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When the Walls Came Tumbling Down




 

A YEAR before his death, my dad was forced to come out to me. I thought he was in Paris for a vacation. Instead, he was there for treatment with AZT, which in 1986 was experimental and not yet approved in the United States for people infected with the virus that causes AIDS.

After my mother died when I was 16, my dad fulfilled his lifelong dream and moved us from Hamden, a suburb of New Haven, to Manhattan and there raised me alone. Moving from our modest three-bedroom in suburban Connecticut to a majestic prewar on the corner of West 81st Street and Riverside Drive made me feel like George Jefferson in the television comedy series "The Jeffersons." During my first year there, I unconsciously found myself humming the show's theme song, "Movin' On Up," every time I passed our uniformed doormen.

I might have had my suspicions about my father's sexuality (finding an International Male catalog, with its all-male photo layouts, under his mattress probably should have tipped me off years earlier). But back then I couldn't reconcile my love for him with my own juvenile homophobia.

That August, I was 22, a year out of college and visiting my father in Paris, where he had found a sublet off Place d'Italie on the Boulevard de Port Royal. He said he was interviewing for a spot as a roving State Department psychiatrist based there. The job was a world away from his work at the time, as a child psychiatrist shepherding hundreds of troubled kids at a center run by Harlem Hospital.

It wasn't until my father opened the door that I realized something terrifyingly life-altering was about to be revealed. Always movie-star handsome, he looked older than I had remembered him, and his light green eyes had gone dull.

"Trey, I'm not here to work for the State Department," he said. "I wanted to, but then I got sick."

O.K. He's sick. He'll get better. I'll help him get better.

"Have you heard of ARC, AIDS-related complex?"

Did he just say he's got AIDS?

"It's not AIDS. They just don't want it to ever turn into AIDS so I came here to try this new drug called AZT."

"Rock Hudson came here, right? He took the same stuff and he died."

"Not everyone dies."

He told me he had been with some men, but that he thought he had always been careful.

I said I had to go for a walk.

This is impossible, I was thinking. My mom killed herself when I was still a teenager. After she died, I loved my dad so hard, for both of them. But remember it's not AIDS, I told myself, just some sort of pre-AIDS. The best scientists in the world are working on only this problem. They'll find some pill, I told myself. I'll help them find some pill. We'll get though this and say: "Phew! That was a close one!"

When I returned to his apartment, I was almost smiling. My bad luck would be cosmically counterbalanced by the miraculous good luck of having a father who would be the very first person in the world to recover from AIDS.

We never left each other's sight that week. Without his huge secret between us, we could now talk about anything. He told me about his boyfriends and girlfriends and his heartaches, and as long as he didn't give too much information I was happy to listen.

We became best friends. And when he returned home to New York, I was his live-in nurse for those last six months, supercharging his Cream of Wheat with heavy cream to try to keep his weight up, emptying his dialysis bag several times a day after his kidneys failed, and sharing his king-size bed.

BY Christmas he seemed better and my plan was for the cure to arrive some time in the middle of the following year. So in mid-January, when he was admitted into St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital Center with AIDS-related pneumonia, I refused to panic. The doctors said opportunistic infections were to be expected. Sitting up in his hospital bed, my dad displayed a calm nobility I still try to remember to emulate. He explained that if the pneumonia didn't surrender to the antibiotics, he very likely would die

He said that at his memorial service he wanted a childhood friend turned opera singer to sing an old spiritual, "There's a Man Goin' Round Taking Names." I took notes just to humor him, but assured him that he was just being a drama queen. Five days later, my godfather, also a physician, called me at 3 a.m. and told me to hurry back to the hospital.

When I showed up, my father's eyes were Caribbean clear, yet huge and eerily calm, though it was hard to see the rest of his face through all the white tape and the plastic tubing. My fingers found his, and we stared at each other as I cried.

I wished he could still speak, because I was in no shape to say anything more than that I loved him. I wanted to tell him that I'd be fine. That he'd raised me just perfectly right. I went home to the apartment. A few hours later he was dead, four days short of 50.

In those days, no one spoke about AIDS. No one outside a small circle knew for sure why my father died. Even now, 22 years later, what's left of my family has pleaded with me not to tell the truth.

My dad never understood how he could have contracted AIDS. He swore that he was scrupulously hygienic. I subsequently learned from a family doctor, who had checked my dad's records, that my father's AIDS must have been passed along by a tainted blood transfusion.

The explanation was an odd blessing. If my dad had known what caused his AIDS, he probably never would have come out to me. He would have died with so many secrets still lodged in his heart. And I would have never known my father with the fullness every child craves. Embarrassment is always the price we pay for more intimacy. Perhaps there is no such thing as too much information.

Trey Ellis is the author of "Bedtime Stories: Adventures in the Land of Single Fatherhood," published in February, from which this essay is adapted.



 


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Information in this article was accurate in June 15, 2008. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.