Monday, October 10, 2011

Lions, tigers and the terminal illness known as AIDS

I was 7 when I finally understood what was happening.

I didn't grasp what my biological dad was trying to tell me before then. I didn't understand the concept of life and death. And I certainly didn't understand the concept of sexuality.

I remember exactly where we were. When he told me. We were in his Camry, in front of a park. I still remember vividly the families playing on the park equipment. It was evening. He must have really thought it out how he was going to break this to me. I don't know how many times he tried to break it to me before.

I didn't get it back then.

I remember being confused when he told me that he "liked men" in the same way that my mother and step-father liked each other. He told it to me with gravity. Like it was a big deal. I inwardly shrugged. Why would I care?

It wasn't even a surprise to me. I'd never really told anyone, but I found some....questionable reading material in the bathroom. Let's just say that is where I learned male anatomy.

He went on to explain his homosexuality as the way he'd been born. He'd always been more attracted to men than women.

I made the connection: "So, you didn't ever love mom then?"

Ah, how simple things seem as a child. I smile thinking about that question now. Life is complicated. I think that's how he answered me: "It's complicated, Katie."

I remember squirming in my seat, wondering when he would let me play in the park.

Adults can be so dull.

"Katie, I caught a virus. It's called AIDS."

No reaction. The name meant nothing to me.

"It's not like a cold or the flu. It's something else. You know that your body is made up of a bunch of little particles, cells, right?"

I nodded.

"Good. So there are little cells that help us fight off bad cells. when you get sick, your fighter cells attack the bad cells making you sick. Eventually, your fighter cells kill those bad cells and you get better. But see, the AIDS virus attacks your fighter cells. So when bad cells come into your body, there is no one to fight them off."

I guess I started to realize the seriousness of the situation about then.

"So I don't have as many fighter cells as you do, so I get sick much longer and much worse than a normal person. A cold can make me very sick. Whereas when you get a cold, you recover for a few days."

I interrupted, "But dad, why don't you just go to the doctor and get some medicine?"

He smiled sadly, "There isn't any cure for this, Katie. It's a newer virus and the doctors...well the doctors aren't sure how to fix it yet."

I remembered not liking where this conversation was heading.

"Katie, I need you to be prepared. AIDS is a terminal illness. Do you know what that means? It means that I'll die from it."

And there it was. I fully grasped it, and wished I hadn't. AIDS was going to take my father away from me.

I remember being so certain that this was going to be the last time I ever saw him. Like just saying those words had some power to take him away right then.

And I distinctly remember the feeling of aging. As if I had just accelerated somehow. Like I needed to be brave now. Because my biological dad was dying.

And truly, we thought he was. It was 1992 and he'd had AIDS for 7 years now. There was minimal treatment, and lots of people were dying. Scratch that, everyone with AIDS was dying.

I found out everything about the disease that day. How it was transmitted. What the symptoms were. How it killed people. How my cold could kill my father. And I felt a sobering surge of responsibility. He wouldn't get sick from me on my watch. No siree.

So my point with this story: if you ever need to tell a child about death, be frank. Well, that's my opinion anyways. It does no good to beat around the bush. I got to start coping with my biological dad's illness early. And it took a really long time. I was probably in college before I really stopped worrying about it.

And honestly, it brought my entire family and I closer together. My dad (actually my step-dad, but I call him dad now) and my mom were like immovable objects. They never really wavered. They'd buy me books from a coping bookstore, and we'd play games where I'd talk about my feelings until I'm sure my parents ears started bleeding. My best friend and I grew closer. We both had the crazy in our lives, and it was nice to have someone to talk about it with.

And it brought my biological dad and I closer together. We shared things that no one else in the world knows about. We had hours of conversation driving back and forth to school. Looking back at my life, he has influenced me so much. Had my biological dad let me, I think I could have been good for him when I got older.

I don't really know how he dealt with it mostly on his own.


  1. It's so hard to know how to talk to kids about the subject of death, and it feels so unfair that we even have to. When we had to tell my nieces that my Dad was dying, it was one of the most difficult things to do. I wish this conversation was one that we could spare kids so that they wouldn't have to accelerate the aging process like you described.

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