The Boy in the Photograph

(From my essay collection “Second Thoughts” – columns from The Beach Reporter. The original essay was published on 4/19/90.)

I didn’t know Ryan White, but I cried when I heard of his death due to complications from AIDS. I cried as a parent, who can’t imagine any worse anguish than losing a child. I cried because the world had lost a person of courage, conviction, and truth – qualities that seem to be in short supply these days. At least among people who make the news.

And in Ryan White’s too-short life, he had become news. In that way the media has of ferreting out what might be a “hot” story, they were on the White family’s trail from the beginning. Ryan became a People cover. He was the subject of a TV movie. He met with Presidents, movie stars, rock stars, and famous athletes. He met with other kids who had AIDS. It seemed he touched everyone he met.

But Ryan’s legacy isn’t just a brave smile staring out at us from a magazine cover. It goes deeper than that. Much deeper. Ryan’s legacy was that he forced us – the average citizens of the U. S. and the world even – to face up to certain unpleasant facts, and make unsettling decisions.
He might not be the one enrolling in your neighborhood’s school today, but perhaps another child will do so tomorrow. It could be someone you know. It could be someone in your own family. AIDS doesn’t discriminate.

So, we are forced to think, to question… What if… What would we do? Would we be one of the compassionate ones and embrace Ryan and his family? Or would we, out of fear and ignorance, demand he be isolated where he couldn’t come in contact with us?

If a friend’s child contracted AIDS would we still have that child over to play? I can certainly understand the desire to protect one’s own. There are not many stronger human drives than to do just that.

But what about the child? What about the person with AIDS? Most people seem to deal with their fear of AIDS by rationalizing that AIDS is something that happens to someone else. Someone gay, or hooked on drugs. Someone different. None of us really believe that we are going to be on the plane when it goes down.

The thing that made us identify with Ryan, right or wrong, is that he wasn’t “different.” He wasn’t one of “them.” He was the boy next door. The sweet-faced boy you see in the church choir. The boy at home plate with a bat in his hand and a determined look in his eye. He was your own son in a parent’s worst nightmare.

Ryan didn’t live his life as though he were in a nightmare. He simply lived his life as any boy would, dreaming of cars, sports, and rock music. He came face-to-face with the ugliest of human emotions, and the most beautiful, and he dealt with both gracefully.

Are there any of us who haven’t wondered how we would live our lives if given a virtual death sentence, as Ryan was? Would we sink through a black hole of despair, or would we rise to meet the challenge? Or perhaps a little of both.

Ryan showed us how it could be done. I’m sure he had moments when he felt he couldn’t cope anymore. I’m sure he had plenty of them. But I can’t picture that side of him.
I prefer to think of the boy in the photograph. An eager youngster carrying a satchel of books on the way to his first day of high school. The school that finally let him in.

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