We’ll Walk This Path Together
This column was originally published, in a somewhat different form, as "Via Dolorosa" on August 4, 2008.
My beloved friend, I got your news yesterday.
I was here in this same Internet cafe from which I write you now, catching up on my email, when I read the news about your test result. The shock of it was like a deluge of ice water. Instantly submerged, instantly numb and frightened, I scarcely recall what I did for the next few hours. Did I send you a letter yesterday? I meant to. If not, here is the letter I wanted to write you the moment I got your news.
First off, know this: the fact that you're now HIV positive doesn't change anything. I don't judge you. I don't look down on you. You are still my friend, and I still admire you for your civic engagement, your love of music, and your intellectual brightness. I even admire your Christian faith, which I don't share, but which you have given me new respect for by living the way a Christian is supposed to live: with kindness, with compassion, with understanding and fortitude. Your body may harbor a virus now, but I trust that your spirit has lost none of its essential, lovely qualities.
Today I share hard, shocking news with you about your health--news that will probably affect you in ways deep and superficial for the rest of your life. But today I hold you more precious than I did before. I love you more deeply and more completely. I wish to protect you from anyone who would denigrate you. I want to bring you healing. I know I can't fix you, but if I can offer you comfort, solace, good cheer, a smile to stow in your pocket as a ration to resort to in times of distress--then I will.
Your news woke something ferocious and protective inside me--and it gave me courage I never had before. Imagine someone as claustrophobic as I am actually walking a narrow, quarter-mile-long tunnel deep under the earth. The passage is known as the Hezekiah tunnel. It's a deep, narrow channel carved into the bedrock under the city that allowed spring water to flow in under Jerusalem's walls. The tunnel is narrow, sometimes so low you have to stoop to get through, and it's cold and humid enough that in places you can see your breath. The ancient channel is utterly unlit (you need a flashlight), and water still flows through it: knee-deep, and cool, and constant.
The very invitation to join friends on the excursion terrified me. I said no, but then I reconsidered after learning of your diagnosis. I decided that you have a deeper, scarier path to travel right now, one that may lead through darkness and terror, but that will resurface, I believe, on the other side of a wall, just as the Hezekiah tunnel does, back into light and joy and warmth. If I am to make the offer to walk with you, to be there for you when you need me, then don't I need to face my fears too? Should I not also walk a dark and fearsome path?
But the Hezekiah tunnel wasn't scary, as I expected it would be; it was exhilarating. Every moment, every slow and slogging step, was a marvel and a new vista. Time unfolded along with the path ahead, each heartbeat like a footstep forward, always forward, through the dark, through a channel carved in stone and history. Where was the sense of panic and suffocation I had so often suffered? No such affliction found me now. I walked into a new place within myself by walking that dark subterranean path.
The convent where we're staying is located right on the Via Dolorosa--the path Jesus followed with his cross on his back. How fitting is that? Indeed, how fitting that of all places on Earth, it's in this holy city of Jerusalem that I share your heartbreak, and share with you the sights and the wonders that the city has offered on the very same day as your wrenching announcement.
You say that you are passing through moments of darkness and light right now. Let me walk with you. If this is your Via Dolorosa, your path of pain and sadness, let me take some of that pain and sadness off your shoulders. Let me offer you a joke, a smile, a reassuring word, and the promise that any time you need me I am here. Let me continue to share my burdens with you. What breaks one heart is mended by two.
You grieve for the life you knew, but your life is hardly over. There is still room for joy, there are still years of work and travel and the love of your friends and your family. When life changes, it opens up in new directions. Life, you noted to me in your letter, may not feel as carefree now, but it can be as meaningful and rich... more so... than it ever used to be. Your anger at yourself for what you call your carelessness and stupidity is natural, but it will pass. Yes, this news changes you, but won't estrange you from your essential self: your kindness, your concern, the lovely things about you that we esteem, we who are your family and your friends.
You find yourself on a path you didn't expect to walk. Let's walk that path together. Let this be a journey toward understanding, and toward God; let this be a pilgrimage and an affirmation of our faiths, as different as they might be. This road might bruise our feet, my beloved friend, but let our hands remain joined and our voices joyous as we tell our stories. This journey through life may mean suffering and sickness as certainly as it means companionship and love--but the destination will make us whole again.