[oasis][columns]

by Doug Ferguson
May 1996

"If you knew you were going to die, would you go down with a whimper ... or with a roar?"

As I stood outside CaffeTrio on a cool October evening last year, I felt like wandering for hours beneath the half moon and crumpled leaves that danced spiraling circles in the sky.

I had no reason to be there. A simple whim had carried me into a late-night movie and then back out onto the soon-to-be silent streets downtown. As so often happens with me, the movie had left me dazed and philosophical. Smug fraternity boys wandered by in their ties, attached to flighty girls with nervous giggles. They seemed no more real to me than characters in the just-ended movie.

I resisted the urge to shatter their meaningless conversation with just a taste of my reality.

A question had entered my mind and was playing itself out over and over again. I knew it wasn't an original thought, but I wanted to claim it as my own. At the time, it seemed a perfectly profound question to ask.

"If you knew you were going to die, would you go down with a whimper ... or with a roar?"

The question again. It had to be asked, or I knew that I never would go to sleep. All I needed was a sympathetic ear.

Across the street, a woman danced beneath the fluorescent street lights on campus. An old man stumbled over the curb, mumbling obscenities with beer-stained breath. A boy drove by slowly in a souped-up sedan.

Who could I ask? After all, it was not your typical question. I wasn't asking for directions to the Student Union ... for a cigarette ... for the time.

I was asking about death. And I wanted some honest answers.

Then I saw her. Sitting on the sidewalk beneath the movie marquee, a young woman with a shaved head was putting crayon to paper by the neon glow of Pepper's Pizza.

I hadn't seen her before, and looking back now, I suppose she was a pretty unusual sight -- even for Chapel Hill. That night, however, she looked perfectly natural sitting there in the dark, and somehow I knew she was the right person to ask.

"If you knew you were going to die," I began, "Would you go down with a whimper ... or with a roar?"

She looked up from her scrap of paper. A purple polar bear smiled blindly out into the night.

"I don't know," she answered thoughtfully. "Why? Are you dying?"

It was a good question -- one I probably should have expected in response to my own. But for some reason, hearing those words spoken aloud caught me off guard. I sat down heavily beside her.

It had been only four months since I learned of my HIV status, and I had not yet discovered what to do with that knowledge. Although the doctors told me I could expect eight to ten years of healthy living (sounds like a prison sentence, doesn't it?), I still heard a clock ticking away somewhere, counting off the precious minutes of my life.

"Yes," I answered. "AIDS."

She smiled knowingly at me as she pulled a video tape from a small suitcase and turned it over in her hands.

"My father just died today," she said quietly. "Cancer. He made this tape for me before he died, and I haven't found the courage to watch it."

"Most people would like to go down with a roar," I whispered, still absorbed in my own thoughts. "But it's not easy to find that kind of strength."

I didn't think it was unusual that the first person I approached that night also was dealing with death. I was feeling perfectly surreal at the time, and her responses to my questions seemed just as dreamlike as the rest of my evening had been.

"I always roared before this summer," I continued. "But now all I can do is whimper."

She smiled again. A hint of bourbon tickled my nose.

"Would you like a flower?" she asked, pulling a lavender clover from her scattered belongings.

As we talked quietly into the night, I found myself telling this perfect stranger ... a wonderful lesbian with a shaved head and purple crayon polar bear ... things I could not tell my own parents. I had spent many nights alone recently, trying to sort out the meaning of my life. But being able to speak of my doubts and fears aloud was a new experience for me.

Questions tumbled out one after another as I sorted through my jumbled thoughts. The young woman spoke of her father, as well, and how he had fought his cancer to the very end. He had gone out with a roar, she said, and she planned to watch the tape that night.

I had been feeling very weak recently, nothing like the idealistic young man I had been just a few short months before. But sharing my hopes and fears with this mysterious woman who had just lost her father somehow gave me back the strength I'd been missing.

Later, as I drifted away into the night -- feeling just a little more like roaring -- I twirled a lavender flower between my trembling fingers.


Doug Ferguson is a third-year student in the School of Law at the University of North Carolina and a member of the Human Rights Campaign Fund Board of Governors. His columns initially appeared weekly in the Daily Tar Heel, and are appearing in Oasis in their original, chronological order.
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