As I write this, I realize that today is April 26, the anniversary of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The memory of that event, as well as of the days preceding and following it, is impossible to forget and easy to resurface, especially recently, due to the war still happening in Ukraine.
Yet, April 1986 marks a defining moment in my life, or perhaps a series of defining moments that have helped shape and change my life in the most surprising ways.
I was in high school at the time, on spring break, and under increasing pressure to decide what I wanted to do with and in my life. But in 1986, the future, my future, was a mystery to me. I grew up behind the Iron Curtain, in Romania, a small Eastern European country known, among others, for Count Dracula of Transylvania, the “Perfect 10” of Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci, and the Revolution of 1989…and, most recently, for the help that ordinary Romanians have given to Ukrainian refugees.
I was a shy kid who’d rather spend time with Granny or Mom, go swimming with Dad, or enjoy a quiet moment by myself reading a book, rather than go out to play with other kids. And my shyness didn’t make me popular when I started high school, not that I cared much. But it made it difficult for me to figure out what exactly I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
My mother, an infectious disease doctor, wanted me to follow in my parents’ footsteps and study medicine. That particular April, in 1986, she was visiting her alma mater, attending a conference about (then) a new pandemic. And while I was on spring break at the time, she asked me to join her, at least for a day. And I agreed, because, to me, there was a certain mystery, an anticipation surrounding the event. Mostly, I was excited to spend more time, alone, with Mom, which was something I always loved.
I remember that day as sunny and bright; and myself, as weary and slightly intimidated. Yet, I followed my mom inside the building and into a dimly-lit lecture room, which wrapped around the stage.
The dean arrived and introduced himself. He’d just returned from France, where there was still much talk about actor Rock Hudson and his death from AIDS-related causes. A detailed presentation followed, which included lots of medical information I couldn’t understand, as well as images showing renderings of a virus called HIV floating through a bright-red bloodstream inside the human body. I found myself fascinated by those images, while, at the same time, wondering how come this tiny virus could cause so much damage, and nobody seemed to know what to do about it.
After the presentation, Mom tried to assess my thoughts.
“So, what do you think,” she asked.
“Interesting,” was the only answer I could come up with, while still pondering upon the experience.
She took my hand and decided to show me the dissection labs, while fussing about not being able to find them anymore—apparently, they’d been relocated during the decades following her student years. I, on the other hand, was relieved and suggested getting out of there, instead.
Nowadays, when I reminisce about that day, I realize, perhaps more than ever, the value of the information shared within those walls, among those medical scientists, and the responsibility of learning and knowing about it. Before attending that conference, I had never heard of words like “HIV,” “AIDS” or “gay.” They were not words used in a society like the one we were living in at the time, a society that needed to maintain a picture-perfect façade at all costs. Hence, the unwritten rule was to say nothing, not to get oneself or others in trouble. And so, instinctively I knew when to take a hint, and, hence, was sworn to secrecy.
A few days later I caught a ride back home. Mom was to stay behind for a little while longer, and then return home, to spend Easter together. While religious holidays of any kind were not really…shall we say, officially recognized by the government, people would always celebrate, mostly with a lot of additional work—cleaning and decorating the house, grocery shopping, cooking, and baking for days on end, and gathering with family, friends, and loved ones.
And so, during the days leading to that particular Easter holiday, my granny, who was in charge of all things kitchen-related, cooking, and baking, sent me to buy fresh vegetables. I guess I wanted to be done with the chore and rushed going to the market. And I remember that my granny fussed, ever so gently, being concerned that the veggies would not be fresh enough for whatever she had to prepare.
Like many others, my grandpa, a beekeeper who always explained to me the health benefits of honey, would listen to radio stations we were not supposed to listen to. He’d sit at the kitchen table, with his palm curved around his ear, his head ducked as close to the radio as possible, while cranking up the volume to my granny’s despair that “they’re gonna come for us,” (meaning the authorities). But that’s how he found out that one of the Nordic countries had mentioned something about a nuclear explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in what’s now Ukraine. When he told us about it, we all wondered what had happened, since there was no official mention of it, not on the state TV, not anywhere.
It took several days for that to happen. By then, people had spent time outdoors, at family gatherings, because it was spring break after all. By then, the nuclear cloud had already and swiftly spread over most of the European continent, affecting the lives of many, many people.
The grass became contaminated, and so did the milk and meat of the cows eating that grass. In turn, the people eating that meat and drinking that milk also became contaminated. Some got sick. At the same time, the number of cancer cases went through the roof, in particular among the very young and the elderly.
In the midst of all that was happening, my memory of the AIDS conference took a back seat, until one day, when I got my hands on an issue of Paris Match Magazine. It was printed in French, which surprised me, because, at the time, it was virtually impossible to find such a publication. I don’t remember how I found it, but I do remember its cover. It displayed a picture of Rock Hudson looking tired and frail.
I opened the magazine to see a two-page spread of the actor—an older, black-and-white image, a Hollywood glamour days portrait of the handsome actor we all could recognize; and a more recent image, in color, showing him aged almost beyond recognition, stricken by the virus and, apparently, during the last stages of the disease. That’s when the AIDS conference came back to my mind and I wondered, yet again, how come a virus so tiny, almost invisible, could cause so much damage, destruction, deterioration, and death. And why nobody seemed to know what to do about it.
Fast-forward several years to another time and place, on this side of the Pond. The new millennium found me living in Cambridge, MA. One sunny day, while on my way home, I was strolling through Harvard Square. As I walked by a newsstand, something shiny caught my eye. I stopped and turned to take a closer look, only to find myself staring at a picture of Dolly Parton, with her unmistakable hair, smiling at me from the cover of a magazine.
I had no idea what the magazine was about or what Dolly Parton was doing on its cover. Yet, intrigued by its title—it said A&U in bold, bright letters—I decided to buy a copy and take a closer look.
Once home, I noticed that the full title was “A&U Magazine—America’s AIDS Magazine.” The word “AIDS” caught my eye and reminded me of the conference that I’d attended with my mom, and took it as a sign. To this day, I explain the feeling as pieces of the universe coming together to tell me that I was to write for this magazine.
And so, I studied and read it cover to cover, several times, taking lots of notes. I concluded that my best chance, if any, was to pitch a book review, and studied the Masthead, to figure out who was the best person to query.
That’s how I discovered the managing editor’s name, Chael Needle, and decided to go ahead and email him, certain that I would never hear from him. Yet, to my surprise, after a short couple of days, he replied, encouraging me to look for other, more recent books.
The first piece that I’ve ever written for A&U—also known as the Art & Understanding Magazine—turned out to be a feature story. I’m still amazed that the managing editor trusted me, a newbie at the time, with such a story. I’m also forever grateful to him for taking a chance on me and thankful for the patience and advice he’s always shown me over the years.
Covering stories for the magazine, I sometimes think about my mom, the dreams she had for me, and how they eventually turned out. And I think she’d say, “this was not quite the plan,” and smile.
Yet, the story does not end here. The rest is not history, rather, it’s history in the making. At least that’s what I believe.
Alina Oswald is the new Managing Editor of A&U. She is a writer, photographer, and educator based in the New York City area. Contact her online at alinaoswald.com.