Opening Wide: Life Lessons Learned (and Taught) in the Unlikeliest of Places.
Seeing so many different students at the dental school where I receive my care over the past 7 years, I have developed a knack for establishing an instant rapport with these bright-eyed and bushy-tailed grad students, all of whom are required to take my medical history as part of our first meeting. When they see my own ease about being a “Last Man Standing” in relation to my HIV, contracted way back in 1982, the conversation often opens up to what it was like to live through those first desperate, pre-drug-cocktail years — most of which occurred before they were even born. Despite my flair for exaggeration, no hyperbole is required to describe that time. It was as inherently melodramatic an era as World War II was for my parents’ generation, stories about which I drank in 40 years ago, just as these students listen to mine now.
When I was 22, I was living the beginning of a trauma that would define the first half of my adult life, but that certainly doesn’t mean that period wouldn’t have been as sharply etched into my consciousness had AIDS never been more than the plot of a Michael Crichton thriller. “Intense” is the word that applies to almost everyone during their twenties. I shed just as many tears over love affairs gone wrong as I did over fear of getting sick; a dashed career hope was no less painful just because it wasn’t as painful as the loss of a friend. Recognizing how my day-to-day experience actually was back then has been essential for communicating with the younger generation in a way that doesn’t minimize their preoccupations now as somehow less consequential than mine were then. When it’s your own life, it’s just as consequential.
What these young people lack that I can offer them is a gift that only comes with age: Perspective.
Armed with this awareness, I often segue from living historian to village elder as I get to know these students. I am as old as their parents but not their parents, and speed therapy sessions often result from a chemistry that arises in the peculiar intimacy in which a complete stranger is trusted to put sharp tools deep in the mouth of another complete stranger. (It doesn’t hurt that I’m quick with a funny one-liner. Humor is truly the ultimate social lubricant.)