Thinking about that quilt of many colors

For reasons I can’t really fathom, I’ve been thinking about AIDS lately, and the fact that my kids have grown up  hearing about it as a disease that’s manageable, for the most part. They don’t have a sense of the death-sentence and leprosy-like stigma it carried just 25 year ago.

I realize AIDS is still a crisis in other parts of the world, particularly in parts of Africa and Asia, but the incidence of new cases here has dropped dramatically, and many persons have now lived several decades with the disease.

Fear spread like wildfire in the early 1980s when AIDS first reared its very ugly head. In 1981 my father was a patient for about 5 months at NYU Medical Center, the same year that the first case of the as-yet-unnamed or -understood disease appeared. We heard a number of fearful conversations in hallways about precautions among medical personnel — in New York, it was fast to hit the radar screen.

It became evident quickly that the primary sufferers of this new disease were gay men and intravenous drug users, and there was a lot of trash talk about God wreaking revenge on sinners. I heard it in my own neighborhood, workplace and from a few family  members and friends. Looking back, I want to believe that panic and fear made people more unkind. 

I remember reading somewhere at the time that sexuality had changed for my generation. Now, when you slept with someone,  you were indeed sleeping with everyone they’d ever slept with. I found that a very sobering concept; I didn’t like most of my boyfriends’ exes to begin with . . .

We found ourselves eying people on the subway and buses, in restaurants and bars. Was that mark on a man’s neck Karposi’s sarcoma, the ugly lesions we’d seen photos of on AIDS patients? Friends and co-workers who lost weight rapidly were discussed with suspicion. It sounds like a crazy time, but it was. We knew so little, and it took a long time for fear-mongering to dissipate.

A few friends from high school and college who had come out in the late 1970s and 1980s were often on my mind at the time, as I wondered if and how they were affected.

But my first up-close-and-personal encounter with AIDS came in 1985. My beloved godfather, an eminent banker in his 50s, long married, best friend to my father, began to lose weight at an alarming pace. He became withdrawn, quiet, distant. It was clear he was ill, but he would speak to no one about it. And no one wanted to invade his privacy. He entered the hospital in December and died in early January. Heart failure due to complications from HIV was listed as cause of death.

I visited him several times in the hospital. No one was saying he wouldn’t come home. No one mentioned “AIDS.” But we were asked to don gowns and masks before we entered his room, something I did not want to do and sometimes just would not. He scolded me weakly once when I leaned down to kiss him goodbye on his forehead. Hospital staff sometimes refused to enter his room, leaving food trays and other deliveries outside his door. My parents and I suspected what no one was saying aloud.

At his wake, some of his longtime banking executive friends were scarce. The rumors had gone around the office. There was hushed, gossipy chatter in corners about what had killed this once-vibrant man, an athlete and sophisticated world traveler. And no one who might have known how the disease was contracted came forward with information. Even his doctors remained in the dark. Our family recalled that a prominent Park Avenue dentist he had visited for dental work had died of AIDS; it had been reported in the newspapers. But why my godfather never came forward to discuss his illness with even his wife or best friend remains a mystery.

It didn’t matter. We mourned him the same, no matter the cause. In the years since I have so often paused to wish he was still with us to see me married, to know my children, to invite me to go skiing or sit at out Thanksgiving table again. He was the first man who ever sent me a dozen roses, when I was 15. (A girl never forgets those things). I can still smell his Old Spice Lime and hear his hearty “Hello, love!” when he hugged me. And I still weep from time to time.

In the years that followed, there would be more deaths. A co-worker. A priest I knew. My favorite bartender at my favorite Italian restaurant. Two high school chums.

Jim Ryan, two years my senior, had always been kind, something of a high school mentor. When he came out to me in 1978,  it didn’t affect our friendship. But a few years later, high on his increasingly visible role as the head of Georgetown University’s gay and lesbian student group, he disparaged my heterosexual lifestyle, and that was it for me. Acceptance works both ways.

In a 1980 lawsuit against Georgetown, Jim blamed the university for contributing to an atmosphere of physical and verbal abuse against gays. He was one of two plaintiffs in the landmark case, an 8-year-battle that the university ultimately lost and which cost it dearly in alumni dollars and in legitimacy as a Catholic institution.

Jim lived just three years past that legal victory. I know almost nothing about his last years and his death from AIDS. An item in our alumni newsletter and a couple of obits noting his role in the Georgetown case marked his death.

Another high school buddy and former crush, Peter, left a more visible legacy. A Philadelphia medical clinic was rededicated in his honor, and each year Albert Einstein School of Medicine makes an award to a student in his name. That student is cited for his or her compassion, one of Peter’s hallmarks. 

Peter was everyone’s friend in high school. He loved to dance, and I can still recall being twirled through the cafeteria as we practiced the latest disco moves learned the previous weekend. He was chief resident at Einstein, popular with patients and staff. But what he saw as the needs of the gay community called out to him. Today, the Mazzoni Center offers healthcare, drug and alcohol counseling and referral, housing assistance and mental health care for the gay population of Philadelphia. Peter died of AIDS in 1990, but many of his friends and co-workers still recall his humanity, kindness and sense of humor. I miss his sweetness above all.

My mother used to ask me if Peter was a romantic candidate for me — she adored him. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I suspected well back in our high school days that I wasn’t the right gender. Years later, after his death, I did tell her he’d died of AIDS. Her shock was pretty minimal. After my godfather’s death, all of our preconceived ideas about who died from AIDS went out the window.

I was working for the church throughout many of these years, and I was sometimes called upon by my gay friends and family members to defend the church’s position on homosexuality. I never tried to do so. I’m not a theologian. But I did, and still do sometimes, tell the story of Cardinal John O’Connor, who was called out by the gay community on many occasions for what was labeled  “intolerance and bigotry.” 

Some of us who worked for him knew about the following, but it didn’t become common knowledge until after his death in 2000. Back in the heyday of the AIDS epidemic, the Catholic Church in NYC really led the way in care and treatment for AIDS patients. St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village was an acknowledged and lauded treatment center, and several hospices sprang up specifically for AIDS patients that were run by the church.

Very early on Sunday mornings, Cardinal O’Connor would often rise, don black pants and a cardigan, leave his Roman collar and episcopal cross and chain at his residence, and walk six or seven blocks across 50th Street to an area west of Times Square where one such hospice was located. He would move from room to room, feeding breakfast to residents, emptying bedpans, helping some of the men bathe and dress. It’s my understanding that very few of the patients knew who he was. He was just a caring volunteer.

He would return in time to dress for the big 10 a.m. Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The morning’s activities got him into the right frame of mind to celebrate Mass, he told friends and family.

I won’t talk or argue the church’s positions on homosexuality with anyone. I respect the teaching. I have lots of feelings and opinions, but they’re mine. Cardinal O’Connor taught the doctrine, but he also lived the faith. He loved the human being, no matter if he saw them as a sinner or not.

AIDS taught me a lot about perceptions and about judging others. There is so much judgment in today’s world — maybe that’s why I’ve been thinking about AIDS lately and all the good people lost to it. We need less judgment and more Christian charity in every arena.

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One thought on “Thinking about that quilt of many colors

  1. That is a beautiful, beautiful essay.

    And by the way, you and I have something in common, In 1983, my grandmother died from AIDS, after receiving virus-tainted blood during procedures to help her lungs. No one wanted to call it that; after all, she was a nice, old Polish lady from the Bronx, and not a homosexual or a Haitian. But dramatic and rapid weight loss, pneumonia that would resist any treatment, the appearance of Karposi’s sarcoma . . . we knew.

    What angers me is that AIDS is still transmitted in the gay community. I know older – well, okay, gay guys MY age – who remember the 80’s, and try to educate the younger set, who laugh and feel themselves to in invincible. With few exceptions, the disease is 100% preventable through modification of one’s behavior. This is why I support pediatric AIDS charities since the children, like my grandmother, are innocent victims of the disease.

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