It was a bright cold day in April of 1984 when I tested positive for the HIV virus. I remember the date and the weather because not only does the devastation of life-altering news make one hyperconscious of his environment and bring the physical world into magnified bold relief, I was that week also reading Orwell’s 1984 for the third time, and while leaving the clinic after receiving the news, which in those days translated as a death warrant, the first sentence of that novel sprang immediately into my mind.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
And indeed, it was almost one o’clock in the afternoon as I made my way up Market St, walking against a bitter wind, still clutching the lab document in my hand, a series of numbers and medical terms as indecipherable as hieroglyphics, but which, all too clearly, I saw as a map that pointed unmistakably towards my imminent demise. Winston Smith, the protagonist of Orwell’s novel, is on his way home, just as I was, as the story begins, and he passes a large imposing poster of Big Brother staring down upon him, with eyes that seem to follow Winston as he passed. I now saw a poster of my generation’s nemesis, Ronald Reagan, left over from his successful re-election campaign the previous November. It was faded and torn but still tenaciously clung to the wall, and like Big Brother, it stared down at me too, a fitting metaphor for the conservative grip Reagan and the Republicans had this country in. The bells of St Patrick’s church two blocks away on Mission Street began to peel. All these fictional elements of Orwell’s, the cold day in April, the vile wind, the time of day, the menacing poster and the chiming bells, all of it served to heighten the surreal disorientation I felt, as my real life began to blur into the dystopian nightmare in the most compelling novel that I had ever read in my short thirty-one years.
I said the news was devastating. Because how could someone telling you that you will die soon be anything other? But did I feel devastated in that moment? The truth is I felt curiously tranquil. I had expected both the result as an inevitability, while simultaneously holding out, against all odds, for a negative test, although my sexual history cast overwhelming doubt on that likelihood. Wanting to avoid a warring battle with my mind I knew would only end in surrendering to my new reality, I think I skipped entirely the expected period of denial such news would naturally prompt, and in the span of nanoseconds, went hellbent straight to acceptance. It may seem absurd, and ridiculously trivial, but my first thought was the immeasurable relief of never having to go to the dentist again. Having long feared dentist visits with an acute and crippling anxiety, I felt a burden lift realizing I would never again need to suffer those instruments of torture. And then another thought popped into my head. That savings account I had been building wouldn’t need any further contributions; what would be the point? I thought, use it or lose it, and before I had even reached my apartment building, I was already planning a trip back to Rome, a city I had recently fallen head over heels with, and which now beckoned my return with the lure of its sun-soaked Renaissance magnificence.
Four months later I was sitting in a cafe in Piazza Navona sipping a glass of Chianti enjoying la dolce vita, having made good on the promise I made to myself to live as grandly as possible, choosing instead to celebrate what time was left to me, rather than to mourn the years that would never be mine. By the end of that year, all my closest friends had also tested positive, and by summer 1985, my best friend Stevin had died, the first of many to fall. In a few brief years all my friends would perish, but Stevin’s death was the hardest to bear, coming first, and his friendship being the great fraternal love of my life. At the time, there was no rational reason to suggest I would be spared the same fate. It would have been sheer lunacy, or perhaps an unhinged arrogance, to consider my destiny should be any different from any of my equally mortal friends.
After learning my status, I immediately told all my friends and siblings, but I did not tell my parents until I felt an urgency to do so. I wanted both to spare them the announcement no parent would ever want to hear, and to spare myself the unwelcome role of the bearer of tragic news. That urgency arrived when my T-cells began to precipitously plummet to dangerous levels, and I was put on the only antiviral available at the time, the nucleoside analogue AZT. I was emotionally exhausted merely anticipating this distressing conversation with my parents, combined with the logistics of driving the seventy miles to their home, and back again. But I never considered telling them by phone, believing the gravitas of the situation demanded my in-person presence.
Was it cheating when I asked my sister Maureen to come with me? Was it selfish to ask her to absorb some of the anxiety the mere idea of this meeting produced in me? Was it unfair to use her as the critical element that I expected would go far to neutralize the dysphoria I knew would permeate that always too warm living room? Maybe, but Maureen never hesitated in saying yes, because her only motivation was to offer her presence as moral support, which in the end was really the true reason I needed her there. And so, the day arrived, and together Maureen and I drove from San Francisco to my parent’s home in Santa Rosa.
What was the apparent reason I had offered to explain why we were coming to visit? I know I hadn’t revealed there was something important I needed to tell them, knowing this would only serve to create an aura of mystery and fuel unwanted speculation for days preceding my arrival. And given my parent’s Irish Catholic bent towards gloom and doom, this was not helpful to my plan to gently nudge the revelation out into the open. I must have invented some flimsy story of Maureen and me simply wanting to see them, and so by appealing to my mother’s vanity, our true motives went unchallenged.
On the appointed day Maureen and I drove north up highway 101 through Marin County and into Sonoma County to my parent’s home. To get it over with as soon as possible, I wasted no time in dismissing their offer of snacks and drinks and asking my parents to take a seat as I had something to tell them. It was only at this point, waiving off the niceties, the insistence that they sit, did they begin to suspect the matter under discussion may be more consequential than prosaic. I then told them the most basic of the facts as I knew them. I had tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus, the virus that causes AIDS. That I had seroconverted some months earlier but was only telling them now because my T-cells were diminishing, and I had begun taking the drug AZT. That’s all I said, not wanting to bombard them with data, expecting they would have many questions of their own, and allowing them to ask me in their own time. I wanted that initial revelation to land as gently as possible without it seeming I was throwing a bomb and detonating it there in the quiet of their all-white and beige living room.
They sat together in stunned silence. I knew it might take a moment for the news to sink in, so I waited patiently. They appeared as stoic as the couple in “American Gothic,” Grant Wood’s iconic painting of the farm couple holding the pitchfork. They didn’t flinch or move a muscle. But their facial expressions were a shifting panoply of concern, confusion and fear. But still they said nothing. I glanced at Maureen whose furrowed brow shot me a look that said, what the fuck? There was a gardener outside using a leaf blower, and the muffled noise of the machine became the soundtrack to this developing scene that apparently had no dialogue. Their house faced a golf course, and indistinct voices from the fairway drifted lazily into the room. An occasional car whooshed by. The grandfather clock chimed. And still they sat, paralyzed.
There was no rush to hug me, or console me, or express how sorry they were for me. Was I unfair to think that is what other parents would do? There were no questions to further comprehend the medical dangers I faced. No request to educate them on any aspect of what I had just revealed to further understand the peril of my situation. There was only nothing. Nothing but a shattering silence. And it was in that moment a metamorphosis occurred, and the roles we had played all our lives, suddenly and wrenchingly reversed. I became their parent, and they became my children. Once I could see this reversal had taken place, I leapt into action, the heroic parent who without thinking dives into the deep end to save their drowning kids. I abruptly realized two things. First, that they lacked a degree of compassion one automatically accords a parent, one we assume comes with the role, a given, the kind of compassion that requires a voice and an action, not just a passive emotion felt internally and silently. And second, more shocking to me, I saw how their complete failure to rise to this moment rendered them unfit as parents. When I most needed them, they had abandoned me.
I had only the time and the energy to silently rage at them for a brief instant, a quick internal primal scream in response to the gut punch of their unintentionally cruel silence, and then my anger dissolved just as swiftly as it had flared. An overwhelming need to protect them from the horrors of the world overcame me, and I began to blabber nonstop with everything I knew about HIV, AIDS, its transmission, its prevention, my doctor’s prognosis for me, the support the city of San Francisco offered, and how all my friends were in the same, sinking boat. My hurried blathering, firing off a nonstop torrent of facts and figures, was meant not only to inform them, and hopefully comfort them with the best-case scenario, but to cover up the embarrassing fatal flaw in their characters, now on trial, exposed, the shame of it revealed for all the world to see.
How had they come to this moment? My mother lived through the great depression, she bravely faced the births of seven children, and she raised them all, including a dwarf daughter and all the complications and challenges that child’s life would involve. She had had a sheltered childhood, but she was not exactly a shrinking violet when it came to embracing life, the triumphs and the tragedies. And my father? He watched his mother bleed to death in childbirth when he was two years old in 1912, exactly eight miles from where we now sat. Was he thinking of her now? Unable to span the distance from that tragedy to where I was presently telling him I had a fatal disease? He survived the bloody crucible of World War II, a fearless soldier among the bravest men of The Greatest Generation. But my news delivered in the comfort of a northern California living room in 1985 rendered him an ineffectual mute. Helpless, inept, lacking any resource or agency with which to respond to the news his son was likely to die sooner than later.
I had read a chapter of 1984 in the car driving up to Santa Rosa, and I could now see the book and my car keys across the room on an end table. I had first read the book in 1967 in my high school advanced placement English class, and then again in 1978 on the 30th anniversary of its publication. I was reading it yet again in the year the story takes place, but this time the novel seemed darker, more prescient, and far more chilling. This time I had begun to cast myself in the role of Winston Smith, fighting back against a totalitarian government whose thought police persecuted people for beliefs that contradicted the state’s relentless campaign of propaganda. And for certain behaviors, like sex, performed for any reason other than reproduction. A view similarly shared by my devoutly catholic conservative parents. Because of course it was sex itself (specifically the homosexual and especially the recreational kind) that held my parents in those emotional straitjackets, unable to move past terms like “exchange of bodily fluids,” powerless to swat away unsolicited and disturbing images of male anal intercourse and oral sex invading their heteronormative minds.
Just as the repressed citizens of Oceania had worshiped Big Brother, my parents had bought into the cult of personality of Ronald Reagan. They truly believed it was morning in America.
My unwelcome news had forced them to see another vision of America, and it didn’t jibe with their moral code, immaculate of visions of sexual perversion. That final heartbreaking sentence in Orwell’s masterpiece now came fully formed into my head. What I had long called the four saddest words in the English language. “He loved Big Brother.” But I would never love Ronald Reagan. And like Winston I would resist the lie that 2+2 = 5. However, my battle was not with my parents. I knew they loved me, and I still loved them. I had done what was ethically necessary, according to my moral code, by delivering the unvarnished truth, which I knew they could only absorb in small doses. If they were unable to express their compassion for me, I willingly gave them mine by reverting to our well-worn playbook. I put on a happy face and stuck to the etiquette of polite optimism.
And so, what happened after this living room discussion, or monologue, as it more closely resembled? We ate lunch, of course. My mother made her famous egg salad sandwiches that she served with Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, which she placed in a bag and shook with her proprietary blend of garlic, dill, and ranch seasoning. We drank Coca-Cola and had See’s candy for dessert, an open box of which my mother could be counted on to always have lying somewhere around the house. No doubt we had a few laughs, skipped merrily down memory lane, sharing a few amusing stories of family life. We were professional avoiders of the unpleasant and inconvenient truths that acted as obstacles to pleasant egg salad and Coke lunches on sunny afternoons. I had done my part; what my parents did with the information was up to them. Meanwhile, I still had my life to live, what was left of it, and I still loved to laugh and tell stories and eat my mother’s cooking, so that’s exactly what I did.