abstract blue and black background pattern

The Unwanted Guest

By Brian W. Simpson

I spent the evening of August 11—my birthday—with Chris Camp at his north Baltimore home.

With his shock of white hair and a hefty paunch, Chris could be mistaken for a grandfatherly septuagenarian. Yet he’s only 55, as writer Mat Edelson notes in our cover story, “Staying Positive.” For more than 25 years, Chris and a rotating cast of antiretroviral medications have battled the human immunodeficiency virus that invaded his body and refused to leave. He calls the virus his “Unwanted Guest.”

Art director Robert Ollinger, photographer Chris Hartlove and I had driven to Camp’s home to take photos and shoot some video. After we’d been there a while, Chris brought out an ornate, leather-bound album. “Chris & Jack” painted in gold letters topped the front cover. He leafed through the photos and documents from the 1996 commitment ceremony with his partner. “I was blonde then,” Chris said. In the photos, he appeared trimmer, fitter and much, much younger. Many more years than 15 seemed to separate the two versions of Chris. The Unwanted Guest and the powerful daily meds had written great changes across his features.

As a society, we have a finite capacity for concern. And a powerful propensity to affix a “solved” banner to knotty problems. We want to think antiretrovirals are the solution to HIV, that the drugs mean the problem is over. In developed countries, HIV is referred to as a chronic disease, a term that somehow saps the disease of power and menace. Indeed, many on antiretrovirals can lead more or less normal lives. Yet others like Chris Camp will remind you it is still very much a disease that exacts its toll every day.

On the drive home, I thought about Chris’s fight, how the disease has diminished his life and killed so many others, how we are more fragile than we like to admit. It being my birthday, I couldn’t help but ponder my own mortality as I rolled down Cold Spring Lane.

A chorus of Happy Birthdays greeted me when I arrived home. My wife and kids had made a lopsided chocolate cake for me and pinned it with several tilted candles. (I noted, a tad morosely, that I’m way past the age of having an individual candle for each year.) Pausing a moment from devouring their own slices, the kids watched me expectantly. They wanted to see what I thought of their creation. I took a forkful.

The moment, like the chocolate in the cake, was bittersweet.