Thursday, May 22, 2008

More Than A Walk In The Park

On Sunday, October 6th, I proudly joined more than 14,000 men, women, and children who turned out for AIDS Walk ‘96, a 5-Kilometer fundraiser for local AIDS service organizations. By any measure, this year’s event - the Seventh Annual - was a tremendous success, with over half of a million dollars raised.

When I arrived at Balboa Park just after 9:00am, the crowds were already beginning to gather. Bright yellow signs served as guidons, and team members rallied together in preparation for the walk. I joined the team from AIDS Foundation San Diego - where I work as a bookkeeper - and we all laughed as the photographer made us move closer and closer “into the shot” as he took our team picture. At 10:00, the walk officially began, and for the next hour the park was a blur of matching shirts, water bottles, and colorful signs as AIDS Walk ‘96 completed its transformation from plans and arrangements to reality.

It happened just as I rounded the bend and headed towards the organ pavilion. I was laughing at something a friend had said, when I looked up to see a walker coming towards me. She had evidently been well ahead of me, because she was already on her way back. Her stride was swift and purposeful, and she wasn’t laughing. Instead, she appeared to be holding back tears, her energy focused on her steps so as not to allow for even a moment’s chance to cry. Above her head she held a sign with a picture of a smiling young man, and the caption under the photo read “For my brother, who no longer walks alone.”

Instantly, I stopped laughing, and my breath caught in my throat. The enormity of the day - thousands and thousands of walkers raising thousands and thousands of dollars - all meant little compared to the pain so indelibly etched on the face of this woman. She wasn’t dressed as part of a team, and I doubt she was among those of us laughing earlier as we jockeyed for the best position in our group pictures.

No, I imagine before the walk began she sat by herself somewhere, fighting a grief so consuming it threatened to strike her immobile. With a strength known only to those who have stood by and watched a part of themselves slip away forever, she willed her body to stand and to move. When the walk began, her passionate pace moved her quickly towards the front of the pack, but she was probably as oblivious of her place in the crowd as she was of the size of the crowd itself. She could have been walking alone.

It’s fairly easy to understand the pain she feels, even if I can’t know its depth. Less obvious to me is her reason for taking part in the AIDS Walk. Perhaps it was a last promise to her brother, a vow to be a voice for him and others after their own voices were silenced. Maybe it’s part of a deal with god, her actions a down payment of sorts for her brother’s new found peace. Hell, maybe she just decided to walk instead of crying her way through another morning.

Throughout the walk, my thoughts kept returning to this woman. I wondered about her brother, about what his life might have been like. For the millionth time in my own life, I wondered about the insanity of a child preceding his parents to the grave. I thought of my own family, and of friends gone too soon. With tears on my face, I thought of my own reasons for taking part in the AIDS Walk.

From the bottom of my heart, I am grateful to all who participated in AIDS Walk 96. For some the day was an opportunity to find support from a compassionate community. For others, it was a chance to raise money while sharing time with friends, families, and co-workers. For all of us, though - mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, children, friends and lovers - whether we wore a smile or fought back tears, Sunday was anything but just another day in the park.

Originally published in the San Diego Gay & Lesbian Times, October 1996