A Recent Interview
Welcome to another day in my life. Today is Saturday and I hope you had a safe and great week. I am enjoying a nice quite weekend spending time with my dog Chipper before I have to leave town for a week to speak at a conference.
Recently, I had another interview which is going to be published soon. But since I have the advance copy, I thought I would share it with you:
“There was a time when I went to 12 funerals in one week,” says Dab Garner, “but that wasn’t even the worst of it.” He is telling me about the way he watched his friends evaporate before his very eyes in the early 80’s when little to nothing was known about HIV/AIDS.
It is obvious when you sit with Garner that his activism is not easy for him but you can also sense that it would be harder for him to stop or walk away from it. Garner runs the AIDS Bear Project, a self-made advocacy effort to increase awareness and support around the issues that face people with HIV and AIDS.
The namesake “Dab” is a sort of homage to his little adoptive God-daughter who died of AIDS related illness in 1989 at the age of five. She evidently had trouble saying “Dad” and pronounced it with a ‘b’ at the end. Garner had promised her that he would do everything within his power to care for children like her and that’s not the kind of promise that’s easily broken.
As a result of past experiences, Garner is a very busy man. From the time he witnessed the horror of his first friend dying in 1981 to today, some version of a stuffed Teddy Bear has accompanied him on his quest to heal the broken hearts left in the wake of HIV/AIDS. From New York to San Francisco and beyond, “Dab the AIDS Bear” can be seen visiting hospitals and children’s care facilities. He makes appearances at nightclubs and pride parades and can even be spotted palling around with members of congress. Of course, this bear and his human guardian make full use of the internet – a lengthy, informative website and a facebook account allow them to extend their reach beyond the finite number of places they can be at one time.
When people think of the term “survivor” and all that it entails, I would suggest they conjure up an image of Dab Garner in their minds. This is a man who has almost literally not had a day without fighting for his cause in 30 years. As a result, he wanders this journey alone – almost. There is of course, his fuzzy friend.
As Garner took me down his emotional trail of tears, recounting the tragedies, heartbreaks and triumphs, I had to fix my gaze on the brown stuffed toy sitting on the table next to us. He has to be there. He makes it ok. You can listen to the stories and you can process your feelings as long as you’ve got a friend. There is something extraordinarily human about the bear – it contains the souls of hundreds of people including perhaps, even Garner’s.
“I am originally from Florida, the Pensacola area,” Garner tells me, “but at 18 years old, I had moved out to San Francisco to be with my boyfriend and that is where I started giving out the teddy bears.” This was unfortunately going to be more of a journey than the young Garner had planned for and far more than anyone I know – young or old - could reasonably deal with. The year was 1981 and Garner found himself in the epicenter of the biggest crisis that gay men in America have ever had to face and hopefully will ever have to face again.
When his first few friends and ultimately his lover were succumbing to the disease, doctors wore what Garner calls “NASA suits” and made him stand opposite his loved ones separated by a thick glass partition. A visit to someone with AIDS in the early 80’s could be a terrifyingly lonely experience. Some sort of physical connection had to be made… some sort of touch. This small but necessary gesture was something that fear of the unknown and certain prejudices prevented Garner from being able to accomplish by himself.
Garner bought a stuffed Teddy Bear, presumably at a nearby gift shop, when a friend developed a sudden and mysterious illness that almost immediately covered his body in lesions and caused his once handsome figure to waste away to a mere 130 lbs. “These people at the hospital had no sort of human touch,” Garner noticed, “so I found one nurse that seemed really nice and I wrote a note and tucked it in with the bear and asked her if she would give it to him since I could not go in there with him. She agreed and I waited and watched through the glass as she gave it to him. He touched it and I watched as he read my note and started to cry.”
Garner can not exactly re-tell these stories without crying, himself. Even after 30 years of being a warrior for the cause, the wounds in his heart are still fresh and he allows himself to be human. He shares his emotions at every opportunity. He has been spared, possibly, because of this gift.
This was just the first of what was to become countless “Teddy Bear Touchdowns” and Garner had no idea, at that time, that ultimately he and the AIDS Bear would soon need to visit his boyfriend in the same manner, and then more friends, and then a daughter he had not even met yet. When the little 5 year old girl passed away, there would be no turning back for Dab and his everlasting friend. There would be hundreds – even thousands of people, gay and straight, male and female, HIV positive and not, who need a Teddy Bear Touchdown.
“Today we are a non-profit organization and we are in 11 different countries,” Garner tells me. “We go regularly to DC to advocate for additional funding for ADAP. We are made up entirely of volunteers and nobody – from our board of directors to our ambassadors of hope - collects a paycheck.”
He and the bear are not short on new challenges either. “Since 2003, there has been an ADAP waiting list somewhere in the country at all times. 10 people have died waiting for HIV drugs and now Florida has 50% of America’s waiting list right here,” he says. “Florida has a perfect storm brewing here we need lots of additional ADAP funding and there’s still way too many people having careless or unsafe sex.”
Whatever the crisis is, whatever barrier needs to be breached – whether it is a new STD, an uninformed congress member, a cynical teenager who will not protect himself or a thick glass wall between you and your loved ones – you can trust in this bear if you see him. And the man who carries him around is not such a bad guy either.
If you would like to get connected and help Dab and the AIDS Bear or just get some of the latest information from them, please visit: DabTheAidsBearProject.com
Hope you enjoyed the article and that you have a great weekend.
Until we meet again; here's wishing you health, hope, happiness and just enough.
big bear hug,