Archive for April 2010
“I am HIV positive”
In 1997, at the age of 17, my friend, Clint Walters, spoke these words to a nation after his own diagnosis, in an attempt to break down the barriers and stigma surrounding HIV, and to help others like himself.
On Friday 16th April 2010, we said a final farewell to him in a ceremony of laughter, tears and memories.
While some people may think it’s in bad taste to post a eulogy online, I have been urged to do so with the blessing of Clint’s mother, Wendy, and at the request of people who attended the funeral (and those who couldn’t) as a tribute to Clint’s life and work, and a reminder that the fight against HIV is never over.
The best way we can now honour Clint’s memory is to keep on fighting.
As the curtains closed on him in the crematorium, it seemed only fitting to give him a round of applause. Clint’s life was truly a life worthy of celebration. Here is my tribute to him as I delivered it on the day:
When someone you love is taken from you, it’s easy to put them on a pedestal they don’t actually belong on. It’s easy to forget all the bad stuff and paint a picture of them as some sort of saint.
The cantankerous gin-soaked grandmother who sat in a corner smoking and being miserable suddenly becomes Mother Theresa.
The estranged father you never saw eye to eye with becomes a picture perfect catalogue dad.
But the funny thing is, with Clint, he really does belong on that pedestal. In an age where anyone can become an instant celebrity, loved by millions, simply by joining a reality show and doing something controversial — Clint was different.
He was everything he’s been described as today. Not only a treasured son, brother and friend — but an icon and a trailblazer — who touched hundreds of thousands of lives.
So I’ve struggled to find an appropriate way to mourn the loss of a friend like Clint.
I could cry a river of tears. I could rage at the heavens about how unfair it is that his life was cut short. I could sit consumed with grief that I’ll never see him again.
Believe me, I’ve cried, and I’d be a fool to think there are no more tears to come, but today and in the coming weeks, I’ve chosen to let pride and gratitude be my strongest emotions.
When I read the papers and see a list of achievements as long as my arm, I sit back in amazement at how much this man achieved in thirty years, how many lives he touched, I can’t fail but to burst with pride.
I look at all Clint did, and I see not a life wasted, but a life lived to the full. And I’m so honoured that I can stand in front of you today and say this man was my friend.
He lived in the public eye as an HIV positive man, not because he wanted to be a celebrity, but because he wanted other people to see a person who had decided he would not live with HIV — that HIV would live with him, on his terms.
Clint was born on the 27th August 1979. I was born three days after in another part of the country. Twenty seven years later, we finally met, and straightaway I felt like he was my twin brother and at the same time, my complete and total opposite.
At one point we both had a number 1 crop and we looked like a photo negative of each other! Similar height and build, me with my dark hair and Celtic colouring, him with his blonde crop and permanently healthy sunbed tan.
We were so alike in our passion to use the fact that we were HIV positive and try and help others. But so different in so many ways. When we worked together on the planned Health Initiatives clinic, Clint would take a spiritual stance and look to the heavens for inspiration and guidance. Me, being the logical, methodical creature that I am, would look at a spreadsheet, a budget and a mission statement.
And boy, did we infuriate each other! As my best friend Richard, our perennial hen-pecked mediator will only be too happy to confirm.
I remember one time when I’d stayed up until about 2am proofreading the business plan for the HI clinic and putting together a presentation he was going to take to the Elton John Foundation (I think it was the EJF anyway). I was working as an editor at the time on thirty-five simultaneous projects, so my in tray was pretty full as you can probably imagine!
So I meet him for a lightning quick coffee the next day to run him through what I’d slaved over until the wee hours the night before. He bounds up to me all arms and legs and talking in that deep, sleepy voice of his. This was roughly how the conversation went:
- Thanks for this, but I’m thinking we should probably shelve it for a while, till, like, November
- Why on earth would you want to shelve it till November?
- Because I’ve been to see a fortune teller!
- ……..I’m sorry, what?
- I said I’ve been to see a fortune teller!
- …….I’m sorry, what?
- Yeah, I went last night and she said something brilliant’s going to happen in November, so I’m thinking we should hold off till then!
And if we’d have been in a scene from a film, it would have cut to the street outside and all you’d have been able to hear was a deafening scream — WHAT????? echoing into the sky, with a flock of birds scared into flight.
But there were other times when we were so in sync it was hilarious. When Clint called me and said he’d found a space on Oxford Street for the clinic, we could hardly speak we were so excited. I went with him to see it a few days later and honestly, we were like a newly married couple in our first home!
- And the office is going to go there and the consultation rooms are going to be there….
- (This is going to be the dining room!)
- I really want the reception desk opposite the door so people see a smiling face when they walk in, but then again, I’m torn, because the couch I want to buy looks really comfortable and I want to create a welcoming atmosphere……
- …..What do you think about knocking a wall down? Because I think we should knock that wall down, do you think we should knock that wall down? Yeah, I definitely think we should knock that wall down…..
- And kitchen — yellow or blue?
I’m not the person here who’s known Clint the longest, or even the person in our immediate circle who was closest to him, so I wondered at first whether I was the best person for this job.
But then I realised — there wasn’t a lot you needed to know about Clint, what you saw was what you got — a truly genuine man — and within minutes of meeting him, you felt like you’d known him forever.
In the 90s — a time when HIV was still largely seen as a killer disease, people were almost expected to sit back and accept their fate, but Clint refused to cower. He took his HIV status, made it into a bat and broke through every barrier he came up against.
He was a man with an inexhaustible capacity for love and compassion. He affected — and I dare say saved — the lives of thousands of young people. Whether by arming them with the knowledge to make safer decisions about HIV infection, or through simply being the “someone” you needed when you find out you’re positive and you think you’re all alone.
And I wonder how many people can lay claim to that — in life or in death.
In most photos you see of Clint, he’s got one arm up, punching the air. It’s a fitting way for me personally to remember him, because it’s so representative of the way he lived his life, triumphant, defiant and strong.
He was the person who would still be standing long after everyone else had given up (and the person who’d still be dancing long after they’ve called time, switched the lights on and started sweeping up).
They say the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long — well, excuse my French, but I happen to think that’s a load of crap. You only have to look up on a clear night to see the light from a thousand stars than burned out aeons ago, still shining down.
And that’s how I see Clint. While nobody would argue he left us far too soon, His legacy of love has seared itself onto the hearts of you, me and everyone he helped in his life. In 2009, Clint spoke to POZ magazine about Health Initiatives and his plans for the future
He said: “It’s the new generation that needs to run the project and move it forward. Hopefully they can build upon what I’ve started and make it better.”
Well, we are the new generation. We each now carry him with us wherever we go, and in whatever we do.
So next time you put your arms around a friend who needs a hug, or take the hand of someone in pain, you’re honouring everything he stood for. And that means that no matter how much time passes, Clint’s light will continue to burn – and boy, is it blinding.