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AIDS makes life a goal each day

Published Oct. 16, 2005

Monday night: In a far corner of a conference room at Tampa General Hospital, a man is curled up in a wheelchair. His body, and bones is all he seems to be, is wrapped in a yellow blanket. Beneath his eyes, his skin is just a brown smear. It hurts to look at him.

The conversation among the half-dozen other men in the room _ all of them suffering from AIDS, like the man in the wheelchair, or HIV positive _ goes on despite him. Nobody seems to be watching him. But nobody forgets his presence.

Tuesday afternoon:

Donald Haffey, one of the men in the room the night before, is sunk into his living room sofa, remembering his friend in the wheelchair.

"I don't want to go that way, but I know it's coming," he says. "I'm much sicker than I was before, but I'm still healthy enough."

So he can still go to the grocery, still take out the garbage, still drive the car.

But he's losing the feeling in his feet and thinks he soon won't know the difference between the gas and brake pedals. He tires easily, his skin has the texture of a drying leaf, and he has lost so much weight that his bearded face looks Lincolnesque.

The doctors say this look is the result of the wasting-away syndrome.

But when Donald Haffey opens his mouth, out comes an insistent voice, a native New Yorker's voice. The kind best suited for hailing cabs, demanding pastrami sandwiches and telling wry jokes about life.

"What's important is that every day I get up, I get something done. I do something for somebody else," he says, waving a long, thin arm and smoking a cigarette, his only pleasure.

"I set goals. To be alive for Thanksgiving and my birthday, and Christmas and New Year's, and then my mother's birthday."

"I went out with the Christmas money I got from her, and I bought all new Christmas decorations for next year, Christmas 1990. If I can maintain myself, I'll get there. I'll be weaker, but I'll get there."

He is 42. It has been five years since his circle of friends, all gay men like himself, began to shrink.

"'I lost my lover, two ex-lovers. And of all of my friends, I have only two left."

That was in New York. He gave away his photographs of his friends, packed up everything else and moved 18 months ago to start over in Tampa.

He had been here only three months when he was told the news that he had long expected. He had the disease that had killed nearly everybody he once knew. Some of the AIDS patients he has met since he got here are also dead.

Those who were treated at Tampa General's protective care unit for AIDS patients, are being memorialized at a special service Tuesday night. Donald already has been in the unit, with a case of pneumonia last summer that nearly killed him. But he wants no part of the prayers Tuesday night.

"'I'm not going to the service. I've done that too many times."

Tuesday night:

The service is at Jesuit High School. Only about 40 people are in the school's chapel, although at least 90 people who died from AIDS have been through Tampa General.

The program lists the names of the dead, including somebody named Rusty, somebody else named Alfredo _ both of them friends of Donald Haffey's.

Several people make speeches. The head nurse from the AIDS unit can't get through hers without choking up. A doctor who treats those with AIDS speaks admiringly of their courage in the face of death.

A woman sings a throaty rendition of Amazing Grace while two other women, dressed in white, dance gently in front of the altar. They end holding their arms outstretched before the crucifix, as though it might reveal an answer.