It was about 16 years ago when my first partner landed in the hospital with a host of AIDS-related illnesses and we got the definitive diagnosis that he had AIDS. It wasn't a complete surprise, but it was a devastating blow. His family didn't know and wouldn't know for another two years. The first few days in the hospital we couldn't even utter the word "AIDS" even to ourselves. Some young hospital resident told us that this wasn't a death sentence and that we needed to get it together, and then he sent a shrink to talk to us. The shrink was no help and he went away after determining that we weren't suicidal.
On the one hand, I wanted to smack the young resident doctor. Those were the years when the obituaries ran for many pages in D.C.'s gay weekly newspaper. We knew a lot of people who had died of the disease, and no one who had survived it, so it did seem like a death sentence. On the other hand, he was right. We were so devastated by the impact that we couldn't even say the name of the disease, much less begin to cope with it. The first step to taking back some control over our lives was learning to speak the word without fear. Bert did die about two years later, but they were two years in which he lived a normal life, mostly healthy, and without fear in spite of the reality that he was facing.
The power that we give to words is power that we lose. There isn't a gay person around who hasn't had the word "fag" hurled at them by some ignorant asshole at one time or another. They know that the word is powerful, but they don't know that its power evaporates if the target shakes it off. Once you take away the power of "fag", the ignorant right-wing bigots have very little to fall back on except some stupid lines from an out of date work of fiction that condones slavery while condemning those who eat shellfish and pork. What the assholes don't know is that they are actually doing us a favor too. It's perverse, but learning to deal with being different is what makes us stronger and able to rise above small minds who depend on a simple-minded slogan shouting politician or a voodoo practicing priest to tell them what to think. That strength, that triumph over words of hatred, is what gets us out of those wicked little towns, or, if we choose, enables us to live among them being different with dignity.
Another word that strikes terror in the hearts of so many is "cancer." It's a word so charged with fear that many of its victims can not speak its name. Christmas eve and day, our Emmylou wouldn't eat. We could tell by the look in her eyes that she wasn't feeling well. I took her to the vet on Saturday morning. Tests were done. To make a long story short, we came home with a probable diagnosis of cancer. Emmy is probably over 12 years old, so it did not come as a surprise, particularly with a newly discovered lump on her back.
With my first dog, Sasha, I fell prey to an unscrupulous vet who continued to dangle a carrot of hope in front of me, suggesting this test and then another, none of which were realistically going to offer a cure or even forestall the inevitable. That was the summer after my first partner had died in the spring, and I was unable to face the prospect of losing one friend so soon after the other. I couldn't admit that Sasha had cancer and I'm ashamed to say that I let her spend her last days in a vet clinic instead of at home with me.
With Sasha, I came to realize that I was being strung along to the detriment of the dog. I put a stop to it and demanded euthanasia (another scary word) when the dog's quality of life was gone. I held her head and kissed her goodbye as I have done with far too many dogs since then.
Emmylou is at home with us and is feeling better for now. I have a better vet, and I'm older and wiser myself. I'm not going to put the dog through anything that doesn't stand a snowball's chance in hell of helping while watching her struggle with an increasingly poor quality of life. I am going to keep her happy, comfortable, and loved for as long as I can until it is time for that last act of kindness, whether it's a week, a month, or a year from now.