The normally wild and boisterous main thoroughfare of St. Catherine suddenly descended into silence. Save for the murmur of traffic in the background, the crowd that had gathered stood still. Faces turned stern, others closed their eyes and lowered their heads. There was coughing, and the occasional sniffing, triggered by a runny nose or perhaps moist eyes. Yellowing leaves rustled overhead, almost careful not to make too much noise.
Two minutes of silence for the victims who have left this world. Two minutes of silence for victims suffering from stigma and ostracism. Two minutes appear to be so short and insignificant in the bustle of daily life. But even in this relatively affluent society, for those dying a slow, painful death because they do not have the financial or medical means to battle an illness that slowly eats away the body’s immune system, two minutes can seem like an eternity .
Then the silence was broken. A frail looking lady walked slowly onto the makeshift podium. She is the mother of Ron Farha, a Montreal businessman who founded the Farha Foundation in 1992 after he was diagnosed with AIDS. Her face was wrinkled with age, experience, or perhaps that indescribable sadness of a mother who has lost her dear child that continues to linger on and on. As she addressed the crowd, her voice was gentle, yet moving , determined yet filled with gratitude and emotion. Despite Farha’s passing, the Foundation he established continues to bear his name and legacy, and has annually organised events to raise awareness and funds for people in Quebec living with HIV/AIDS. ÇA MARCHE, the biggest fundraising event of its kind in the province, takes place annually in mid September, and is a AIDS walk that goes through downtown Montreal.
Prominent politicians were present, and in view of countless eyes and lenses a ribbon was cut to mark the start of the march. A red ribbon, the colour of blood, the colour of warmth, love as well as feeling of solidarity which victims of this devastating epidemic need in addition to the dozens of pills that need to be ingested daily.
Cars stopped and patiently waited as the main arteries of the city swarmed with teeming bodies and voices of thousands marching in sync. I was one of those people, on this beautiful, crisp Autumn morning, marching slowly with a little red ribbon pinned to my chest. For a brief moment I connected. For a brief few moments, I and many others marching through Montreal that very morning, connected with countless many across the world we have never seen or met, but whose plight and cause we shared. In sharing, we care. In caring, we remember and remind ourselves of the suffering of others, and how to prevent further suffering.
Somewhere along the route, my little red ribbon fell. When I noticed, it was too late, for the ribbon was gone and can no longer be found. Even if the sound of its falling did not resonate for the rest of the world, fall it did, to be swept under the dirty soles of countless people trampling over it. Trampled over like the millions of AIDS victims who are neglected and shunned because of sheer fear and ignorance.
AIDS is an illness that transcends colour, class and race. It is a blind and lethal disease that can infect any one, hetero or homo, old or young. On a mural in the heart of the Gay Village, Ron Farha’s hopeful words lives on:
AIDS will disappear one day.
While we wait, we have the opportunity to learn and grow.
And we should do that.
Church choirs sung as the marchers walked on by. People stood along the pavement and gave out balloons, brochures, condoms, and free hugs. Bystanders stopped and watched, their attention caught by the music, dance and laughter of the crowd that flowed like a river through the centre of shopping district. The occasional shopper, with big, laden bags, paused and stared at the ever-moving circus act of drags in wig and fishnets, of dogs that wore matching black T-shirts and red collars, of the toddlers with little red ribbons painted on their smooth little cheeks. Perhaps for a fleeting moment, while clutching to their big, laden bags, they wondered to themselves what difference the money spent on the new dress could have made if it went to a greater cause…
I looked up at the blue, blue sky, and saw red and white balloons float away. Were they released, or did someone inadvertently loose their grip on the thin pieces of thread that tied them down? Higher and higher and higher the balloons floated, to a destination unknown, yet their bodies bearing an important message for all to heed. As they floated higher and farther, it was as if I could see them nodding, like happy heads high on helium… nodding approvingly at the people marching in solidarity below.