Wednesday, April 20, 2011

My Friend With HIV is Still My Friend

I have found some new friends - fifty of them, in fact. Sometimes their numbers ebb, sometimes they swell, but my friends are always there to meet me every Sunday at 2:00pm. My new friends are all HIV positive.

Most of them are punctual, arriving even before I do - all of them always greet me with a shining smile. We start with an opening prayer, always led by a different friend, and then I proceed to teach a lesson. The lesson is different every week and while I fake it really well, I'm just pretending to know what I'm doing. I teach straight out of a book.

Like any class, there are the same few 'students' (though I'd rather call them friends) who actively participate, but all of them are always listening. I can't quite figure out why they, so faithfully, hang on my words (and Joe's), but I'm grateful that they do. I am humbled, in fact, every minute I spend leading these lessons - floating above this capable, commanding, knowledgable person I become every Sunday at 2:00pm.

You see, we started a support group, Joe and I. The capable, commanding, knowledgable teacher exists because she needs to - she provides them with the answers to their questions without judgment (a commodity in a country with such high stigma). Sometimes it's hard to believe the stories I hear, the way they are treated by the very people who's job it is to help and educate. They look at me and say, "If you saw me on the street, you'd never know I was HIV positive. You'd treat me like a normal person."

I suppose that's why we're friends - I do consider them normal people. And I guess that's why they're so eager to meet with me every week - they get to be free. There's no stigma amongst friends: my friend with HIV is still my friend, as the saying goes...

Friends exchange stories; friends laugh and smile with each other; friends seek answers and advice from one another - there is nothing friends do that we don't, every Sunday at 2:00pm. I am convinced it's not a support group they need, anyway. The word 'support group' suggests an inequality between us - the helper and the lesser fortunate who are helped. I am learning just as much from them as they are from me and, if that isn't a friendship, I've been wrong for most of my life. All any of us ever needs is a friend.

Lucky me: I've just gained fifty.