An AIDS Story from the ‘80s. How far have we come? Part I

John Herlin

John Herlin

About a week before John died, he demanded I take him out for a drive, against doctor’s orders. The nurse who came to his house every day to administer an IV drove him nuts, he said, by being overly polite and tiptoeing around his room in her red high heels. He couldn’t wait to get away from her and experience real life. As I drove on an overpass on our way to 4th Street for coffee, he ranted about how he craved the truth. Then his voice became serious and gruff. “Elizabeth! Tell me something you don’t like about me!” I recoiled from the challenge, but this could be John’s last request and so fervent, I felt I had no choice but to squeeze an answer out of myself. “You’re too opinionated sometimes, John… And what don’t you like about me?” I asked quickly to change the subject. “You’re too naturally conciliatory,” he said. “I can’t get you to argue with me.” (John was a type 4 on the Enneagram – a Romantic.)

That stung. Just what I most didn’t like about myself in 1988. Why had nobody ever said it before? Painful as it was, John really saw me. Damn! The one person who perceived my private hell was going to die any minute. I parked, and we sat on the sidewalk, leaning against a building for about 20 minutes, while John gathered his strength to cross the road to the café. He insisted on fetching his own coffee. Then he took the most agonizing steps of his life, he told me, yet he was exhilarated to be out one last time.

In June 1986 John Herlin was weary from twenty years balancing being the best teacher he could be with taking nature photographs, writing poetry, debating friends, hiking the regional parks around Berkeley, California, and traveling the world. So he took a vacation in Hawaii. Two weeks after coming home early with what he thought was the flu, he was still sick and short of breath. His lungs contained 48 percent of their normal oxygen and were clouded. Doctors diagnosed him with pneumocystis pneumonia, which could only mean AIDS, and kept him in the hospital for 18 days. Eighteen months later he died in the AIDS epidemic at almost 48.

John was one year younger than I was and one of the best friends I ever had. I admired him for demanding authenticity in himself and his friends. The conscience his rigidly religious mother instilled in him drove him to do good deeds, such as taking elderly neighbors grocery shopping regularly. At the same time he rebelled from her teachings. He was a maverick and flirted with the dark side—a trickster with a smile to match.

John told me he had a repressed childhood. He suffered angst over his sexual identity, and tried to resist being gay in his home state of Wisconsin. As a young man, he moved to Berkeley, where he found a sense of belonging and freedom. He joined a gay support group and felt at home. Years later, he plunged into helping others with HIV-AIDS, volunteering to answer phones at the AIDS Project and speaking publicly on the epidemic. He used himself as an example of a person with AIDS to help educate health workers and those vulnerable to getting the disease.

This is Part I of an expanded story from Chapter 4 in The Enneagram of Death. Part II will appear on April 9. Read reviews of The Enneagram of Death – Helpful Insights by the 9 Types of People on Grief, Fear, and Dying and Elizabeth’s 6 other books and CD:


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