When my brother died of AIDS, I was advised not to tell anyone. My adviser was a parent at my son's school. A well-meaning pediatrician, he was short and round, with glasses and a single tuft of hair on his balding head. I figured he knew what he was talking about, so I took his advice.
I was living in the suburbs of New York City, and the year was 1995. The AIDS epidemic had settled in; at that point, some 500,000 cases had been reported to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. The lifesaving multi-drug regimens of anti-retroviral therapy didn't become widely available until a year later, in 1996. Too bad Steve couldn't hold on.
I'm slow about a lot of things. I didn't learn to ride a bike until fifth grade, and thought girls got pregnant by kissing boys until I was in eighth grade. I never heard of such a thing as a lesbian until I was out of college, so I guess it's no surprise I didn't know my brother was gay until close to the time he died.
I remember that day with uncanny clarity. Steve lived in Florida with his partner, Jonathan. Jonathan was very good to my mother and we liked him. He was short and just a little chubby, in stark contrast to my skinny, troubled, 6-foot- 8-inch brother. Jonathan had a fine head of dark hair and an ingratiating way about him, and he stuck with Steve till the bitter end.
My sister Kelly and I joined Daddy at Steve's apartment. It's funny; I don't remember anything about that apartment except the bedroom where Steve lay in a hospital bed, hooked up to IVs and monitors. I remember that room to the last detail. I can see the arrangement of the furniture, I can tell you the placement of the windows and can hear the low murmur of the television set on one wall. The movie "Clear and Present Danger," starring Harrison Ford, plays over and over again in my mind.
Jonathan is solicitous, cognizant of Steve's every need. Kelly and I sit with him by the bed. Steve is fully awake and aware, and my sister and I use conversation as balm. We talk about nothing, laughing, making silly jokes, sharing pointless observations and silly gossip. We're not a family that is given to dramatic protestations of love, devotion or regret.
Neither one of our twin brothers—Bruce and Brent—are there. Brent is an officer in the Navy, posted in some far away port like Indonesia. The information that Steve is dying of AIDS has been concealed from Bruce, because someone decided he'd be judgmental and shouldn't know. That wrong decision hurt Bruce for years to come.
Daddy won't come in the bedroom. "You are strong women," he tells us girls, but we don't feel strong. We're where we are supposed to be. Mother hasn't made the trip down from Wichita, because she says she has lost Steve too many times before.
After he was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, the doctors said my brother wouldn't live past 9 years old. Then they said he wouldn't live through his teens. Then, in his 20s, a car accident put Steve in a coma for three weeks. I could almost see my mother's point.
My sister Kelly couldn't. Kelly was very socially prominent in Austin, Texas, and knew a lot of people. Using her connections, she got Steve into a prestigious treatment program there. Unfortunately, Steve had a bad reaction to the medications, and was left screaming in delusional agony.
"He wanted his mommy, and his mommy wouldn't come," Kelly said. My mother, I understood, had been through too much.
I remember when the hospice nurse came, late in the day. "He's almost gone," she said. "All the signs are there."
Then she took Kelly, Daddy and me aside and laid down the law.
"You have to go," she said. "He won't put you through seeing him die. You can't be here."
And so we scattered—Daddy back to Kansas, Kelly to Texas, me to New York. I got the call the next morning; Steve was gone. He'd be buried in the family plot in western Kansas.
I returned to my five rambunctious children, so I didn't have time to grieve. It's funny; I don't remember who cared for them in the short time I was gone, and I don't remember how I managed to leave again a few days later for the funeral. My husband was working in Kansas City, so he wasn't there. His mother died of cancer three months later, so he wasn't there in spirit, either.
I don't know why I mentioned my loss to the cautious pediatrician. I should've expected his response. People imagine New York City as a cosmopolitan megalopolis, but it's really just a vast conglomeration of small towns. Everybody is Italian or Polish or Jewish, and a lot of them have never been to the glamorous center of Manhattan. For fans of old movies, imagine John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever." Their world, at that time at least, was in the boroughs, dominated by the guidos with their tight pants and the guidettes with their high heels and lethal fingernails.
I suppose that's why I gravitated to Virginia McKay. She was intelligent and articulate, educated at a private school in Switzerland. We both had a passel of kids. Most people would've found the friendship odd, because she was an extremely orthodox Catholic convert, who somehow carved time out of her schedule for daily Mass and ended up with nine children. Her husband was part of a lace-curtain Irish clan with connections in all the best places.
Virginia was a chain smoker, which might be how she managed to stay so svelte through all her pregnancies. Once, we took our kids to the park. The subject of gays came up, and Virginia stubbed her cigarette out, grinding it viciously under her foot.
"This is what I'd like to do to them," she said.
"My brother's gay," I replied. I think that was the first time I ever told anyone.