Love Is the Cure: On Life, Loss, and the End of AIDSby Elton John
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In the 1980s, Elton John saw friend after friend, loved one after loved one, perish needlessly from AIDS. In the midst of the plague, he befriended Ryan White, a young Indiana boy ostracized by his town and his school because of the HIV infection he had contracted from a blood transfusion. Ryan's inspiring life and devastating death led Elton to two realizations: His own life was a mess. And he had to do something to help stop the AIDS crisis.
Since then, Elton has dedicated himself to overcoming the plague and the stigma of AIDS. He has done this through the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which has raised and donated $275 million to date to fighting the disease worldwide. Love Is The Cure is Elton's personal account of his life during the AIDS epidemic, including stories of his close friendships with Ryan White, Freddie Mercury, Princess Diana, Elizabeth Taylor, and others, and the story of the Elton John AIDS Foundation. With powerful conviction and emotional force, Elton conveys the personal toll AIDS has taken on his life -- and his infinite determination to stop its spread.
Elton writes, "This is a disease that must be cured not by a miraculous vaccine, but by changing hearts and minds, and through a collective effort to break down social barriers and to build bridges of compassion. Why are we not doing more? This is a question I have thought deeply about, and wish to answer-and help to change-by writing this book."
Sales of Love Is the Cure benefit the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
Heartbreaking...worth checking out for its noble goal: a resounding message of hope."The Miami Herald"
This inspirational cri de coeur is sure to encourage those in the trenches and compel those on the sidelines to get involved."Publishers Weekly"
An impassioned plea for understanding and a good layman's guide to the current state of the AIDS crisis."Kirkus Reviews
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Love Is the CureOn Life, Loss, and the End of AIDS
By Elton John
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2012 Elton John
All right reserved.
I’ve thought about this book for a while now, though it never occurred to me how to start off.
I suppose one could begin with statistics, with numbers and charts and facts that paint the perfect picture of horror that is the global AIDS epidemic: more than 25 million lives lost in thirty years, 34 million people living with HIV/AIDS around the globe, 1.8 million deaths per year, nearly 5,000 lives taken each and every day, the sixth leading cause of death worldwide.
But I’ve always found it impossible to comprehend these statistics. The tragedy is so immense, the figures are so enormous, there’s simply no way to wrap your mind around it all.
Let’s leave the numbers for later, and begin with a story instead.
After all, I’m not a statistician; I’m a musician. I’ve made my living telling stories through songs. It gives me incredible joy the way people connect with my music. That is all I hope to do in this book—to tell stories that connect people with this epidemic, so we can work together to end it.
The first story I’d like to tell you is an amazing one. To understand the AIDS epidemic, to understand my passion for ending it, you need to know about Ryan White. It all goes back to my friend Ryan.
Ryan came into this world with a rare and terrible genetic disease, hemophilia, which prevents the blood from clotting and leads to uncontrollable bleeding. Hemophilia is a manageable condition today, but in the early 1970s, when Ryan was born, it was a dangerous and often fatal disease. As an infant, and then as a child, Ryan was in the hospital again and again.
Then, as if the hand he’d been dealt wasn’t difficult enough, the poor boy contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, through a treatment for his hemophilia. At age thirteen, the doctors gave Ryan a grim prognosis: less than six months to live. He held on for more than five years. And in that short span, Ryan accomplished what most could not hope to achieve in a thousand lifetimes. He inspired a nation, changed the course of a deadly epidemic, and helped save millions of lives. Imagine, a child doing all of that, a sick boy from a small town in Middle America. It sounds like a movie script, like a bedtime story, like a miracle. And it was a miracle. Ryan’s life was an absolute miracle.
It must have been 1985 when I first learned about Ryan. I was at a doctor’s appointment in New York. I forget why I was there. I picked up a magazine from a stack in the waiting room. I was mindlessly flipping through the pages when I came across an article that would change my life. I couldn’t believe what I was reading, that a boy was being kept out of school, and his family was being shunned and tormented, because he had AIDS.
Ryan lived with his mother, Jeanne, and his younger sister, Andrea, in the small town of Kokomo, Indiana. Jeanne worked at the local General Motors auto plant for twenty-three years. The Whites were a blue-collar family through and through, much like my own family growing up, which is perhaps why I instantly connected with them when we finally got to know one another.
In 1984, around Christmastime, Ryan was in particularly bad shape with a rare form of pneumonia. But tests at the hospital revealed a far worse diagnosis: he had full-blown AIDS. The pneumonia was an opportunistic infection attacking his badly weakened immune system.
As it turned out, Ryan had contracted HIV from a treatment for his hemophilia called factor VIII, a clotting agent derived from donated blood. A single dose of factor VIII could include plasma pooled from thousands of people, and some of them had HIV. Because the HIV virus itself wasn’t identified until the mid-1980s, there was no way to screen for the disease. That’s how HIV-contaminated factor VIII was administered to patients in the United States and throughout the world in the early ’80s, including Ryan. Thousands of hemophiliacs became HIV-positive in this way before pharmaceutical companies and the government put measures in place to test and purify factor VIII.
Jeanne waited until after Christmas to tell Ryan that he had AIDS. When he found out, Ryan knew exactly what it meant: he was going to die.
Everyone was aware of AIDS by 1984, especially hemophiliacs. While it was still a very new and frightening disease, the medical community had already figured out the basics. They had identified the HIV virus itself that year, and they knew that it was spread only by sex or by direct blood exposure. More to the point, they knew it couldn’t be transmitted through casual contact, such as sharing water fountains or toilet seats, drinking from the same glass, eating with the same utensils, or even kissing. There was simply no risk of infection from being around someone with AIDS.
But there was fear. There was so much fear. It was everywhere, a ghost that shadowed Ryan’s every move and haunted him throughout his life.
When Ryan was told about his condition, that he might not have very long to live, he made an extraordinary decision: to live out the rest of his days, however many there might be, as ordinarily as he could. He wanted to go to school, to play with his friends, and to spend time with his mom, Andrea, and his grandparents. He just wanted to be like any other child, even if his disease meant that he wasn’t. When he first learned of his prognosis, Ryan asked Jeanne to pretend that he didn’t have AIDS. He didn’t want special treatment; all he wanted was a sense, however brief, of normalcy.
But that would not be his fate. Ryan was never allowed to live a normal life, let alone die a normal death. Shortly after he was diagnosed, a local paper discovered that Ryan had AIDS. They ran a story about it, and suddenly the whole town—and then the whole nation—knew about his condition. After that, everything changed for Ryan and his family. As a child with hemophilia, Ryan had been treated with compassion. As a child with AIDS, many treated him with contempt.
Ryan missed the majority of seventh grade, thanks to his bout with pneumonia. He was too weak to return to school that year, in the spring of 1985. By the summer, however, he was much better. He even had a paper route. He was eager to be back in school, to play with his friends, to have a semblance of a normal life. But in late July, a month before the beginning of the new school year, the superintendent of Ryan’s school district announced that Ryan would not be allowed to attend classes in person, due to the widespread fear that he posed a health risk to his schoolmates—that by being near them, he might somehow infect them. It was decided that Ryan would attend school by phone instead.
The fear, I suppose, was understandable. AIDS was a fatal illness at the time, without exception. But it was well known that Ryan couldn’t transmit the virus to others just by being around them. After all, Jeanne and Andrea lived with Ryan. They drank out of the same glasses, ate off the same dishes, hugged him, kissed him. They were with him constantly, especially when he was most sick. Yet even their intimate proximity to Ryan hadn’t resulted in their contracting HIV. Besides, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Indiana State Board of Health had assured the school district that Ryan posed no threat to teachers, students, or staff, and they offered guidelines for him to safely return.
Logic and science couldn’t contain the fear, however. Ryan was effectively quarantined. But he wasn’t a quitter; he never, ever gave up. Not being allowed to attend school was unacceptable to him. He decided to fight to return.
Ryan and Jeanne sued the school. They had the national medical community and the State Board of Health on their side. But the judge dismissed Ryan’s lawsuit. He said that the boy’s lawyers had to appeal the school superintendent’s decision to the Indiana Department of Education first. Ryan’s days were numbered as it was, and here was a technical decision that would further delay his going back to school. In the meantime, a special phone link was set up, and Ryan dialed into school every day.
The appeals process that ensued was long, nasty, and public, with Ryan, now fourteen years old, at the center of it all. The local school board and many parents of Ryan’s schoolmates were vehemently opposed to him attending school. More than a hundred parents threatened to file a lawsuit if Ryan was allowed to return. In late November, the Indiana Department of Education ruled in Ryan’s favor and ordered the school to open its doors to him, except when he was very sick. The local school board appealed, prolonging Ryan’s absence from the classroom. Months later, a state board again ruled that Ryan should be allowed to attend school with the approval of a county health official.
With more than half the school year gone, Ryan was officially cleared to return to classes on February 21, 1986. The thrill of victory, though, was short-lived. On his first day back, he was pulled from the classroom and brought to court. A group of parents had filed an injunction to block his return, and the judge issued a restraining order against him. When the judge handed down his verdict, the room packed with parents began to cheer, while Ryan and Jeanne looked on, shocked and scared. It seemed like a modern-day witch hunt, and Ryan was to be burned at the stake.
Ryan’s lawyers fought the restraining order, and he again won the right to go back to school. This time the decision was final. On April 10, 1986, with hordes of press on his heels and some students picketing nearby, Ryan returned to classes. He was not allowed to participate in gym class, and he was made to use a separate bathroom and water fountain, and disposable utensils in the cafeteria. These were needless precautions, but Ryan agreed to them in order to assuage the fears about his misunderstood disease. Still, twenty-seven children were withdrawn from school that day. Two weeks later, parents opened an alternative school, and twenty-one of Ryan’s schoolmates were enrolled so as not to be in the same building as Ryan daily.
Back at school, and nearly everywhere he went in his hometown, Ryan was teased and tormented. He was called a “fag” and other homophobic obscenities in public. His school locker and possessions were vandalized, and terrible rumors were spread about him. One anonymous teenager wrote a letter to the local paper accusing Ryan of threatening to bite and scratch other children, spitting on food at a grocery store, even urinating on bathroom walls. These were lies, of course, but it didn’t matter. Having AIDS made Ryan a freak, and regardless of what he did or didn’t do, he was considered as such.
If you can believe it, adults treated him even worse than children did. People on Ryan’s paper route canceled their subscriptions. When he and his family went out to eat, local restaurants would throw away the dishes they used. The parents of Ryan’s girlfriend forbade her from seeing him. At one point during the Whites’ legal battle with the school district, a group of school parents demanded that the county declare Jeanne an unfit guardian in order to have Ryan taken away from her, and thus taken out of school.
It wasn’t just Ryan who was subjected to ill treatment and ostracism—his entire family suffered. The tires were slashed on Jeanne’s car. A bullet was shot through a window of the White family’s home. Ryan’s extended family was harassed, too, and even nonrelatives who defended Ryan were subjected to abuse. When the local paper supported Ryan’s right to attend school, the publisher’s house was egged. A reporter at the paper even received death threats.
Somehow, Ryan’s disease brought out the very worst in people, and there was little refuge for him and his family. Not even at church. The Whites were people of deep faith and Christian conviction. Each night, Ryan and Jeanne prayed together before bed. But after Ryan’s illness became public, the community at their Methodist church began to shun them. The parishioners were so afraid of catching AIDS from Ryan that he and his family were asked to sit in either the first pew or the last. People wouldn’t use the church bathroom after Ryan. Parents told their children to avoid him.
In his autobiography, Ryan tells the story of his family going to church on Easter Sunday in 1985, shortly after his diagnosis. At the end of the service, people turned to those sitting around them to shake hands and say, “Peace be with you,” an Easter tradition at Ryan’s church. No one would shake his hand this time. Not a single person would offer this sick child a blessing of peace on Easter. As they left the church that morning, Jeanne’s car broke down. She tried to stop members of the congregation leaving the church parking lot, but no one would help her.
Despite the ostracism he suffered from his church and his community, and despite the terrible pain and physical distress he experienced his entire life, Ryan was full of faith and Christian love until the end. Only a year before he died, Ryan told the Saturday Evening Post that he wasn’t afraid of dying because of his faith in God. Even after he had endured so much abuse from fraudulent zealots, and as he was growing sicker, Ryan’s faith was stronger than ever. “There’s always hope with the Lord,” Ryan told the Post. “I have a lot of trust in God.”
As a boy, I loved Sunday school. I loved hearing stories from the Bible, stories full of hope. To this day, while I do not practice any religion, I do take the compassionate teachings of Jesus to heart, and I have great respect for all people of faith. I am inspired by Jesus the man because he loved unconditionally, because he forgave unconditionally, and because he died for the sake of others. The same can be said of Ryan White. He was a true Christian, a modern-day Jesus Christ. That’s a bold statement, I know; some might even take offense to it. But to know Ryan’s story, and to have witnessed his extraordinary qualities as I did, is to come to no other conclusion.
The White family put their Christian faith to practice. They were upset at being treated so terribly by their community, of course, but they understood the fear. They knew it was caused by ignorance and misunderstanding. And so they responded with the compassion that they themselves never received. They worked hard to educate their community, to teach others about AIDS. In the end, Ryan wound up reaching far more than those in Kokomo, Indiana. He reached the entire nation.
The story of an ill young man who was kept out of school and shunned by his community wouldn’t stay hidden in a small Midwestern town for long. Ryan’s plight quickly became national news, and soon he was a household name. Ryan was on national talk shows and nightly news broadcasts. He was on the cover of People magazine. He was actually quite a shy boy, and Jeanne, a wonderfully unpretentious woman, certainly wanted no attention for herself. But the Whites felt it was their duty to speak out, to tell the world what they were experiencing. They wanted to make life better for thousands of others who were suffering in the same way—and not just other hemophiliacs who had contracted HIV but everyone living with the disease.
While bigots such as the famous preacher Jerry Falwell and the American politician Jesse Helms were spreading the hateful message that AIDS was a curse from God against gays, here was a dying teenager and his mother, thrust into the spotlight, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with all people living with HIV/AIDS. It was the height of bravery, the height of compassion. I love them for it to this day. By speaking out, Ryan and Jeanne helped to normalize the epidemic and relieve some of the terrible stigma and fear surrounding it. In doing so, they also hastened the government response and increased the urgency of medical research. What’s more, they demonstrated what we now know to be the truth—that we must love all those living with HIV/AIDS if we are ever going to eradicate the disease itself.
Like millions of people, when I read about Ryan in that magazine, sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, I was incensed. More than that, I was overcome with the desire to do something for him and his family. “This situation is outrageous,” I thought. “I’ve got to help these people.”
As angry and motivated as I was, I hadn’t a clue what I could do for them. I suppose I was thinking that I would help raise awareness about what the White family was going through, or perhaps raise money to fight AIDS. But how could I help others when I couldn’t help myself?
The truth is, I was a huge cocaine addict at the time. My life was up and down like a fucking yo-yo. My sense of values was buried under my self-destruction. I was still a good person, a kind person, underneath—otherwise I would have never reached out to the Whites in the first place. All I hoped was that somehow I could bring this boy and his family some comfort and support.
It turned out, in the end, the Whites would do far more for me than I ever did for them.
In the spring of 1986, after Ryan won his right to return to school, he and Jeanne came to New York to attend a fund-raiser for AIDS research and to appear on Good Morning America. I saw their interview, and I called Jeanne the next morning. I wanted to meet Ryan. I wanted to help. I invited Ryan and his family to one of my concerts.
Ryan was too sick to attend the first concert I planned to bring him to, but eventually I was able to fly the Whites to Los Angeles. They came to two of my shows, and then I took the family to Disneyland, where I had arranged a private tour and a party for Ryan. I wanted to give him an adventure—limos, planes, fancy hotels—a carefree time to take his mind off his pain and his difficult circumstances. But what I remember most about that visit is that I had at least as much fun as Ryan, if not more.
I felt instantly comfortable with the Whites, instantly connected to Ryan. While we came from different countries, we really were cut from the same cloth. The Whites were commonsense, straight-shooting people. They were caring and humble and always grateful. What I did for them on that trip, and subsequently, was out of the pure love I had for this family. And that’s really what it was: love. I fell in love with the Whites right away.
Getting to know the family put into stark relief what a terrible mess I was. You can’t imagine how selfish I was at the time, what an asshole I had become. It was partly the drugs, partly the lifestyle I had created, partly the people around me, who indulged my worst instincts. I had everything in the world—wealth, fame, everything—but I’d throw a fit if I didn’t like the curtains in my hotel room. That’s how upside down I was. That’s how pathetic I had become.
Ryan, on the other hand, was dying. His family had been tormented. And yet, during his trip to L.A. and every time I was with him from then on, he was relentlessly upbeat. At Disneyland, Ryan was so weak that I had to push him around in a wheelchair for part of the time. For a child, being wheelchair-bound at Disneyland must be incredibly frustrating, not to be able to run around and play at one of the world’s largest playgrounds. But Ryan loved every minute of it. He loved life. Ryan wasn’t thinking about dying; he was thinking about living, and he was getting on with it. His time was too precious to feel sorry for himself. I was with Ryan quite a lot over the years, and I can’t remember a single time when he complained about anything. I know he wasn’t a perfect child; there’s no such thing. But Ryan was special.
So are his mom and sister. Jeanne was going through the most torturous episode any parent could imagine: watching her child die a slow and painful death, and not being able to do anything about it. But she never asked, “Why me?” She embodied forgiveness and acceptance and perseverance at every turn, even though she must have suffered greatly in her most private moments.
Andrea was just like Jeanne; you couldn’t get her down, and you never heard her complain. The youngest in the family often gets all the attention, especially someone like Andrea, a beautiful teenage girl, an athlete, a wonderful student. But Andrea’s life took a backseat to Ryan’s illness. She had to give up competitive roller-skating, her passion, for financial reasons. Like Ryan, she lost friends and was teased. She had it very rough. I was amazed by how she dealt with the reality of her family’s situation with maturity and wisdom well beyond her years.
This family inspired me in a way that I cannot fully explain. Being around the Whites touched me at my very core. I guess you could put it this way: I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be part of their family. They made me want to change, to be a better person, to be the person I knew I was on the inside. But this wasn’t an easy thing to do, because of my addictions, because of my lifestyle. I was beginning to open my eyes to reality, but it took Ryan’s death to open them completely. When his eyes closed, mine opened. They’ve been open ever since.
After the Whites came to L.A., from then on, I did whatever I could for them. Little things, mostly. Ryan came to more concerts. I sent gifts and flowers and cards. I called to check in. In 1987 Jeanne decided to move the family to Cicero, Indiana, a small town outside Indianapolis. She knew it was the right thing to do after Ryan confided in her that he didn’t want to be buried in Kokomo. They needed to escape the place that had caused them such grief—that much was clear. One day, Jeanne called. With a great deal of hesitation in her voice, she asked if I might loan her part of the down payment she needed for her new home in Cicero.
To that point, Jeanne had never asked for a single thing. That she was now coming to me for help meant she badly needed it. I knew how desperate she was to give Ryan and Andrea a better life, so I told her to forget about a loan, I would simply send her the money. But Jeanne absolutely insisted on a loan. In fact, she made both of us sign a homemade contract stating that she would pay me back! Sure enough, years later, I received a check from Jeanne. I put the money straight into a college savings account for Andrea. Jeanne resisted, of course, but I told her that I wanted to help, that it meant something to me to support her family in this way. Looking back on it, I think she was being more charitable in continuing to accept my assistance than I was being supportive in giving it.
The Whites had a completely different life in their new home in Cicero. They were welcomed with open arms. Ryan did have a few friends in Kokomo, but in Cicero he became something of a local hero. The Whites were not only accepted but embraced, and Ryan thrived in his new school, making the honor roll as well as making many good friends.
It’s not the case that the residents of Cicero were better or kinder human beings than the residents of Kokomo. My own opinion is that people are more or less the same all around the world; and besides, these two towns are only thirty miles apart. In fact, people in Cicero had many of the same questions, and shared many of the same fears, as people in Kokomo. Was it safe for the other children to be around Ryan? Did he pose a health risk to the community? The difference was that Cicero knew more about HIV/AIDS by the time Ryan arrived.
For one thing, Ryan had done much to educate the entire nation. Everyone knew his story, and in learning about Ryan’s plight, America learned about AIDS as well. In addition, Ryan’s new school held extensive AIDS education classes for the entire student body as well as the staff. The school board even sponsored conferences for parents and other members of the community to learn about AIDS, all before Ryan ever set foot in the classroom. He also had a champion and a wonderful friend in Jill Stewart, the president of the school student body, who happened to live down the street from the Whites.
Thanks to Jill’s efforts, and the community’s, Ryan’s classmates were compassionate toward him, not fearful. Parents understood that their children weren’t at risk, and they were able to ease any concerns among Ryan’s classmates. Some children even taught their nervous parents about the disease. In the end, people weren’t afraid; they were supportive. Cicero was able to see beyond Ryan’s illness and focus on the amazing person he was.
Ryan found a bit of peace in Cicero, though not from his disease. He never wanted to give up—that goes without saying—but his fragile body had endured too much. In the spring of 1990, toward the end of his junior year of high school, Ryan was hospitalized with a severe respiratory infection. Jeanne called to tell me that Ryan was on life support. I immediately flew to Indiana. NFL star Howie Long and actresses Judith Light and Jessica Hahn were on the same US Airways flight. They had befriended Ryan and taken up his cause as well.
I spent the last week of Ryan’s life by his hospital bedside, supporting Jeanne and Andrea in any way I could. Mostly that meant playing the family receptionist, and I was honored to do it. Many people were trying to reach Ryan by phone and by mail—friends, celebrities, politicians, everyone wanted to express their support. Ryan was in and out of consciousness, but he was awake when Michael Jackson called. Michael was the biggest star in the world at the time, perhaps the most famous man on the planet. Years earlier, he had befriended Ryan as well, and one of Ryan’s prized possessions was a red Ford Mustang that was a generous gift from him. As Ryan lay dying, he was so weak that he couldn’t speak to Michael. I held the phone to his ear as Michael offered him kind words of comfort and love.
I grew very close to Jeanne during the final week of Ryan’s life. She described me then as her guardian angel, since I was able to help the family during this terrible moment by handling logistical details, and by simply being there for them. But it was the other way around. Jeanne and her family were guardian angels to me. And the message they were sent to deliver was very clear: it might be my deathbed next.
I had all the money in the world, but it didn’t matter, because I didn’t have my health. I wasn’t well. But unlike Ryan, a cure existed for my substance abuse, for my self-destructiveness. As I stood next to Ryan’s hospital bed, holding Jeanne’s hand, seeing his bloated and disfigured body, the message was received. I didn’t want to die.
As it happened, on the evening of April 7, I was scheduled to play a massive concert in Indianapolis, not far from Riley Hospital for Children, where Ryan was being treated. The show was called Farm Aid IV, the fourth in a series of concerts meant to raise awareness and donations for family farmers in America. Months earlier, I had happily agreed to join Garth Brooks, Guns N’ Roses, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and many other amazing performers to put on this show. But at that moment, with Ryan near death, I didn’t want to leave his side.
I rushed to the Hoosier Dome and hurried onstage. Other performers were in their usual stage dress, but I was wearing a baseball cap and a Windbreaker. I was so upset that I didn’t care what I looked like, and it showed. Even 60,000 screaming fans couldn’t chase away the grief I felt then. Since there were many musicians, each of us performed only a few songs. I started with “Daniel” and then played “I’m Still Standing.” Before my third song, I told the crowd, “This one’s for Ryan.” They burst into applause. The news of Ryan’s hospitalization was a national story, and everyone knew he didn’t have long to live. I played “Candle in the Wind,” and the response was overwhelming. I looked out into the crowd, and people were holding up their lighters, thousands of little vigils flickering in the darkness for my dying friend.
When I finished the song, I ran offstage and rushed back to the hospital, back to Ryan’s bedside. That’s where I was, hours later, when Ryan died on the morning of April 8, 1990.
I’ll never forget the funeral. I’ll never forget the numbness of tragedy. I’ll never forget what he looked like in the open casket, or the drive from the service to the cemetery. It was raining. We drove very slowly, in both grief and caution. I’ll never forget Jeanne thanking me, in the middle of the greatest loss of her life, taking the time to acknowledge my being there with her. How surreal it all felt, like an awful dream.
It was the end of a very long week. It was the end of a very long fight.
Jeanne had asked me to be a pallbearer and to sing a song at Ryan’s funeral. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to keep my composure, but I agreed to do the song. I couldn’t say no to her, but I didn’t know what to sing. I didn’t know what would be appropriate for such a tragic and painful occasion.
I ended up going back to my very first album, Empty Sky, and to the song “Skyline Pigeon,” which Bernie Taupin and I wrote together. It’s always been one of my favorites, and I thought it was the best track on that first album, maybe even the best track we had written to that point. It’s a song about freedom and release, and it seemed fitting for Ryan’s funeral. Now that he had passed away, I figured that Ryan was free to go wherever he wanted, his soul was free to travel, his spirit was free to inspire people around the world. I decided I couldn’t be alone on that stage, though, so I taught the choir from Ryan’s high school to sing along with me.
There was a picture of Ryan on the piano in front of me, his casket behind me. I hardly ever sing that song anymore. My godson died several years ago, when he was only four years old. I played “Skyline Pigeon” at his funeral, too.
There were more than 1,500 people in attendance at Ryan’s funeral—not only his family and friends but celebrities he had touched and dignitaries of the highest order. Michael Jackson was there. Judith was there. Howie and Phil Donahue were among my fellow pallbearers. First Lady Barbara Bush was there, too. Everyone was overcome with grief, even those who barely knew Ryan.
Some people from Kokomo attended the funeral as well, including the lawyer for the parents’ group that had tried to block Ryan from attending school. He offered his condolences to Jeanne and asked her to forgive the way their town had treated Ryan. She did, without a moment’s hesitation.
Over the course of the year following his death, Ryan’s gravesite was vandalized four times. The poor child couldn’t even rest in peace. Still, Ryan’s message lived on. On the base of his tombstone, seven words are inscribed: patience, tolerance, faith, love, forgiveness, wisdom, and spirit.
I loved my friend Ryan more than I can express. I loved that he didn’t have an ounce of quit in his heart. I loved that he didn’t have a speck of self-pity in his soul. It wasn’t just the way he held his head high as he struggled with not one but two terrible diseases. It wasn’t just the way he bravely confronted death at an age when most children have no clue how precious life really is. No, Ryan was a true hero, a true Christian, because he unconditionally forgave those who made him suffer.
It’s easy to think that Ryan’s time on earth was hell. But he never saw it that way. He loved being alive. He loved the simple pleasures of friends and family. He lived his short and painful life with total grace and, above all, total forgiveness. In living the way he did, and in dying the way he did, Ryan changed the world. And he changed my world.
Excerpted from Love Is the Cure by Elton John Copyright © 2012 by Elton John. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Sir Elton John is one of the most esteemed, beloved, and best-selling songwriters, performers, and recording artists in history. His hits include Gold and Platinum classics "Tiny Dancer," "Crocodile Rock," "Daniel," "I'm Still Standing," and dozens more, and his single "Candle in the Wind 1997," a tribute to his friend Princess Diana, is the best-selling single in Billboard history.
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He is a great performer with the heart of gold. Wonderful book. Well written. He has made the statement that he should be dead? Elton, you were wrong. God has a purpose for you on this earth, and you are fulfilling that purpose. Do not stop being who you are.
This book was very well written and also very educational. It made me respect Elton John even more, not just as an amazing performer but also as an amazing human being who has overcome some great odds to become what he is today. The book is full of a lot of statistics and facts so it can be slow reading at some point but so worth it!!! I <3 This Book!!!
Elton John's memoir is a warning of the dangers of stigma in the fight against HIV and AIDS. He begins by recounting the story of Ryan White, a teenager from Indiana and a hemophiliac who contracted the HIV virus through a blood transfusion. The treatment Ryan White received by many members of his community is reminiscent of the school desegregation and busing demonstrations of the 1960s and 70s. I remember this story growing up in the 80s because Ryan was a boy my age. John credits the White family's courage in the face of ignorance for helping the talented musician confront and overcome his addictions. The lessons he learned in recovery, according to John, helped to shape the mission of the Elton John AIDS Foundation. He vowed not to ignore those populations that are most vulnerable to stigma: drug users, sex workers, and men who have sex with men. He rightly argues that there is no "other" when it comes to AIDS. We will never eradicate the virus unless we treat the populations who have it with love and compassion. Throughout his book, Elton John demonstrates reverence for those working to care for those who are HIV positive, many of whom are HIV positive themselves. He expresses outrage toward those who have been a hindrance in the global fight against AIDS. He pulls no punches, but he also recognizes that humans are complex and sometimes powerful people can undertake constructive action even as they throw up obstacles and contribute to stigmatization. For example, he credits President Bush with the commitment he made to PEPFAR, but faults him for promoting abstinence education as a prevention strategy, instead of more effective tools like condoms. He sees reasons for hope in Pope Benedict's statement stating that the use of condoms by male prostitutes is a "first step" towards morality, even as he cites other occasions in which the Pope questioned the effectiveness of condoms in preventing the transmission of HIV. All in all, I think Elton John is fair in his characterizations of the governments, corporations, and religious institutions he writes about. Clearly, the only battle Sir Elton wishes to win is the fight against AIDS. He seeks to enlist not just the powerful in Washington, the Vatican, or the boardrooms of the pharmaceutical industry; he believes we can all contribute to ending the stigma that is responsible for keeping those with AIDS in the shadows. (Ending the federal ban on funding needle exchange programs that Congress passed earlier this year might be a cause that Americans might want to rally behind) As I was reading “Love is the Cure,” I was astonished to learn that on July 30, 2012 the Namibian High Court ruled in favor of three HIV positive women who had been sterilized after giving birth on orders from their government. When Elton John writes that governments are the most powerful forces in the fight against AIDS, he cautions that the force is often a double-edged sword. The case of these women brought his words home and demonstrates how much more work there is to be done.
Admittedly I am a fan of John's music. My son was born during the year The Lion King was released. Every time I hear the opening theme to that wonderful movie it makes me smile. Elton John has had more than his share of demons to deal with but this book is not his memoir. It's about how he came to take on the challenges of raising awareness of AIDS and perhaps ended up saving himself as well. He's done work in the US and most recently in South Africa where rape and AIDS are horrifying. His compassion is amazing and he does make us believe LOVE IS THE CURE to end this terrible disease. You will recognize many of the names here but what you will be most taken with is how John continues to evolve as one of the most important ambassadors for love, compassion and for ending AIDS. I now know him as more than just the gay musician who sings Your Song!
Well written, great message!
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Oh my gad no you are awful he is a prodigy and a musical idol to a lot of people including me so just dont say that sometimes there are things that you dont know like mabey there was a problem amd that how he coped with it jeeze judge much get a grip god btw fav song of his is i want love and rocket man
The book was about Elton's AIDS activism with little about his music career. It was very interesting and well written. It shows his growth as a human. Very informative.
I am so excited to get this book. Should be an excellent book.
Would not have aids if they would live right