First, the Bad News – Your Baby is Dying
I waited almost a decade before sharing the news of my HIV-positive status with my mom and dad. I know that I have already made one confession about my tendency to sequester information; however this particular hidden truth was likely the biggest and baddest secret of them all. Regarding the potentially dangerous and destructive nature of this particular secret, I would like to offer a simile that my toddler would appreciate and understand; if secrets were dinosaurs, this would have been a T-rex.
Well into the second half of my four-year relationship with the hairdresser I call George – that would be the latter part of our second (and sexless) two years – I decided that I needed to finally tell my parents that I was HIV-positive. I’d been concealing the information for eight-plus years. I’d made a promise to myself that I would tell them about my HIV when my diagnosis required me to begin medication. That time had come and gone. My T-cell count had dipped below 600 – the normal low end of the range for healthy individuals – which qualified me for a complicated, double-blind, HIV drug trial at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Medical Center.
I was now surreptitiously swallowing fistfuls of mystery pills every day. I justified my protracted silence on the subject of my HIV status by convincing myself that there were just too many other things going on in our family. As the youngest of four siblings, with a large extended clan, I could always point to some other relation’s squall and convince myself that it was in everyone’s best interest to not add the gale force winds of AIDS to the family tempest. In retrospect, the bruised and battered Catholic in me must have loved the martyrdom – as deluded and dysfunctional as it was.
Nevertheless, something at this particular juncture was compelling me to come clean with my mom and dad regarding my HIV. Perhaps we were experiencing an unusually long period of tranquility within the greater family dynamic at this particular time, and I wanted to jump in while the waters were calm. Maybe I sensed the eminent dissolve of my relationship with George and assumed it was better to deal with my HIV disclosure before my breakup. It could simply have been that I wanted to tell my parents before the truth became obvious in the dimming of my eyes or the hollowing of my cheeks. Or maybe, just maybe, I could no longer suffer the havoc being wreaked on my lovely hair by that pesky crown of thorns.
One day, I announced to George that I was finally going to tell my parents that I was HIV-positive. I jumped into my car and headed over to their house. My mom and dad lived only a few blocks away from the apartment where George and I were cohabitating at the time, so the commute was short. Perhaps they thought an unannounced afternoon visit from their youngest child – now in his late twenties – was mildly peculiar, but they sat down at the kitchen table with me and engaged in some innocuous chatter. We probably talked about how my college classes were going, or caught up on the current events in the lives of my siblings. Oddly enough, I could never manage to casually steer the conversation around to the impending death of their baby boy. Eventually the dialogue waned. I said my goodbyes and headed back home; still harboring my secret. #cowardlylyin’
Over the next few weeks I made a number of similar sojourns over to my mom and dad’s, sat with them for a round of small talk, and then left every time without getting around to the heart of the matter. I would tell myself time and again that it would happen when the time was right, or that there was no need to force unpleasant information about my health into an otherwise lovely conversation.
The truth of the matter is that I was deathly afraid. I had no doubt that my parents would still love me when the telling was done, but I did not want their love for me to become tainted with even the slightest trace of pity or disappointment. And perhaps more than anything, I did not want to cause them pain.
On one of those afternoons when I was sitting with my parents in their kitchen – skirting around the truth of why I had made yet another unannounced visit – there was a knock at the front door. Immediately, part of me was happy to be able to blame the unexpected interruption for another failed attempt at my truth-telling, and part of me felt the ever-increasing burden of secrecy build yet again.
At any rate, I jumped up from the table and made my way to the entry hall. I opened the door, and to my surprise – there was George standing on the front porch.
He looked past me to see that I had come to the door alone, and then in an over-articulated whisper he asked, “Did you tell them?”
“No. Not yet,” I said.
“Good. I don’t think you should,” he replied.
“Why?” I asked.
George’s exact reply to this question is permanently etched on the most fragile pane of my spirit’s facade, just adjacent to Guy’s “You killed me.”
Still being careful to not be heard by anyone else in the house, George’s exaggerated sotto voce response hissed with accusation, “If you tell them, what will they think of me?”
George went on to clarify his concern, “What if your parents think that I’m the one who infected you?” My immediate response at the time was to ease his concern by assuring him that I would let them know that he was not responsible. That was me back then, at twenty-something. Today, the fifty-something me might respond with something more like, “I have been HIV-positive for almost a decade, and dating you for only four years. Do the math dumbass.”
I am a little embarrassed to admit that I was so completely incapable of advocating for myself back then, and that I was willing to let someone be so blatantly disrespectful. Yes, we were all afraid. Even George. I refuse to hold him accountable. To this day. I just can’t. I do, however, wonder how different things might have been, if, when I opened the door that day at my parent’s house, there had been someone standing on the front porch who might simply have said something like, “I love you and I am here for you.” That was not the case. So, I invited George inside and he and I hung out for a little while longer with my mom and dad – small-talking. Eventually, we left with my secret still safely stowed.
I returned alone to my parent’s house a few days later. Sitting there in the same kitchen, where over the years I had shared so much of life with my family, I told my parents that there youngest child was HIV-positive. I did my best to explain that I was still healthy, and that I was getting the very latest drug therapies available. The reality, however, was that there was precious little comfort that I could give to my mom and dad in a time when HIV was still considered a death sentence. They cried. But with their tears came unequivocal support and unconditional love. In my heart, I always knew that would be the case. In this respect I was one of the lucky ones. #blessed
I don’t recall if I felt an overwhelming sense of relief that day when I left my parent’s home, but in retrospect it was a critical turning point. I had begun to more actively build an important and invaluable network of support. You see, as the news of my HIV slowly began to spread through my family, without fail every single member of my sprawling clan eventually found a way to express to me what George could not – I love you and I am here for you. Not in those exact words, of course. No. And in some cases, it was communicated without words at all. Sometimes it was conveyed in something as subtle as a hug at Christmas. Yes. It was there. Over the years my family has grown and their support remains steadfast. When I began to first consider the many challenges of potential fatherhood, it gave me great comfort and courage to know that any child of mine would be gifted with these remarkably strong familial ties.
In the years since confessing the secret of my HIV status to my parents, I have come to realize that it is in my nature to recoil from sharing anything that may be perceived as weakness. I say, in my nature, and yes – that is part of the truth. The other part, of course, is the nurture part. That is to say, that perhaps in some way, a proclivity towards measured truths in the interest of perpetuating and projecting a persona of absolute strength and self-reliance, even to the detriment of my own well-being, and sometimes with disregard to the feelings of those who love me, may have been modeled to me.
At this point in the journey, however, I am less concerned with cause and more focused on the effect; specifically, the effect that my behavior may have on my child. If – or more likely when – my son has something – anything – to share, I do not want him to think that he should wait a decade, or a year, or a day, or even an instant. I want him to know – I want to show him – that fear does not equal weakness, and that silence does not equal strength. On the very long list of my life’s lessons, this realization is a great one. How great? Well, my son, if epiphanies were ice cream, this one would be mint chocolate chip.