Editorial: A remembrance for World AIDS Day
By Andrew Rapp
Thanksgiving in 1997 was an "orphan's holiday" for me. I was living in North Carolina, a long way from my family in Colorado. So my friend and former boss Mitch took me to his mother's house to have turkey dinner with his family.
Mitch was a North Carolina native and a gay man with AIDS. In 1997 he was only in his early forties but had stopped working because of his illness. Previously, he had a distinguished career in Washington, D.C., working his way up through the ranks to become chief of staff for a powerful senator.
For most of that time Mitch was closeted. He had lived the "D.C. double life." His Senate colleagues knew him as a hard-charging, solitary workaholic, and his friends knew him as a fun-loving gay man who spent holidays in Europe carousing with boyfriends.
It wasn't until he was diagnosed with HIV that his two worlds joined. He came out to his co-workers and, after leaving his Senate job, began working for a variety of gay-rights causes. That was when we met. He was my boss on an unsuccessful campaign to defeat Senator Jesse Helms in his 1996 re-election bid.
For that Thanksgiving dinner we were joined by Mitch's elderly parents, a steel magnolia and her retired husband. His brother, a tough vice cop from Charlotte, came, as did his sister, a stylish young banking professional. By this time they all knew Mitch was gay and his illness was unmistakable.
While Mitch helped his mother prepare in the kitchen, I pretended to watch football with his brother and father in the living room. I noticed a photograph on a shelf of a husky, dark-haired man I didn't recognize and asked who it was. His father didn't respond. His brother just said, "It's Mitch."
That day Mitch looked as I'd always known him. He was gaunt, with less than 150 pounds stretched over his six-foot-tall frame. His hair was white, cheeks sunken in, and lips chapped.
Mitch made it through five minutes of dinner before the inevitable struck. He rushed to the bathroom where he spent a half-hour throwing up, as he did after ingesting most anything. The rest of us sat at the table, eating quietly over Mitch's audible wretching just down the hall. His mother teared up, but otherwise there was no indication from anyone that day that Mitch was sick, or that he was dying.
I would have similar strange, affected interactions with Mitch's family until his death. He wasted down to less than 120 pounds and became immobilized by neuropathy. His right eye and part of his skull were removed to halt a fungal infection. And all this passed with less comment than might be devoted to a head cold. I never witnessed any acknowledgement from his family that Mitch was gay or that he had AIDS.
I presumed that at some point the pure horror of Mitch's decline would overwhelm these silences. I thought his family would learn a language, even if just out of necessity, to describe how their son could look older than his father, older than anything but a skeleton, while still shy of his fiftieth birthday.
But, as had been true for much of Mitch's life, the shame of being gay and the stigma of having AIDS were powerful. They endured through awkward holiday dinners, an inconceivably horrible illness, and finally, longer than Mitch himself.
Dec. 1 was World AIDS Day. If you don't know your HIV status, get tested and talk about AIDS with those you love.
Andrew Rapp is the editor in chief of Bay Windows. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
From: "Charles Antonelli" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Thu, 4 Dec 2003 11:08:27 -0500
Subject: Your Editorial...
Thank you so much for your recent editorial about World AIDS Day. It made me cry and smile at the same time because someone remembered and cared enough to write something so touching and personal. For me, December 1st came and went without much hype about it. I was very depressed about this, especially considering all of the friends I once had who have succumbed to this awful disease. Most of them lived their last days exactly as you wrote in your editorial, some without biological family, just their extended "gay" family from the Rochester Rams, M.C. (a leather/motorcycle club.) I hope you do not mind, I posted your editorial to my personal BLOG (I gave you credit and a hyperlink to your e-mail address.)
I have personally cared for, and buried, more people than I care to remember. The memorial services, the biological family showing up after their brother/son has died to grab their assets, and making panels for the AIDS quilt... It never gets any easier, and honestly, I wouldn't want it to be.
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I'm glad you liked the editorial and happy to have it on your blog. I had been at a bit of a loss as to what should run for World AIDS Day, but decided in the end that a personal reflection was best.