No-Accounts

The book of mine that sells the best is my novel about the fall of Saigon, Last of the Annamese. But the book that critics have shown the most respect for is No-Accounts, drawn from the five years I took care of men dying of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

Back in the 1980s when the AIDS epidemic was at its peak, I read in the press about men dying on the street because no one dared touch them lest they, too, contract the deadly disease called AIDS. I couldn’t tolerate the very idea of allowing men to die untended. I told my wife that I wanted to volunteer to care for AIDS patients. That might mean that I’d contract the disease. If I did, she would, too. Back then, it was always fatal. She told me to go ahead.

By the time we learned to counter AIDS and prevent people from dying, I had spent five years taking care of seven men, all gay, all of whom died of AIDS. I loved every one of my patients and still grieve over their deaths. It turned out that AIDS was transmitted not by touch but by the transfer of bodily fluids, so I was safe. I did, in fact, accidentally prick myself with a hypodermic needle I had just used to inject one of my patients, but AIDS never showed up in my bloodstream.

The experience of caring for these men and watching them die changed me. I realized that most of us are so afraid of mortality that we go to great lengths to avoid even a semblance of death. I had seen men die many times on the battlefield in Vietnam. My willingness to face death squarely set me aside from everyone I knew. I realized that the dying were too often ignored because everyone was so frightened of death. So I volunteered to work with the dying. For the next seven years—after my five years working with AIDS patients—I was a hospice volunteer and cared for more than thirty people on their death beds.

More next time.

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