Ending The Stigma Of AIDS | Jenngem

When it comes to my son, there is certainly no shortage of love for the kid. He has his grandmother, whom he affectionately calls "mema," his "nanny and poppy," and of course, both of his aunts and his great grandparents. But there is one person that he will never get to meet, his grandfather, my dad. He passed away when I was twelve years-old.

My father died of complications from 
Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome. More commonly referred to as AIDS

That's me being fashion forward in a pink fur coat.

When I was a child, I used to be embarrassed by the way he had contracted it. Yes, I would tell people, if they asked if he contracted it through a blood transfusion. Those kinds of things happened back then, and as a child, it sounded so much better than the truth. Sometimes, I would tell people that he had cancer, if anyone asked. But the truth is, my dad did drugs, and he contracted AIDS. Back then, there was a stigma, today, there still is. People still judge us and give us "the look." When neighbors found out about what my dad had, they stopped speaking to us, even family members ostracized us.  

My father wasn't an inherently "bad" man. In fact, he wasn't bad at all. But one tiny mistake he made before my sister and I had been born, cut his life tragically short. My parents had met through my mom's brother, whom my dad worked with. The next part is pretty simple, they fall in love, get married, have two children, and live happily ever after. That's how it's supposed to be, isn't it? However, unbeknownst to my mother when they met, my father had dappled in hard drugs. It was something that had been kept from my mom, although she says she doesn't regret her decision to marry my dad one bit - it led to the birth of my sister and I, and ultimately, my son. 

This is quite possibly my most favorite picture of my dad. He looked really happy.
I don't believe that my dad would have been interested in trying drugs if it wasn't for the peer pressure that was put upon him by his best friend. But that's what I believe, I'll never know for certain, I wasn't there, I wasn't even a thought. All it took was one time, which is exactly how many times my father tried heroin. According to what my father told my mom, he was staying at his friends house, who decided to take a shot of heroin. He asked my dad if he wanted to give it a try. 

He used the same needle on him. 
That's what took my dad away from me. The choice to use the same needle as his friend, instead of insisting on a new one. But, this was in the early eighties, at a time when HIV and AIDS was just starting to be understood, let alone be accepted. My dad had to be living with the virus in his system for years, because he had done all that before he met my mother. Even after I was born, he had no idea. It wasn't until his best friend landed in the hospital and was found to have the disease did my dad think to get tested, only two months after my mother had given birth to my younger sister. 

The first set of results came back, yes, it was positive. He went for a second test, and that one also showed the same results. He was HIV positive. I cannot even imagine how my mother felt during that time. I'd bargain that it was somewhere in the realm of betrayed-angry-scared-upset-nervous-and-anxious all at the same time. After all, she had two children with this man, which meant unprotected sex. It was entirely possible that she could've contracted the virus as well. 

But by some incredible twist of fate, in the face of all the bad news, she tested negative, and still tests negative to this day. After learning of his diagnosis in 1992, my dad lived another ten years, ultimately passing away from liver failure, a complication from the Hepatitis C that he also suffered from. It was a Monday morning in mid-march, and even though my father was in a coma, eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling, I refused to believe that he was going to die. I went to school that morning believing he would be there when I got back home. I told him I loved him and went on my way. I had been too scared as a child to give him a kiss. I still feel that was the biggest regret of my life. 

On March 18th, 2002, at 2:30 in the afternoon, my father took his final breath. My sister and I were still at school. Even though we knew it was coming, the loss of my father was a wound that cut deeply. Even so, at his funeral, I was determined to stay strong for my mother, and I remained stoic for years after his death, never fully taking time to grieve his loss until years later when I suffered a nervous breakdown. It has now been 15 years since he's been gone. 

As a child, I harbored a lot of anger towards my father and the stupid decision that ultimately led to his untimely demise. "If he had only been smarter," "If he had only stayed home that night." There are a million scenarios of "what ifs" that I can replay over and over in my mind. But I realized that it doesn't change the outcome of what happened. What sense is there to be angry at a dead man? I can't be mad anymore. I have a son, one who I believe with all of my heart that my dad would have loved more than life. I see certain qualities in Syrus that remind me of my dad, like their love of music. My little guy can even identify Johnny Cash's voice when it comes on the radio, and good old JC was one of my dad's favorite artists. 

Those are the kinds of special moments that I have to hold steadfast to, lest I sink back into the vicious cycle of anger that plagues me. The one where I'm pissed off that my dad isn't here to watch Syrus grow up. But I know that I can't. My son is my world and keeps me going, and I know that someday, when the time comes, I will tell the truth to him about his grandfather. Lying never got anyone anywhere, and he would find out in the end, anyhow. That is why in my lifetime, I am working towards ending the stigma of AIDS and HIV.

Even though I identify as an agnostic atheist, there is a small part of me that wants to believe that out there, somewhere within the vast depths of the cosmos, that there is a part of my father, watching me, nodding his head in approval, and tapping his foot along to Folsom Prison Blues. I love you, dad. Syrus and I miss you. 

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