A Loved One’s Suffering Summons Our Resilience
My 2005 HIV diagnosis, and Mom’s declining health, showed me my strength.
Posted Oct 26, 2019
When I looked back through my journals to write Stonewall Strong, I confronted the harsh fact that I hadn’t always made healthy choices about my sexual behavior during the 1990s and later, because I myself wasn’t completely healthy and well—no matter how good physical shape I was in.
I didn’t realize at the time of my October 27, 2005, HIV diagnosis how much I had been affected, deeply, by the deaths of so many of my friends and colleagues in the dark years of AIDS—as well as my father, “second mother,” and best friend. I didn’t yet understand the connection between my losses and trauma and the risky sex I engaged in, and the number and anonymity of men with whom I engaged in it.
Back then, I had no real awareness that who I am as a person, that what I offer as a friend or partner or son, that my love, has value—and that I need to treat myself like someone who likewise has value.
Back then, I measured my self-worth mainly in terms of how many good-looking men I could attract. Shallow? Yes. Common among gay men? Absolutely. Coming from a lack of real self-esteem? That’s my take.
I claimed my resilience because I knew I had paid a steep price to develop it. All those losses. All that pain. I realized its value in helping me through really tough times—just as I felt certain I would somehow get through the shock of my diagnosis and the immediate need to start and continue taking expensive, toxic medications for the rest of my life, or until a cure is found.
Now here I am, 14 years later, and I can still say, “If I didn’t know I have HIV, I wouldn’t know,” because my health is still excellent for a 61-year-old man.
But my resilience was put to another, more recent and massive test, when my beloved Mom died on October 15 at age 84. She worked so hard in physical therapy at the rehab so she could finally come home two days later. But the collective toll of all her medical conditions was finally too much for her frail body.
We shared a home for the past decade, and I was Mom’s primary caregiver for the last few years as her chronic conditions became more acute and life-threatening. From making and taking her to medical appointments to calling the ambulance at 2:30 am because she had fallen in the bathroom, I was always there for Mom.
It’s only 10 days since her death as I write this. I have focused on the practical aspects of death, including writing Mom’s obituary for the newspaper and arranging her cremation. I have been grieving as freely as I’ve needed to. I’ve cried a lot. I’ve raged (out loud, alone) at a sibling who never managed to visit Mom in the two years after she first developed life-threatening complications and spent months in hospital and rehab—yet is already planning a visit to help herself to Mom’s things (she thinks).
But I have also focused a great deal on being grateful, and it’s keeping me from sliding into darker grief. There is much to be grateful for: Mom’s end, from what I’ve been told, was swift and painless. Her mind was fully intact. And she was spared the bad news I knew she was going to receive the very next day, that she had lung cancer. This is why I have quoted CS Lewis in describing her death as “a severe mercy.”
We shared many wonderful moments over the years, and I got to develop a real, “adult” relationship with Mom that I will always treasure. I was able to know her as a person, not only as my mother. My photo-scanning project over the last month gave us a chance to share happy memories of loved ones long-gone—including my dad, her parents, and Dad’s parents.
Most importantly of all, while Mom was at the rehab her final weeks, we affirmed our love with loving actions (I brought her flowers and the daily paper; she worried out loud when I went kayaking), words (“Love you”), and affection (always a parting kiss and both of us blowing an extra kiss as I walked away).
How I conducted myself in being there for Mom—including the roughest of times—came out of a deep place of healing in me. I was long past blaming my parents for their mistakes in my growing-up years and the craziness of our dysfunctional family acting out in response to Dad’s alcoholism.
Through Al-Anon and in therapy, I worked hard to understand the traumas of my parents’ own young lives that made them the people they became, including their character flaws. I was able to forgive them precisely because I could finally see things from their point of view.
There again is the lesson in resilience: diving beneath the surface of actions and words to find the truths they hide, sometimes intentionally—to find a story that allows you to incorporate it into your life in a healthy way and to keep on going. That’s what I did after my HIV diagnosis forced me to confront the facts of my behavior, but also to look at what drove me to put myself at risk and not fully value myself.
By understanding how my life’s traumas had undermined me, yet oddly also strengthened me, I was able to focus on the strength. And that allowed me to be fully present and “strong” when it mattered most for the person in this world I loved the best, my mom.