Op-ed: An Older Sister’s Reluctant Response to Her Newly HIV-Positive Brother
In response to a post published by my brother, Tyler Curry, entitled Reluctant Social Commentary of a Newly HIV-Positive 20-Something.
I have long since traded my urban Sunday brunches filled with mimosas and salacious bedtime stories for Saturday morning soccer games, chilled juice boxes and fairy tales. Although a self-described idiot when it comes to the intricacies of T-cell counts, I do seem to remember a fragment or two. There are, however, a few things I know for sure. Life changes. Things evolve. We evolve. At least I hope so.
We are two siblings living as well-cast bookends in a set of three. You are the baby brother of two headstrong sisters and despite our many similarities and overlapping social circles, there are almost 12 years between us. Separated by a generation, I play one of your three mothers in the theater of the Bible Belt, which we both know has made for both hilarious tragedy and hurtful comedy.
“I am gay.”
I was a twenty-something, married woman when you shed that first mask and began living your truth. You had courage in the face of a privileged few who cast harsh judgment under the protection of a vengeful God. You had courage as they turned their backs with silent whispers of disapproval. I bore witness to this noxious comedy with its twang-y players, pickup trucks and cicada song soundtrack. One that left a lasting scar upon your heart.
You have always been bold, never one to wear a mask, at least not for too long and not very well. Often infuriating to those of us who know you best, your boldness is also a thing of great beauty.
As we sat across the table at that all-organic, locally grown place eating excruciatingly few carbohydrates and drinking iced tea, I had that harried, mother-of-two, can’t-get-it-all-done look on my face and you were wearing an uncharacteristically small amount of self-tanner. “How is your day?” I asked. “Good,” you said, “but there is something I need to tell you.” You continued, “I don’t want you to be worried.” Gulp. I nodded sheepishly in affirmation. Then you said it. Those three capital letters and mathematical symbol strung together in such horrific order.
“I am HIV+.”
For a moment, my mind went blank. Then memories came rushing back, like someone had turned on the hydrant of my past. You said, “I am going to be O.K. and I am not ready to tell anyone else. Not yet.” I nodded again, accepting this burden of silence. I asked all of the obligatory questions. You were using medical terms I didn’t understand and trying to reassure me that things were different now. You said, “Just know, this isn’t a death sentence anymore.” Something about detectable levels and viral loads and that I should not walk away with fear in my heart. I tried to listen, I saw your lips moving, but the waters were raging inside my head and that hydrant of the past was on full blast.
As you spoke your sugary-sweet words of optimism, you seemed to forget that I am of a different generation. I have seen what happens at the end of the line when those three despicable capital letters and mathematical symbol get involved. I was scared. Scared at the most remote possibility of losing my often artificially-tanned, always perfectly-coiffed and pectorally-superior opposite bookend. I heard the words intended to soothe my mind and heart. But in that moment, I fell from my bench seat in that well-lit restaurant into a deep, dark well of shock and dated memories. I didn’t show it, but as I got up and walked out the door, I was still down in that well and tangled in despair. All I could think was that this wasn’t how your twenties were supposed to end. And, this wasn’t how your thirties were supposed to begin. Your peregrine words of reassurance kept playing in my head, but “undetectable” and “high T-cell count” simply had no current meaning to me. So, I sat down and got comfortable in the silence of my pitch-dark place. Alone, scared and really pissed off.
Time has a way of changing the way you see things. Life happens and all its bumps and bruises leave their mark on your insides. So, just as I no longer live in your world of Sunday brunches, you were much too young to see parts of mine. You wrote about the scary, outdated images that makeup the horror stories of older gay men. You state that these are images that the gay community is lucky to forget. Well, my dear brother, I’ve lived those images and I haven’t forgotten.
Tyler was the one we lost slowly. Wasting away over years, his youthful face was sunken for much of the time I knew him. I once held his frail body in my arms when the pain was too much and after he may have tried to take it away once and for all. That wasn’t his final day, but it came soon after. His family will always bear the scars of his pain and the irony that you share his same name does not go unnoticed.
John was the one we lost suddenly. As I laid there in labor with my first born, he laid hooked to life support at a nearby hospital. He went in for a mild cough and died of pneumonia only days later and within hours of the birth of my son. As I sat in a pew holding my newborn, I listened to the eulogies about a life taken too soon.
These are the memories that ran through my mind—memories almost a decade old. Hardly the scale that others have seen and lived, but I can only share what I know. Mimosas notwithstanding, these are the things I remember. These weren’t horror stories. These were real—real fucking hard.
I share these stories so that you may understand my own personal process of rediscovery. We will deal with what you have been dealt. Pick up and get ‘er done, cause that’s one thing we learned from this twang-y place we call home. But I admit, I must be taught what it all means now. I realize that the conversation has changed and the stories are different now, but don’t be angry because I fear. I simply need to put the past behind me and learn how this all plays out today. I promise to dig myself out of this well so that I might fight alongside you—bookend to bookend.
You have taken off the mask once again. This time in a public forum so that your pain might help others too afraid to speak for themselves. Others who need a voice like yours. To say I am proud of your courage would be a vast understatement. When I look back on those tragedies and comedies, they seem so insignificant now in the face of your “needle prick.” Those silent whispers are quickly becoming a faded memory as I watch you bring everything into razor-sharp focus and uncover your courage without limits. You are a bold example of someone who is learning to dance in the rain with a fresh wound and a trace of naiveté.
Things have changed. Things have evolved. We are evolving. Although my memories remain firmly intact, have faith that I will overcome this insufferable anger, crawl out of this dark place and dance alongside you in the pouring rain.
AMBER CURRY GRACIA is Principal of Dallas-based Cinco Strategy Group and can often be found writing herself awake at LifeOneSpoonfulAtATime.com. She thrives on relentless exploration and constant change and, despite her arguments to the contrary, may indeed be a malcontent. Twitter: @ambergracia; Facebook: Facebook.com/Amber.C.Gracia; E-Mail: [email protected]