Four years later as a senior in High School I would meet Rae in person. I was the President of my hometowns teen chapter of Jack and Jill and it was common for me to be asked to introduce speakers in that rold. So on the way to the speaking engagement I wrote Rae’s bio on note cards and practiced her introduction out loud in the car. I didn’t put two and two together that Rae Lewis-Thornton was THE Rae Lewis-Thornton on the cover of Essence Magazine that I was so intrigued with at 14 until we arrived and I heard her speak.
Her candidness and transparency was effective. She was young, successful, beautiful and ended up with AIDS. Taking birth control only protected her from getting pregnant….not from getting AIDS. It made me realize that ANYONE could contract HIV and that AIDS doesn’t care who you are, what you have accomplished, or what you look like.
On the way home my mother, sister, and I couldn’t stop talking about how inspiring Rae’s spirit was. I couldn’t wait to get home and look for the Essence magazine I safely stored with all my Janet Jackson magazines I kept in a chest for safe keeping (I am a huge Janet fan). After some digging I found the Essence magazine. I found myself sitting on my bedroom floor staring at Rae’s just as I did four years prior. I reflected on her speech and I had so many questions… still. I began asking God why did AIDS have to hurt such a beautiful spirit. I prayed for her and I asked God to protect her. I felt a special connection to Rae so I prayed for God to bring her back in my life. And he did…
Every question he asked me was alluding to the fact that I may have contracted an STD. I was offended because I knew all I had was a cold and expected him to give me something to get me well and that would be the end of it. Lucky for me I was correct that I only had a cold but I realized a lot of my classmates may not be so lucky.
I started looking around the room and noticed pamphlets and posters with STD statistics all around the room. I looked at the doctor just a blunt as he had looked at me when he accused me of all sorts of sexual acts. I asked him “Do a lot of people on campus come here with STD’s? “ The doctor looked at me just as naive as I must have sounded and informed me our campus had a major STD problem. I was shocked. I guess I shouldn’t have been because we all know what happens on every college campus across the country but I realized how fortunate I was at that moment. I heard Rae speak and many of my peers hadn’t. I knew the importance of safe sex at ALL times. Many of my friends may not. My mind started to race. I knew of classmates who had become pregnant so of course people were having unprotected sex. Something needed to be done so I began to brainstorm.
I reached out to Rae through her website and her schedule was free for the date we chose but we were set with an obstacle...Rae was in the hospital. I spoke to Rae each day leading up to the chosen date and she assured me she would do her best to get out of the hospital so she could meet the speaking engagement – and she did. I have learned over the years of knowing Rae that unless she is physically not capable of meeting an obligation she pushes through no matter what. She says it best that her “word is (her) bond”. When I picked up Rae at the airport I realized just how sick she was….
Even after reading about her sickness in the magazine at 14, and hearing her speak about her daily struggles at 18 I was yet once again very naive. I had been speaking to Rae frequently on the phone with the planning of the speaking engagement while she lay in a hospital I still didn’t get that she was “sick”. Rae exemplifies strength at all times so to see her “weak” was a reality check for me. A pretty face, St. John suits, Loubiton pumps, and a diva-tude definitely make AIDS look weak. But when Rae was being pushed in that wheel chair it was a clear reminder that she truly is living with hell of a disease.
In the car on the way to the airport Rae and I had small talk. We instantly connected. She was funny and down to earth. I was so thankful to have some personal time with her. I began to reflect on my prayers and realized God had actually her back in my life just as I had asked. I was excited to know my peers at my University would be blessed by her ministry just as I had been. Rae was very weak so I took her straight to the hotel so she could take a nap before she spoke later that evening.
When I went to pick her up she looked like a million bucks. I specifically remember her fish net stockings and Chanel handbag. Rae’s attention to detail with accessories is something I have picked up in my own wardrobe as I have matured.
True to her word, she stood in four inch heels throughout the entire speaking engagement until she couldn’t take it anymore. At the time Rae was experiencing severe nerve pain and when she got to the question and answer portion of her speech she asked for a stool. I was amazed she was able to make everyone in the room laugh, cry, and think all the while she was in unbearable pain.
In the car, after she spoke she asked to be taken back to the hotel. She wanted to order room service, take her medicine and go to bed. Her energy had changed drastically from the woman who stood before an auditorium at full capacity of attentive students. That strong woman who commanded the room now spoke so softly I could barely hear her as she sat next to me.
She lay her head gently on the window. My fraternity and her sorority had arranged to take her to dinner and I informed her everyone was waiting for her at the restaurant. I could see in her eyes that she really didn’t feel up to it but she agreed as she didn’t want to let anyone down. I felt horrible but saw her resilience take center stage once again. Throughout our friendship I would see this level of commitment and strength surface in all areas of her life…(To be continued)
Part Two! Click Here!