I almost forgot about it until I heard an interview on Capital Public Radio. And then it came back, and I was reminded how far we’ve come here at home, and how far we have to go in other parts of the world.
Do you remember when it first touched your life? The first person you knew, and loved, who had that secret, shameful disease? Do you remember when we couldn’t talk about it? When we wondered if we could get it from shaking hands, or just a simple touch? Gosh, do you remember when we couldn’t even talk about being gay?
My story is about my best friend Jeff. I met him when I was 12 and he was the older 15-year-old. Our four parents were teachers together, and we had monthly camping and motorcycle adventures. He tolerated me, I think. When I was 15, our family moved to a neighboring town, and he was my go-to boyfriend. We were never in love, and there were a few other beaus in between, but he was the one who was always there, with a truck and a smile, and a good time for everyone. He took me to my one and only prom. Our families celebrated holidays together, and in 1976 Jeff and I packed his truck and drove 500 miles to Chico to go away to college. We lived on the same dorm floor and we were a unit. Not a romantic one, but lifelong friends who could count on each other. I soon met Steve, and I believe the two of them were even roommates one summer. Jeff was the friendliest, nicest, most popular guy of the group, and everyone wanted to be part of whatever he was up to.
There was something else though. We weren’t sure, but things didn’t add up. At first we wondered to ourselves, and then whispered to each other. It took years and years to figure it out. We never asked him out right, but eventually, by our late twenties, we figured out he was gay. We saw each other a few times a year, and always enjoyed each other, but we never got to the heart of his life.
It was weird to me that we couldn’t talk about it. But he knew that I knew, and I knew that he knew I knew. It was actually annoying to me that someone I considered my dearest friend couldn’t tell me the truth of his life. I hinted, I pried, but I never asked. It didn’t matter to me that he was gay, but it did matter to me that he didn’t feel he could tell me.
And then he got sick. I heard he didn’t look well, and over a few visits, I knew he was sick, and I knew what it was. But we didn’t talk about that either. For a few years Steve had a virus called CMV, which is also present in AIDS patients, and we talked about Steve’s health, but never Jeff’s.
When I was pregnant with Alex I was very, very sick…and he was getting sicker. So finally, during one of our long phone calls, I asked him how he was, and he finally said, “You know I have AIDs don’t you?” I told him, “I know you have AIDS, but since we’ve never even talked about the fact that you’re gay, maybe we should back up a bit.”
The deal is, Jeff was a fun guy and a good friend, but not one for deep self-disclosure. So I don’t even remember the details. Honestly, I don’t know much about his life after college. I just know about his experience with me.
Alex was born and he sent her Barney high tops. I took her to him so he could hold her (and even then, I confess to wondering about that). Steve and I visited him in the hospice in August, and he died in October. We gathered our college friends and made a square in his memory for the AIDS quilt. His mom sent me jeans and t shirts to add to it. We had a party in his brother’s backyard in Laguna Beach. Neither my mom or I have heard from his mom in years.
In the meantime, we still have AIDS. I have other friends with HIV, who are medicated and alive. I have done work with Freedom from Hunger to help educate women in developing countries, so they can protect themselves and know how to access treatment.
On the radio, the doctor who has been so active in our region’s AIDS community said that in Africa there is still so much stigma that people would rather die than be known as someone who has AIDS. They are too ashamed to get treatment. He said, “We passed that benchmark in our country in 1995.”
1995 was the year my friend Jeff died. I don’t know how shame or secrecy played into this life or death. I just know that it was too early, and I was too afraid to ask. And now, I am the one who is ashamed. I know it’s not my fault, or his fault, or anyone’s fault. It just is. And what I know is that I will, from here on out, always try to learn what’s in my loved one’s heart.
No neat ending to this one my friends. Just a disease that is still dangerous, and still a secret to some in our world. Journey on.