Sunday, December 1, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Plagues

Today is World AIDS Day.

This is not the place to talk about personal stuff, but I have my reasons for responding more readily to mention of HIV than to other diseases - and not least among my responses is the very real satisfaction of being able to talk about it in terms of HIV rather than AIDS. It is no longer true that one equals the other; doctors are no longer advising patients (as Isaac Asimov and his family were advised when he was diagnosed after receiving a transfusion of tainted blood) to lie about the diagnosis to protect themselves from stigma; patients with access to adequate information, hygiene, and pharmacies are no longer dying wholesale.

Back during the worst part of the 80s, I used to argue (a little desperately) that it was not an epidemic, it wasn't; nobody was going through the streets crying "Bring out your dead," lots of people were so little personally touched by it that they were able to ignore it, or treat it as a moral rather than a health issue. And if anybody reading this is still inclined to treat it so - I assure you, all that would be necessary to change your mind would be the sight of someone - anyone - even your bitterest enemy - whom you knew personally in a state of wasting, and if you are any sort of decent human being you'd be cured of that nastiness right quick. Disease (like disaster) is not a punishment; and even if it were, it would be a cruel and unusual one, inflicted by no righteous power.

AIDS at its worst was not the Black Death; but it was bad enough. It still is; especially if you don't have access to adequate information, hygiene, and pharmacies.

It is easy - too easy - to find fictional uses for it. Cancer and AIDS are both popular with the writers of tear-jerking schmaltz but, as always, execution is everything. I was strongly affected by David Levithan's Two Boys Kissing, which is narrated by the gay male dead of the eighties observing the present day and commenting on it - gracefully, generously, wistfully, and often gladly. My favorite part is when they spot an old friend, one who watched his lover die and kept coming back, and back, and back for his friends, and who is now teaching, with a new committed partner, and taking his pills - because the disease caught him, too, as it does catch those who tend the dying, but not until the drug cocktails had started to work. The ghosts are overjoyed to see him, healthy and productive, the one who cared for them surviving them all to live well.

That is worth all the tragic, affecting death scenes in the world to me.

Stories can't be about death. They have to be about life. We must write about the ones who live. Because if anything happens once you're dead, we have no frame of reference for it. Even ghost stories are about life. It's all we know.

Don't write the HIV tragedy (or the cancer tragedy, or the muscular dystrophy tragedy). And don't write about conquering disease either, because that doesn't happen. Ask anybody you think has done it. The 10 year pancreas-cancer survivor, the person who's still HIV+ instead of an AIDS patient fifteen years after the diagnosis, the diabetic amputee - these people have conquered nothing. But they are living - imperfectly, bravely, fearfully, humanly.

Write the comedy.

Write the action thriller with the hero who has to take 20 pills a day. The romance that starts in the hospital, between patients, and doesn't end at the morgue door. The domestic drama in which the disease is part of the daily furniture of life; not the center, but the intrusive, unignorable, inconvenient annoyances which everybody - yes, everybody in its vicinity - lives with. A chronic, treatable, incurable disease - even one as relatively benign as mine - interferes with everybody's plans; a deadly one throws a dose of guilt on top of that.

And if anybody dies in this story, for pity's sake, don't let anybody say "Life goes on." Unless a survivor immediately punches that person cathartically in the face. Because for one person in the story, the one who just left a person-shaped hole in the world, life does not go on and that's a really insensitive thing to say to someone in mourning.

No comments:

Post a Comment