A lot happened in 1995. An explosion in Oklahoma City left 168 people dead and hundreds injured, Jerry Garcia died of a heart attack and O.J Simpson was found not guilty on live television.
It was also the year my father died of AIDS.
I had just started my senior year in high school and almost oblivious to what was happening in the world. It wasn't that I didn't care about what was happening around me. I was a teenager about to enter my final year in a school I learned to love but longed to leave. I was sad to leave my friends, yet excited to start college and potentially leave home. For a brief moment, everything seemed perfect. Then one day, my guidance counselor pulled me out of English class to tell me that my aunt had called the school.
"Your father's sister," she said.
She handed me a white sheet of paper with my aunt's phone number and suggested I ask my mom to call.
When I arrived home, I found my mom in the kitchen listening to 96.3 FM and stirring the pollo guisado she had prepared for dinner. I placed my JanSport on the floor, unzipped it and searched for the sheet of paper with my aunt's number. Part of me wanted to place the call myself. I knew how my mom felt about the man she once loved. I was not allowed to mention his name around her, nor was I to praise him in any way. I knew how much she disliked his family and how hard she had tried to keep me away from them. I feared she would tear the paper up into little pieces and demand I never mention it again. I took a deep breath and handed over the piece of paper. My mom looked at it, looked back at me and asked me to do my homework. As I walked away, I heard her dial.
The words "tu papa no está bien" distracted me the rest of the week. I had no idea what my mom had meant when she said my father was not well, nor did I understand why she had agreed to send me to the hospital to see him. About two weeks after she delivered those dreadful words, I was riding the local train from the Bronx into Manhattan with my long-lost aunt and her son. I felt like Dorothy approaching the dark forest on her way to see the wizard. I was on my way to see an important man with people I barely knew and had no idea what was waiting for us at the end of our journey. Walking through the hospital corridors, I said a prayer.
Dear God, help him get better.
We entered the hospital room slowly. The curtains were drawn in his room, prohibiting the warmth of the sun from entering. He was no longer the man I remembered. His olive skin had turned yellow. Pink blotches covered his face, neck and skeletal arms. His hair, once dark and full of life, had transformed into thin gray strands. He reached out for my hand and smiled, but I knew it wasn't genuine. I could see the sadness in his eyes.
Those were not the eyes I remembered. I had visited him in a rehab center when I was eight years old. I was told he was "getting help" but as a child I didn't understand what that meant. He greeted me with open arms. As we sat in an auditorium, he asked me to forgive him. I had no idea why he wanted forgiveness, but would later learn of his addiction. It was this addiction that caused him to steal and lie. When he finally accepted help, it was too late. Years of sharing needles proved to be a lot more fatal than anyone could ever imagine. It was a pity, too. The man had many talents; he was a brilliant cartoonist, great salsa dancer and had a wonderful singing voice.
Tears filled my eyes as I held his fragile hand in that hospital room. Despite the cool temperature of the room, he was sweating profusely. I leaned in close and with all the strength I could muster whispered what I knew he wanted to hear.
"I love and forgive you."
Weeks went by before I heard anything, but on November 25th I received word that my father had passed away.
His was the saddest funeral I had ever attended. Family members and friends wailed as they approached his open casket. Anxious to say my final goodbye, I presented myself as his daughter and skipped virtually everyone in line to view his body. I approached the wooden box and looked down at his unnaturally orange face. Someone approached me and said, "Don't be afraid." Someone else moved close and put a hand on my shoulder. I was not afraid, nor did I need comforting. I felt like an outsider and desperately wanted to go home.
At St. Raymond's Cemetery, my father's brother delivered the eulogy and ended it with a warning: AIDS is real, and anyone can get it.
AIDS? Who in the world had AIDS?!
I scanned the crowd. I grabbed a relative by the arm and demanded to know what was going on. She leaned in close to my ear and said, "I guess you didn't know." I immediately felt enraged. Up until that very moment, no one had mentioned the word AIDS to me. I had been told he was very sick, but to me that meant there was a chance he could overcome his illness. It never occurred to me that he was going to die. Then it hit me -- he had all the classic symptoms. I looked at my hand, the same one he had held in the hospital room. It suddenly dawned on me; no one wanted to tell me because they were afraid I wouldn't touch him. So many questions filled my head: when did he find out? How long did he suffer? Did he want to tell me, but was told not? Why the fuck would anyone keep that from me?!
That was the first time in life I had ever used that word. Up until that day, I never had to. I was filled with anger beyond words, the type that causes dizziness and nausea. As I threw up inside my mouth I thought, did my mom know? More nausea. I walked away from the crowd and looked for a way out of the cemetery, but someone caught up to me and asked where I was going.
"I just need to be alone," I whispered.
He must have felt alone his final days in that dark room. I don't think anyone close to him truly knew what he was going through. They were too busy trying to hide the truth. Yes, AIDS is real. At that point, it had been an epidemic for quite some time. The New York Times had run its first AIDS story in 1981 though the Center for Disease Control had not established a term for the illness until 1982. In 1988, new AIDS cases that resulted from shared needles exceeded those attributable to sexual contact, and New York City's Health Department started an experimental needle exchange program. In 1995, the New York Times reported that AIDS had become the leading cause of death among all Americans ages 25 to 44. Over 300,000 AIDS-related deaths were reported that year.
I later learned that no one had the decency to tell my mom. When I finally gathered the courage to deliver the news myself, she didn't seem surprised. She said, "eso da pena". Yes, a real shame that he and others had to die this way. A shame that no one thought I could handle the truth. A real shame that I had to find out that he had AIDS as his casket was lowered into a dark pit.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of his death. I barely knew him, but that was not something I could control. I was young when he passed, too young to understand many things. Sometimes I imagine what I would have done if someone would have told me he had AIDS. I look back now and regret not pressuring his relatives for more answers. Had I known, I would have begged to spend more time with him. Angel deserved a better ending. I would have visited him twice a week, read books and sang songs to him. I would have assured him that I was okay and he had nothing to worry about. I would have held his hand for as long as he wanted.