The following is an excerpt from my memoir, Walking Towards Cordelia, available now at various online bookstores in both hardcover and paperback as well as Kindle.
In many ways, it's hard to believe that this took place seven years ago today. I'm living with HIV. I'm a survivor. In many ways, it doesn't feel like it, but in others, the anxiety that it brings is all too real. My body's natural defenses against disease are shot and I may never recover fully. This is my reality. So part of my advocacy work includes a plea to get tested - because with this disease, symptoms may not appear until it's too late. It almost was for me. As it is, I was most likely weeks or days away from dying when- they caught it in- my system.
The road was dry and dusty where the man sat, dirty and disheveled on the steps of the church. Here, he sat day in and day out, begging for money just to get by. As people shuffled in and out of the church, they were careful to step around him, ignoring his cries for help - some even going out of their way to exit another way just to avoid him.
“Please!,” the man cried out as the congregants walked past him. Some, out of pity, dropped a few coins into his outstretched hand but did nothing to console or empathize with his pain, their superficial generosity only serving to ease their guilty conscience rather than help the man. “After all,” they would tell themselves, “he must have done something to deserve this.”
The man collapsed in agony, sobbing into his hands and wondering how in the world he got here. All alone. Abandoned. “There must be some reason,” he thought to himself, “there’s got to be a reason why I’m here. All alone. Unable to see.”
The story isn’t full of details, but one can only imagine that after the discovery that this man was blind, his parents - and his world - turned against him. No job. No healthcare. No help except the crumbs - the pennies - tossed to him as people hurried out of the doors of the church and on about their daily lives. Now, at 30 years old, this man had begun to believe that he was born cursed. Born with this punishment hanging over his head. Born to be exiled. Born to die alone. Without hope.
“Why me?,” the man sobbed, “what did I do to deserve this???”
“Yes,” a voice asked from the darkness, “what did this man do to deserve this? Was it his parents? His grandparents?”
Realizing that he was the topic of this conversation, the man began to cower and back until he reached the temple wall and couldn’t retreat anymore.
“Neither,” came another voice, speaking with a sense of authority that caught the man off guard. “There’s nobody to blame. There’s nothing to point to. Sometimes these things happen - but God, through everything, can bring glory and healing in its midst if you know how to look. Watch. I’ll show you what I mean.”
With that, the man felt a warm and soft compound being rubbed onto his eyes, with the instruction given, “go and wash this off in the pool of Siloam.”
Now, normally the man would question what was going on, but the voice spoke with such authority that he left, searching in the darkness for the pool, and, upon finding and washing in it, he opened his eyes to see for the first time.
It was the summer of 2013, and I had been hired by a local water park to play the part of DJ and emcee for their weekend fireworks shows. In exchange, our family was given credit that we were able to use in the park for food and snacks on top of admission for ourselves and our friend. It was a welcome respite for us from the summer heat that much of California’s Central Valley is known for.
Anyone who has been to a water park understands why it didn’t completely surprise me when I began to battle various MRSA infections after a few visits to the park, along with a scalp that began peeling and flaking with what would later become severe dermatitis. And since that’s probably not that much of a surprise to you, it wasn’t for me, either.
Regular visits to the doctor led to a regiment of antibiotics and ointments, none of which helped. The sores began to persist and become more frequent. I began to battle with a few episodes of Bell’s Palsy, an ailment that caused half of my face to become temporarily paralyzed. In fact, to this day I still have not recovered full functionality over the muscles in half of my face.
It was a constant struggle to remain conscious as time went on, and fatigue began to take over my body. Slowly, over three years and after several different medications that failed to work, my weight began to dwindle - until one day in the Fall of 2016, when I weighed in at 95 pounds and couldn’t eat because of massive sores that had begun to form in my esophagus. Out of options as to what was causing everything, my doctor sent me to the lab for a round of blood work, and after taking several days off to rest, I tried to muster up the energy to head back to my full-time job as a web designer for a local design and IT firm.
I probably shouldn’t have made the effort, as it was later that morning when I received the call. The type of call that everyone dreads. The call from the doctor’s office. My labs had come back in.
“Yes, Darryl? This is your doctor. I need you to come in right away.”
“But, Doctor, I just got back into work after using up all of my sick pay - I really can’t afford to leave right now. Can’t you just tell me over the phone?”
“No, I’m sorry - but we need you here now.” There was an urgency in his voice that I couldn’t ignore. My heart sank, knowing that it wasn’t going to be good news.
The next hour was a blur as I informed my boss that I was going to need to go to the doctor. I gathered my phone and keys and walked out to my car to begin the mile-long drive to the doctor’s office. I can’t say how long it really took me to get there, other than to say that time went in slow motion as I began to panic about dying - expecting that in a few moments I would be informed that I was dying of cancer.
I began to cry, thinking of my children growing up in a world without me. I began to worry about what still needed to be done at work and at home. The panic began to overtake me as I pulled into the parking lot and made my way up the stairs to my doctor’s office. The receptionist greeted me as I stepped inside, checked me in, and before I knew it, I was sitting in the exam room waiting for the news that would forever change my life.
The room was abnormally cold that morning, and the protective paper on the exam table crinkled under me as I shifted my weight, nervously awaiting the doctor’s arrival. After a few minutes, I couldn’t sit still. I stood up and began pacing in the small room. A slight knock on the door, the handle turned, and the door opened. It was time.
The doctor stepped in, closing the door behind him. He peeled the stethoscope from the dark skin of his neck, almost as if he needed to rid himself of everything sterile in an effort to connect with me on a more personal level. I looked at him, trying to read his eyes for any sign of the reason for the urgency in his earlier call.
“Hey, Darryl - how are you feeling today?” His voice almost sounded nervous. Had he ever done this before — broken the bad news to a patient?
“I’m okay, I guess,” I replied shakily. “Just wondering why you needed me here.”
“Well, it might be best if you sat down for this,” he said, motioning me back towards the table.
My heart sank. Here it was. The prognosis. I sat on the exam table, the white protective paper crinkling and loudly breaking the silence in the room as I adjusted to a place where I could be comfortable. Well, at least as comfortable as one can be when they’re about to receive news like I was expecting.
“Well, Darryl, your lab work came back.”
“And I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but you’re HIV positive.”
What I really heard was, “congratulations, Darryl - you don’t have cancer!” A slight smile cracked over my face.
“Do you have any questions for me?,” he asked after a moment.
I shook my head.
“Well, I’m going to step outside now and return with more lab orders.”
The door opened and shut.
HIV positive. When did I…? How did I…? And then it hit me. Ten years earlier. That one fateful night. And it was then that I felt the blood drain from my face and my stomach fall. My past had finally caught up with me, and I had received the punishment for my sins. This was my death sentence, and I could no longer keep it hidden. This is what I deserved; after all, it was my fault, wasn’t it?
I took my first steps out of the office that day knowing that everything to come from here would be different. I don’t even remember making it to my car, but I do remember picking up my phone and dialing my wife, who was at a gathering on the other side of town.
“Hi, honey,” she said.
“H-h-h-h-hi,” I stammered.
“I’m at the doctor’s.”
“Did they figure out what’s wrong?”
“Well, um… yes.”
The words caught in my throat for what felt like forever before I was able to finally get it out: “They said I’m HIV positive.”