Don’t Look Away
Ten years ago, I traveled to India with friends. On the last day there, I spent some time meeting with prostitutes. I expected to talk to them about the risk of AIDS, but they wanted to talk about stigma. Most of these women had been abandoned by their husbands, and that’s why they’d gone into prostitution. They were trying to make enough money to feed their kids. They were so low in the eyes of society that they could be raped and robbed and beaten by anybody—even by police—and nobody cared.
Talking to them about their lives was so moving to me. But what I remember most is how much they wanted to touch me and be touched. It was as if physical contact somehow proved their worth. As I was leaving, we took a photo of all of us with our arms linked together.
Later that day, I spent some time in a home for the dying. I walked into a large hall and saw rows and rows of cots. Every cot was attended except for one far off in the corner that no one was going near, so I walked over there. The patient was a woman who seemed to be in her 30s. I remember her eyes. She had these huge, brown, sorrowful eyes. She was emaciated, on the verge of death. Her intestines weren’t holding anything, so they had put her on a cot with a hole cut out in the bottom, and everything just poured through into a pan below.
I could tell she had AIDS, both from the way she looked and the fact that she was off in the corner alone. The stigma of AIDS is vicious—especially for women—and the punishment is abandonment.
When I arrived at her cot, I suddenly felt totally helpless. I had absolutely nothing I could offer her. I knew I couldn’t save her, but I didn’t want her to be alone. So I knelt down next to her and reached out to touch her—and as soon as she felt my hand, she grabbed it and wouldn’t let go. We sat there holding hands, and even though I knew she couldn’t understand me, I just started saying, “It’s OK. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.”
We had been there together for a while when she pointed upward with her finger. It took me some time to figure out that she wanted to go up to the roof and sit outside while it was still light out. I asked one of the workers if that would be OK, but she was overwhelmed by all the patients she had to care for. She said, “She’s in the last stages of dying, and I have to pass out medicine.” It was getting late and the sun was going down, and no one seemed willing to take her upstairs.
So finally I scooped her up—she was just skin over a skeleton, just a sack of bones—and I carried her up the stairs. On the roof there were a few of those plastic chairs that will blow over in a strong breeze. I set her down on one, helped prop her feet up on another, and placed a blanket over her legs.
And she sat there with her face to the west, watching the sunset. I made sure the workers knew that she was up there so they could come get her after the sun went down. Then I had to leave her. But she never left me.
Sometimes it’s the people you can’t help who inspire you the most. I knew that the sex workers I linked arms with in the morning could become the woman I carried upstairs that evening—unless they found a way to defy the stigma that hung over their lives.
Optimism for me isn’t a passive expectation that things will get better. It’s a conviction that we can make things better—that whatever suffering we see, no matter how bad it is, we can help people if we don’t lose hope and we don’t look away.