On Monday, World AIDS Day, I accepted an award from the AIDS Service Foundation of Greater Kansas City – the Mark Dreiling Community Leadership Award – for twenty years of passion for the cause. It was named after my friend Mark who died several years ago from cancer and who was a fierce believer in eradicating AIDS from this planet – or at least from our town. This award humbled me, as I was the first to receive it after it was given to Mark last year posthumously.
In the days since, I have been asked by five people to publish my remarks – two people I know well, and three I don’t really know but who were at the luncheon and sought me out later that day either in person or via e-mail. Again, I am humbled.
I can’t promise that the words below were spoken verbatim, because I only wrote down “bones” for my comments, not a complete script. I also spoke with a voice quivering with passion partnered with eyes brimming with tears. Here are the remarks.
Thank you very much. When I stand here and think about what I have given to the fight against AIDS, I can honestly say that today I have been involved in the delinquency of minors. There are three young people in the audience who could be at school – I don’t know, maybe learning something! – and instead they are here, and I am deeply touched. To you, Dakota and Sawyer and Zach, I say that you saw the numbers and the facts on screen, and I am looking to you to finish what we’ve all started.
I don’t really know when I began hearing voices – not the bad kinds that tell you to do bad things, but the kind that stick with you and become part of who you are. I can clearly remember my parents saying to me that I could be and do anything. The power of those words has fueled me to almost fifty years of age. To you both, I say thanks.
This particular journey actually started with a phone call from Steve Metzler way back in 2000 asking me to serve on the board of the AIDS Service Foundation. You told me, “There really is no time for orientation. You’ll catch on quick and will like this. You can call me anytime.” And I did all of those things. But not without drive by meetings on our street about things I didn’t understand or that I was questioning. Since then, your voice on the phone and in person as I have considered other commitments and board positions has been priceless. I treasure your friendship and your wisdom.
Which leads me to the next voice. A little boy’s voice at bath time. There isn’t a partner, spouse, parent or child in this room who hasn’t lived through what I call the “Litany of Leaving”. It goes like this: “I am heading out to a meeting. I have done these things before I go, I need you to do these things while I am gone, and when I get back we can accomplish these things.” That is the Litany of Leaving.
On this particular night, my son Dakota was maybe three years old. He was splashing in the tub with my husband dutifully near him because you really don’t want the baby to drown because by three you’ve got so much invested. The dog was on the rug looking at me, the room was moist and damp and happy, and I was leaving. I stepped around the dog, and, as I touched the wet blonde head, his little voice said, “Mom? Is it AIDS again?”
Greater than the sound of the splashes and the rubber toys hitting the side of the tub was this voice that has stuck with me since. “Yes,” I said. It was “AIDS again” that was pulling me away from my family, and I told him – to the point where he probably glazed over but I felt better – that we needed to fight to end AIDS so no one suffered anymore…that what I was doing was important for all of us. I had lost him at the word “yes”, and I knew it.
In the silences and the noise, I hear all of you. All of you who taught me the way of beer busts and garage sales at Missy B’s. Standing with you in darkened theaters waiting for performances to end so that we could greet people with buckets after they had been prevailed upon to give. Standing with the same buckets on 47th and any old street asking for more money. With tiles and glaze and high school students. Through walks and runs and rides and golf games, I have heard you all, and you are with me.
And finally, I hear Mark. I will not stand here and pretend that we were close friends. We were not. But we were friends, and I miss him. We served on two boards together, and I felt I had finally joined an elite club when he let me in on his quiet, biting humor. His deep passion for this cause wore off on me, and we ended up sharing much more than either intended.
The first time he called me “Madame President”, I winced, and then I smiled. I hear his voice every time I speak those words to Missy – and, for that matter, most of the other past presidents with which I share the title.
I am deeply touched that the committee chose me only one year after Mark. Thank you. I will not let Mark’s memory fade.
I have worked with all of you in one way or another for the people in our city who struggle with the stigma and the disease. I have said it a million times – and Michael Lintecum is sick of hearing it! – we are all in this together, and none of us accomplishes great things alone.
I firmly believe that when one of us has AIDS, all of us have AIDS. I promised that little boy in the bathtub a world without AIDS in his lifetime.
Thank you for helping me keep that promise.
p.s. Thank you to Theresa Van Ackeren for taking this photo on Monday and to Tom Styrkowicz for sharing his abilities by capturing that image in the first place…and for charity to boot!