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
"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
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
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
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
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.