As we all know, LeRoy Whitfield died of AIDS-related complications on October 9. In the months and years preceding his passing, he wrote with both candor and courage of his struggle to find meaning in his suffering and to fight AIDS with the integrity he deserved. Just as important, he spoke eloquently of his struggle to be understood by those closest to him'especially his friends, family, and medical professionals. I speak of course to his internal struggle as to whether or not to take anti-HIV medication and the opposition he encountered in his personal life as a result. Here in these pages he shared his life with us. His story is our story, a narrative from the heart and for the heart, offering to us the understanding and solace he hoped to find for himself.
The passing of such a generous life requires mourning as well as introspection. To be sure, it invites those dealing with his loss the opportunity to learn from his life, gathering hope and inspiration from a man who shared so completely and vulnerably his challenges, which are shared by those of us living with HIV. His generosity of spirit was self-evident. One need look no further than places like Keith Boykin's blog, where statement after statement eulogized a special man whose very presence many found consoling. Now, in this moment, take time for a prayer or private contemplation. Silence is in order, for in the quiet of his memory he lives. In mourning for his loss we mourn for all of us affected by this insidious virus'and for those who have preceded us.
I write to you today as a new columnist for HIV Plus, treading gently and respectfully, knowing that LeRoy's presence is in no way to be replaced but rather to be celebrated and honored. Undoubtedly, his death is a sobering reality, especially in a culture that desperately clings to life at the expense of ignoring the very real and very tragic events occurring all the time. One of my best friends in the world laments the attitude of apathy toward HIV blanketing our communities, knowing as he has since 1984, when he was first diagnosed, that the illness kills people. LeRoy's death reminds us'reminds me'that no matter how we choose our course of treatment, the inevitable awaits us all.
However, this inevitability need not provide fodder for despair or self-annihilation'but for clarity and inspiration for how to live authentically and with dignity, because how we face death is as important as how we face life. LeRoy could have resigned himself to passive dependence and depression, drowning in self-pity and quietly disappearing into the unknown without sharing his life with others. But he instead chose life, as evidenced by the outpouring of love and affection upon his death. I once attended a funeral of a close family friend where the priest noted that the best way to grieve someone's death is to choose one element of that person's life that we found most appealing and to incorporate this into our personality. I propose that each of us who has been touched by LeRoy adopt his resilience, spirit, advocacy, and courage. For as he touched our lives, we can do the same for others.
I have renamed this column Phoenix Rising because there can be only one Native Tongue and only one LeRoy Whitfield. As a licensed clinical social worker and therapist and as someone living with HIV, I hope to bring some perspective that some of you will find useful. The title I have chosen refers to the mythic bird that resurrects itself from its ashes once it has been destroyed. I believe it speaks beautifully to the tenacity and optimism of those choosing life in the face of death, hope in the face of despair. As the theologian Paul Tillich noted, courage is doing the right thing in the presence of fear. And what more courageous act is there than to live with passion and resilience in the face of living with a chronic and terminal illness?
Fransen is a licensed psychotherapist in practice in Chicago. He can be reached at email@example.com.