Why do bad things happen to good people? That’s usually a question asked by theology professors and other religious people trying to understand why their all powerful, all loving god, allows bad stuff to happen to innocent people. But as hard as they’ve tried, I’ve never seen a very compelling answer to the question. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth thinking about, however. Sometimes thinking about tough questions helps even if we don’t end up with the exact answer we’re looking for.
I was thinking about that question while I was writing the last chapter about Nolan swimming across the lake and that got me to thinking about someone else, a young boy named Ryan. Ryan was a hemophiliac, which just means he was someone suffering from a blood disorder in which the normal clotting ability of blood is impaired or lost. When you suffer from this, even a minor cut or wound can result in fatal bleeding. It’s something he inherited from his mother when he was born, not something he had any control over.
So right from the very beginning, Ryan was dealt a bad set of cards. Now it’s true, of course, it could have been worse. If Ryan had been born before 1960, his normal life expectancy would have been 11 years. But Ryan was born after effective treatments became available and probably could have lived to be fifty or sixty if everything had gone right for him. But we’re talking real life here and not everything went right, of course. One part of his treatment required Ryan to have blood transfusions from time to time. And when he was thirteen years old, Ryan became infected with the HIV virus from contaminated blood.
Can you imagine what it would be like to be thirteen years old and be told you had only three to six months to live? I don’t know about you, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Ryan had asked himself why this was happening to him. I mean, sure, we can provide a technical explanation. He was a hemophiliac. He needed transfusions. He got a transfusion that was using contaminated blood because they didn’t really know how to screen the blood supply properly back then. That’s the technical explanation I suppose. But it’s not a very satisfying explanation to the question of why something terrible like that should happen to a thirteen year old boy.
The thing is, contracting HIV/AIDS back then was pretty much a death sentence. So it was obviously a very bad thing in itself. But contracting the disease was only the beginning of the problems for Ryan. It led to a lot of other bad things. For example, some people didn’t want their children attending school with Ryan. So when he asked to go back to school, the local authorities in his hometown in Kokomo, Indiana, wouldn’t permit that. There was a lot fear and hysteria in the air in his hometown. And people took it out on Ryan in lots of different ways. He was called queer and a faggot and other things as well even though he wasn’t gay. Or they would tell him or his family that he had done something wrong and that God was punishing him. But none of it was true, of course. Like I said, he was just a boy who was dealt a bad set of cards. And I guess it’s important to add that Ryan wasn’t a perfect boy. His Mom said that. But he was a boy and what boy is perfect after all? He was just a boy who wanted to go to school.
Ryan and his family battled for the right to go back to school in their hometown and they won. Or at least they thought they had won. But it’s not like the school was real welcoming when he came back. Some people took their children out of school and established their own private school. And Ryan? Well, Ryan had to eat with disposable utensils, use separate bathrooms, and couldn’t attend gym class. He was isolated and he was alone and he continued to be threatened because a lot of people didn’t want him there. And finally, when a bullet was fired through his family’s living room window, Ryan and his family decided to leave that town and move to another town in Indiana where the people were more welcoming. Ryan died on April 8, 1990 when he was 18. In the year following his death, his grave was vandalized on four separate occasions.
I haven’t really told you a lot about Ryan, just what someone told me one time. But it’s pretty clear a lot of bad things happened to him in his brief life. And most of them stemmed from the original bad thing that happened, the bad blood transfusion (or was it just the accident of being born a hemophiliac)? But a lot of good things happened to Ryan as well. For one thing, he surprised his doctors and live a lot longer than they expected. He helped change the perception of HIV/AIDS from just being a gay disease that no one needed to care about to what it really was, a disease that could affect just about anyone. He got to meet some famous people like Elton John and Michael Jackson, which was pretty cool. He helped raise a lot of money to fight the disease and we’ve made a lot of progress against it in the years following his death because of his efforts. And the U.S. Congress even honored him four months after his death by enacting a law that has helped lots of people suffering from HIV/AIDS.
So what are we left with then? Something bad happened to someone good. And some bad and some good came out of it. But what does it all add up to? What does it mean? The only answer I can think of is that it means whatever it means to you. To me it means a lot of different things. It means that Ryan made the most of his time on this planet and is still having an impact on the lives of real people in ways large and small. It means that, no matter how bad things may seem to me, there are people who are a lot worse off than me, who have more courage than me, who do things I like and admire, who remind me every day to try to make a little difference somehow.
So today what it means is that Ryan inspired me to write a few words for the few people who will read them. And I hope passing along a little of what somebody told me about Ryan will have an impact on your life somehow. Because he’s had an impact on mine and you just never know how something is going to turn out once you set it in motion.
And if you want to know more about Ryan you can start here or here. And there was even a made for television movie you can watch on YouTube if you want. You’ll even meet Ryan himself in one of the segments. But mostly I liked watching it because it reminded me again that sometimes something good can come from something bad and that gives me hope. And I think it’s important for people to have hope.