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Yours In The Struggle

Yours in the Struggle: Remembering My Past (Part I)
by Paul A. Kawata, Executive Director, National Minority AIDS Council

Yours in the struggle
 is how I close all of my e-mails. For me it's not just a sentence, it's an homage to my friend and partner-in-crime, Michael Hirsch

When I first came to Washington, I had no idea which way was up. The serendipity of me getting this new job, without any knowledge of DC, meant that I had to scramble from day one. Michael was one of the first persons to take me under this wing. He was the quintessential New York Jewish Gay Activist. He was outrageous, maddening, and I loved him dearly. He was also the first executive director (ED) of the New York People with AIDS (PWA) Coalition and the first ED of Body Positive. 

Michael used to come to NAN (National AIDS Network) board meetings and infuse during the meeting. He always wanted to remind us that HIV was about real people with real problems. It was because of Michael that I was accepted into the PWA community. He was the one that insisted that I attend organizing meetings that would later become the National Association of People with AIDS (NAPWA).

In those days, we didn’t have e-mail, so Michael would write me these long diatribes about life, the movement, his frustrations and his 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”. 

The Call
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/partner/child is about to pass. When I got the call for Michael, I was in Washington and needed to rush to New York. I remember hopping the shuttle and praying that he would hold on so I could say goodbye. The taxi ride from LaGuardia to Saint Vincent’s was one of the longest in my life. 

As I rushed down the hall, I saw Michael’s mother and sister sobbing. My heart sank, I thought he was gone. Just then Rona Affoumado came up to me and said “Oh God, you just made it. The family has 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. As they turned the machines off, there was a eerie 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 would later tell me that his opening his eyes was probably just a reflex, but to me it was a sign. It was Michael saying goodbye, to remember him, and to honor his legacy. 
I share my story about Michael because sometimes we forget why we are fighting. Yes the medications will prolong your life, but we still don’t have a cure. We have people on waiting lists to get their HIV medications - and community organizations closing their doors. With them goes the years of experience and infrastructure, and rising HIV rates in gay men, particularly Black and Latino gay men, and Black women who shoulder an unacceptable burden of HIV infection. And every year, there are 56,000 more cases of HIV. 

So I close all of my letters and e-mails with “Yours in the struggle”. I do it to honor Michael’s life and the lives of all the Michaels we lost too soon. Please keep the faith, keep fighting, and know that NMAC is in your corner. Read this story and others on my blog at http://aidsjournal.blogspot.com.

Yours in the Struggle, 

Paul Kawata
Executive Director 
National Minority AIDS Council

About NMAC
The National Minority AIDS Council (NMAC) builds leadership within communities of color to address challenges of HIV/AIDS. Since 1987, NMAC has advanced this mission through a variety of programs and services, including: a public policy education program, national and regional training conferences, a treatment and research program, numerous publications and a website. Today, NMAC is an association of AIDS service organizations providing valuable information to community-based organizations, hospitals, clinics and other groups assisting individuals and families affected by the AIDS epidemic. NMAC's advocacy efforts are funded through private funders and donors only. Visit the agency online at 
http://www.nmac.org/and http://www.facebook.com/. 

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