches up to for help when we walk together. Someday, when I disclose my status to her, I hope I will teach her that sometimes dads—even those in new cars—need help too.