World AIDS day brings back memories

Published 8:57 pm Wednesday, December 1, 2010

No more than 20 years ago, we knew very little about HIV/AIDS. Eddie Sandifer, chair of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance in Jackson, Miss., set up a hospice for those in the end-stages of the disease. He established the hospice in a large house on the edge of the Belhaven area, which is similar in popularity and scope to Old Town here in Selma.

Neighbors didn’t like it. Dying people with some strange disease were in this house. Men and women were living together. Most of them were homosexuals, because at the time, most of the people with HIV/AIDS were homosexuals, and if you didn’t believe the neighbors, well, then ask any reasonable person.

A photographer and I lived with the folks in the hospice for several weeks to work on a series called “Living with AIDS,” designed to show people that you could live with people and unless you mixed certain body fluids, you had nothing to fear.

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The first night we were there, one of the men died. He screamed in pain. His body could no longer fight disease. The photographer and I sat in a den and tried to play cards and watch television with others who lived in the hospice. We watched their faces. They heard their futures because no drugs were on the market to extend life.

At that time, HIV/AIDS was a death sentence.

Not many in the Sandifer House, as it was called, talked about death. Most of the men and women there attempted to avoid the subject. But there were always subtle reminders. For instance, in the front of the house stood a shelf lined with urns left by families afraid of the ashes.

The remainder of our research for the project consisted of visiting a neo-natal unit at the University of Mississippi to witness the rash of AIDS babies, as they were called. They were babies born to moms who were infected. We traveled to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to visit with a heterosexual couple that was dying together because they had contracted the disease through needles from drug abuse.

World AIDS Day always brings these folks to mind. Thanks goodness for the research and for awareness. We’ve come a long way in 20 years.