Yours in the struggle,

All of my emails close with “Yours in the struggle,” these are more than words, the phrase represents an homage to my friend and partner in crime, Michael Hirsch.  I came to Washington in 1985 to fight the epidemic, I had no idea which way was up.  I knew little about DC and had scramble from day one.  Michael was one of the first leaders to take me under his wing.  He was the quid essential New York activist: loud, outrageous, maddening, and fun. He was the best teacher and the first executive director of the New York People with AIDS Coalition and the Body Positive.

Michael loved to infuse during meetings.  He said it was to remind the world that HIV was about real people with real problems.  It was because of Michael that I got accepted into the PWA community.  Even though I was HIV negative, he insisted I attend organizing meetings that would later become the National Association of People with AIDS.  As I look back, I think he knew it would be important to have someone who survived and remembered.  I am the last one alive from the original 33 organizers, I hold the memory of those amazing activists. 

In those days we didn’t have email, Michael would write long letters that were diatribes about life, the movement, his frustrations, and joy. They were intimate letters between someone who was dying and someone who would remember. In many ways, they were the culmination of his life. He would close each letter with “Yours in the struggle”.

Last week I wrote about the New York City AIDS Memorial, I mistakenly said the memorial was across the street from St. Luke’s Roosevelt, it’s really St. Vincent’s.  The following story happened at St. Vincent’s and illustrates why I am not OK.  I wrote this piece in 2004.  It’s updated because the memorial triggered memories that I thought I had buried. 

I Got the Call
If you did AIDS work in the 80s or early 90s, you know the one. It’s the call where they say you need to come to the hospital/ hospice/home quickly because your friend was about to pass. When I got the call for Michael Hirsch, I was in Washington, DC.  So I hopped the shuttle to New York, praying he would hold on so I could say goodbye. The taxi ride from LaGuardia to St. Vincent’s was one of the longest in my life.

As I rushed down the hospital’s hall, I saw Michael’s mother and sister sobbing.  My heart sank, was I too late?  Just then Rona Affoumado came up to me and said “Oh God, you made it. The family just decided to pull the plug.”  I wasn’t’ too late.

Rona escorted me into Michael’s room.  It was all pumps and whistles from the many machines trying to keep him alive. It had that funny smell, the smell of death.  Michael had been unconscious for the last 24 hours, the morphine had stopped the pain and allowed him to sleep.  When they turned off the machines, there was an eerily silence.  I held Michael’s hand and told him how much I loved him.  Just then, his eyes opened and a single tear rolled down his cheek... and then he was gone.

The nurse said that opening his eyes was probably just a muscle reflex, but to me it was a sign. It was Michael saying goodbye, to remember him, and to honor his legacy.  That evening I had dinner at Judy Peabody’s and sob into her custom Bill Blass suit. 

To honor Michael, I close all of my emails with “Yours in the struggle”.  While I am sure he appreciates being remembered, I also know Michael would not want me dwelling on the past.  There is too much work to do, too many fights to be fought.  In his memory, I invite you to join me in San Francisco for this year’s National HIV PrEP Summit.  To talk about the future of biomedical HIV prevention and working with the new administration.  Our work is the best way to honor those who are gone too soon. 

Yours in the struggle,

Paul Kawata
Executive Director


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