My mom called me after school. “I want you to come to see me at work today. Can you be here by five?”
Her nearly professional tone told me that I was in trouble. I searched my memory for possible missteps. I hadn’t cut school in weeks, I was always on time for my shifts at the bookstore, and a wild run-in with some Zima the previous summer had squashed any impulses toward underage drinking. I had seen her about a week ago, when I was visiting my stepfather Charles in the hospital. He had been admitted with a particularly virulent case of pneumonia. One of my friends had driven me the thirty miles from the house where I was living (with another quasi-emancipated teenage girl) because I wasn’t allowed to have a driver’s license until I was in college. As far as I could remember, I hadn’t even come close to sticking my foolish foot in my mouth. I had arrived with flowers and surprisingly neat hair. Everything had seemed amiable, despite the strange setting for our family reunion.
The same friend–an awkward teenage skater boy–agreed to once again chauffeur me to Harrisburg for this mysterious meeting. We speculated about the agenda. Concerns included a random drug test, my tendency to cry in the girl’s bathroom before Physics, and a recent male sleepover at my house. But my guess was something bigger. “She’s probably about to tell me that I’m not allowed to go away to school in NYC, which is totally unfair since I’ve been living alone all this time.” Teenage girl problems.
My mom offered me a diet soda in her tiny office. “I don’t drink that anymore,” I responded sullenly. She was definitely going to give me bad news about college.
She jumped up to lock the door. So now she thought I was going to freak out?
She cleared her throat and grabbed my hand.
“Charles is very sick.”
I nodded my head. “Pneumonia takes some time to get over, especially since he smokes.”
“No, it’s more than that. He has…he has…” She swallowed a sob. “He has AIDS.”
I think I asked her to repeat herself. But she just shook her head.
My head was spinning. What? How? I grabbed on to my hair, hoping to get my bearings. But the questions threatened to lift me up and toss me into the nearest wall. I wrapped my feet around the legs of my chair. Why Charles? How? Was this something that happened to him when he lived in NYC in the 80s? And if Charles had AIDS and he had sex with my mom…because surely they had, right? They had been together for years. Oh fuck. No. No no no.
“Mom? You?” I couldn’t ask the entire question. I couldn’t will those words out of my mouth.
I could barely see her nodding her head as tears forced my contact lenses out of my eyes.
The next bit of time might have been an hour or it might have been five minutes. She made me promise that I would still go away to school in the fall, no matter what happened. She also made me promise that I wouldn’t tell anyone until we figured everything out. “We are surrounded by people who aren’t educated enough to understand this. They would punish all of us, including you.” She almost hugged me. But we weren’t that sort of family.
My poor friend silently watched me cry during the 45 minute drive back to my house. I avoided his concerned eyes as I jumped out of his car before it came to a full stop. I locked myself in my bedroom for the rest of the night, smoking my roommate’s cigarettes while staring at the ceiling. How was I supposed to go to school tomorrow like nothing had changed? I couldn’t take a Calculus quiz or meet with my college advisor or even change into gym clothes. I certainly couldn’t actually speak to my classmates. I had always felt completely disconnected from peers. They could see it, too. “You are a lone wolf by nature,” my mom had always told me. I had only a few friends that actually seemed to be okay with my weirdness. But now I was carrying the biggest secret in my pocket. I was never going to be an ordinary girl. Surely even the seniors at my school thought of their parents’ deaths as vague and distant possibilities. Because that’s how it was supposed to be! But now I might become a true orphan at any moment. It was the 90s, and for the most part, HIV was a death sentence. I knew the statistics. I had actually paid attention in Health class (mostly just the sex and drugs sections) and every issue of Spin had a special report about AIDS. I couldn’t pretend that everything would be okay.
I went to college in the fall. And since my stepfather had contracted HIV in the Village some time in the 80s as the result of either sharing needles or casual sex (his 20s and 30s had been admirably wild), I felt as if my own undoing was just around the corner. I worried about being forced to come to the assistance of bloody strangers in the street. My mom’s cautionary tales about sex’s power to undo one’s entire existence suddenly seemed to be based in reality. I abruptly launched into song whenever someone tried to kiss me. I wondered if two condoms offered an especially high level of security. I firmly decided that masturbation and the copy of Madonna’s Sex in Bobst Library would get me through the next four years.
In my second semester of school, my mom came down with the double whammy of pneumonia and meningitis. She almost died in the hospital, but no one called to tell me until she had already been in the hospital for weeks. My stepfather didn’t want to the worry to affect my grades. I accused him of feeling guilty for ruining my mother’s life. This fight carried over to spring break, when I forked over $90 just to take the train home to batter him with every bad thought I had ever had. The silver lining was that my mom was finally able to get financial assistance for the array of medications she needed, including AZT, broad spectrum antibiotics and nauseating anti-fungals. Suddenly she was taking more than 30 pills each day. But she was still alive.
My dreams became nightmares about my mother’s death. I could only sleep for small increments of time. It was true that our relationship had always been troubled. Since elementary school, I had hoped that I would (with a great deal of effort) become less THIS way and more THAT way, finally earning my mother’s love and approval. I didn’t want my mom to disappear before I could make her proud. Her mere existence kept me in check. I could only see myself devolving into a whirling dervish of drugs and other reckless behavior without her.
Meanwhile, my stubborn Taurus stepfather was in denial about his prognosis. He refused medication. I watched his eyes sink further and further into his skull as he slowly wasted away. His tightly curated wardrobe stayed in his closet as he settled into tinier, less expensive clothes. Soon he couldn’t walk without a cane and even sooner, he could no longer drive his car. A few months after my twentieth birthday, he died in our house while I was preparing chicken for a living room full of relatives. We never lived there again.
Obviously my mom had to let this clawed cat out of the bag years ago. Our family knows. Her friends know. Her employers know. Her series of romantic partners obviously knew.
But for me, it’s remained a long-time secret. I could lose half of my fingers and still use the remainders to tally the friends that know. This secrecy is not motivated by shame. Or more accurately, it’s not my mom’s actual illness that forces me to keep this locked away in the deepest corner of my heart. It is my own sense of embarrassment for being THE TRAGIC CHARACTER. Is it not enough that my boyfriend died just before our daughter’s birth? My terrifying and violent childhood? Childhood cancer? Surely no one wants to endure another sad story about me. It’s hard enough for me to get close to others knowing that I will have to share at least fifty percent of these tragic factoids at some point. I cannot imagine the individual that is sturdy enough to help me carry all of these emotional boulders. And really, I don’t need help. My strength would send Hercules running into a corner.
But just as this project has forced me to see how fucked up my view of sex can be, it’s also yanking all of my fears out from the secret corners of my brain and into the bright unyielding sunlight. Last year, my therapist asked me what to list the things that scare me the most. In reverse order of TERROR:
3. Abruptly losing all of my teeth.
2. Spending my entire life alone and unloved.
1. My mother’s departure from this world.
When I was 19, I crawled into the bathtub of my squalid apartment with a plastic jack-o-lantern full of sleeping pills (purchased from several pharmacies, so as not to elicit suspicion). As hot pink lights flashed on the backs of my eyelids and I could feel my heart beat slowing, I thought to myself “At least I will never have to see my mother die.” Spoiler alert: I survived. But I thought about that moment at my stepfather’s funeral. I could not watch someone so bright and brilliant wither away again. Years later, as I sprawled on my bedroom carpet sinking into a heroin-induced coma, I once again congratulated myself on being able to avoid my mother’s disappearance.
It’s easy to see life as a fucked up COMPLETELY UNFAIR series of trials and tribulations. It’s even easier to make yourself believe that there is no payoff. But for those that are as stubborn as me, rolling over and playing dead is not a real option. So many times I considered putting my life on hold until my mom’s life came to an excruciating climax. It seemed like something I was supposed to do. But she pushed me out the door over and over again. Her approach tended to be a bit cruel, but her intentions were good in retrospect. it.
Nearly twenty years after my mother’s diagnosis, she is still alive. Now it’s more of an annoying chronic illness. Of course her miracle drugs could stop working at any moment. This is why my daughter lives with her and not me. Dylan needs every possible moment with her grandmother. And my mother needs that chance at emotional redemption, since our relationship was such a failure for so long. But none of us are really planning our lives around potential tragedy. Instead we’re just plunging forward in search of happiness. Of course, at some point I realized that having sex probably wasn’t going to kill me, unless I was particularly stupid about.
And now, I’m throwing my last big secret out into the world. Because it’s THE YEAR OF AMAZING CHANGE. Because I’m ready to truly allow others to know me and be close to me. And because sadness and fear have allowed this secret to grow and grow until its weight became an elephant in my pocket, slowing my velocity and wearing down my determination.