Robert, age 62 / Medicine Hat, Canada


I was born in Louisville, Kentucky. I moved to Montreal, Canada, and lived for some 15 years in Germany, and now I’m living in the west of Canada. A small town called Medicine Hat, Alberta.  I went there as an artist in residence for the college. It’s a very small town, mostly driven by oil, research, and farming and ranching. But there’s a very strong – SMALL, but strong – cultural community there.

I’ve been in different types of classical music: early music, contemporary music, both in voice and in cello. I did one year of playing jazz, just for the heck of it. And I’ve always sung. I started singing when I was about 7 years old. But my real love is classical music.

My present doctor, he’s actually one of the major researchers in western Canada. And when I do performances, I credit him with keeping me alive. And I don’t mean it as a joke at all. I’m a very bad patient. And he has been most persistent and resilient and caring and understanding and everything you could want in a doctor.

I have been aware almost 28 years now. I became aware of it through my partner. He had contracted it, we assume, from another person he knew before me. I got a call that we had to see his doctor. And I didn’t know what that was about. When I arrived, the doctor told us that we had contracted – he didn’t say “AIDS,” he said “the gay disease.” And though I cannot remember that doctor’s face, I will forever remember his words. There was this, mmmmm… irreverence about the way he treated us. I’ll never forget that.

Actually, my tools were ones that I cannot recommend. My main tool was denial. I simply just didn’t believe it or didn’t wanna deal with it. Occasionally I would get sick, and have to go to a doctor, who would remind me that, okay, you’re HIV-positive. And I would let them treat me for a month or two, and then forget about it.

I used my profession, my music, to just eradicate any thoughts of, of , of– of my health. Just work, work, work, and – until I‘d have a real breakdown of sorts. There was a point where I developed colitis, I guess I was on the verge of death, I didn’t know.

And I suppose I could say, somewhat, I used my partner for that.  He was very rational. So when I would start to show any kinds of a sickness, he would see to it that I take care of it right away. Although, the rest of the time he would leave me alone because it was a sore point. I think now I can almost admit that there was an underlying anger that I had probably contracted it through him. That was NEVER said, never even discussed or mentioned, but it was really a sore point. Yeah.

I do presentations talking about how music can make a difference. The first recognition is that it’s… soothing, psychologically. I may have a theory that it actually helps to heal you. That something happens on the cellular level that heals. I think that’s one of the original uses of the arts. Not just edification, I think it was used to develop a sense of holistic wellness. And I’m not the only one, certainly; aboriginal cultures have espoused that.

It’s interesting to note that my partner, who did everything possible to stay healthy, and researched every pill put into his mouth, passed away 10 years ago. And I, who refused to put any of those things in my mouth but had my music, am still here.

The most devastating part about dealing with HIV when you’re over 50, as I feel it, is isolation. I have friends with whom I can discuss this business, and other friends who would never want to share it at all. I guess they’ve sort of sifted themselves out, and I know that the ones who did want to discuss it were my REAL friends.

And unfortunately, people are so afraid of the stigma that they isolate themselves even further. It’s really one on one, whereas, we could have groups of over 50s. No, they don’t want anyone else to know. So it’s my job to say, “That’s– that’s poppycock! And, and… own up to what our life is about. If it’s not for ourselves, the generation after us needs it.”

Stigma is not always overt, as I know from the black struggle, right? As WE ALL know from the black struggle. It stings just as much when people don’t want to… drink from your drink because you have HIV. Stigma that says, “You’re fine – EVEN THOUGH you have HIV.” That’s just as cutting as, as saying, “You’re not fine.” “You’re fine. See how open I am? We LET you play with the kids!”

If it’s someone that I really call a friend, I call them on it. I make them aware of just what they said. And I try to do it without any animosity, but I do let them know that it hurts on an emotional level – that’s what’s most important. This whole rationalization of it, or you know, using some hyper-intellectual analysis – that would do nothing. But to let them know, “You just hurt me,” seems to have much more effect.

I do believe that my family will want to support me, but I know that for some of them, it’s an embarrassment. That’s really what it is. It’s not that they hate me; it’s simply an embarrassment. My having HIV is an acknowledgment of so many things which are against the principles of our little black Christian community. And who am I to override those principles, right? And I’ve had dreams of this – the vision of the funeral, with the casket there, and I’m lying inside it. And there’s my sister, and my two brothers, and nobody else. That’s, uh… yeah. Big concern.

You can’t underestimate the power of friends. I tried to commit suicide twice. I know that often a person who attempts suicide is accused of trying to get attention. Um, that’s really callously said, I feel, but probably there is some truth to that as well. If it’s not to get attention, it’s to know who WOULD give attention.

And in my case, sort of a quartet of friends just jumped in there and wouldn’t let me do this to myself and made it clear that I meant something to them. And that it would hurt them if I were to succeed in my attempts. And one of them in particular – she’s a nurse – fought with the idea that this HIV-thing was worth killing yourself over. I mean, that wasn’t my only catalyst, but it was one big one. She made me realize that, with the antiretrovirals that I’m on, I’m not gonna die, you know, I’ll die from something else before I’ll die from HIV. And that had never been conscious before that moment. I just was sort of wallowing in the paaaaaiiiinnn of it all, you know? Yeah.