Last year for Women’s History Month, I focused on women who will likely turn up in my book, Fag Hags, Divas and Moms: The Legacy of Straight Women in the AIDS Community. This year I’m doing the same thing.
First up is my friend, Kathleen Pooler. We met six years ago in an online book marketing class and became fast friends. She shares a common reaction from the early dark days of the epidemic: silence. And the price paid for that silence.
It was 1982. I was sitting at my desk contemplating the unfolding news about a mysterious virus that was creeping its way into our society and taking the lives of its victims. New details emerged every day leaving us in near panic. We knew it was blood-borne and soon we learned of its association with sexually active gay men and those who injected drugs.
As Nursing Administrative Director of the Emergency Department of a 400-bed community hospital, I witnessed first-hand the havoc it wreaked on its victim as we cared for emaciated, gravely-ill patients with multiple skin sores and a new kind of pneumonia, recently identified as Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia. I also witnessed the fear among the staff. It all unfolded in slow, agonizing motion as we tried to move forward to provide the best care we could for our patients while protecting ourselves.
The AIDS epidemic began in illness, fear and death. Thankfully, the initiation of anti-retroviral drugs has helped people live longer, healthy lives.
But back then it was shrouded in secrecy and silence which only added to the fear and panic both for the patient and the health care worker.
Back in 1982, I worked side by side with a bright young physician who had been appointed as Medical Director. He had a winning personality, quiet but engaged and skillful. His office was next to mine and as I sat at my desk that day, I wanted to tell him that I knew he was gay and that it didn’t matter. Here’s the thing. I felt the burden of his silence. And since fear was rampant, I could only imagine how the emerging data was affecting him. Everybody knew he was gay but no one talked about it. It was the proverbial elephant in the room.
I enjoyed working with Jeff and trusted his medical judgment. But as the world turned, administrative unrest developed in our department related to factors beyond anyone’s control. Changes at the top level of hospital administration created uncertainty and change for our department. In its wake, rumors circulated.
“Word has it that you and Jeff are having an affair.” My friend and coworker, Christine said, her dark eyes conveying compassion and sadness.
“What?” I asked, completely blindsided.
“And the worst part is that Jeff has not come out to deny it.”
Even back then I remember sensing Jeff’s desperation beyond his denial, but it was still devastating at the time to feel so manipulated and deceived.
Thankfully I moved on to a better job but I’ll never forget the price of silence I experienced during the onset of the AIDS epidemic.
A few years later, the epidemic hit home in an even more personal way. My cousin Bob died of AIDS.
“He died of lung cancer, Kathy.” Aunt El, his mom told me over the phone.
Again, I knew he was gay, though neither he nor our family acknowledged it. He was a manager of traveling Broadway shows and he always made sure to contact our family when he would be in our vicinity. I enjoyed Equus, Evita and Ain’t Misbehaving in front row seats. After the shows, he would take me backstage and introduce me to the cast, as if I was the celebrity. I cherish the memory of him dressed in a suit coat, cowboy boots and a brown felt hat, the picture of success and happiness.
A few months before he died in 1984, we were together at a family reunion. I noticed that he didn’t look well. He was pale and a bit disheveled. He had a day-old beard and wore a wrinkled tee shirt that hung unevenly over his jeans. So unlike him.
He asked me if I wanted to take a walk. As we strolled through the Connecticut woods surrounding our aunt’s home, he shared a recent camping trip he had with his father. They never saw eye to eye, I imagine because of his father’s propensity for manly activities like hunting and fishing. He cherished his gun collection. He probably couldn’t understand how his only son could find enjoyment in the theater. But on this trip, Bob and his dad bonded.
“I needed to give it one last shot,” Bob said.
How fortunate I was to share that walk and those precious moments he had with his father. But so much was left unsaid. I wish he could have confided in me how lonely he was. I could have told him I loved him the way he was.
I can only hope that he sensed my love and concern through my silence.
Kathleen Pooler is an author and a retired Family Nurse Practitioner whose memoir, Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse, published on July 28, 2014 and work-in-progress sequel, The Edge of Hope (working title) are about how the power of hope through her faith in God helped her to transform, heal and transcend life’s obstacles and disappointments: domestic abuse, divorce, single parenting, loving and letting go of an alcoholic son, cancer and heart failure to live a life of joy and contentment. She believes that hope matters and that we are all strengthened and enlightened when we share our stories.
She blogs weekly at her Memoir Writer’s Journey blog.