I remember the pumpkin on the table. It was October, and my mom had the decorated the center of the table with a small pumpkin. You know the type? Small, cute, used to spread fall-cheer throughout one’s home. On that fall day, I can remember staring at the pumpkin forever thinking, “No way. There’s no way. Not Uncle Jeff.”
When I got off the bus that beautiful, fall day in October, my sister and I entered the house as usual. Upon entering the kitchen, my mom told us that we needed to stay in the kitchen and be quiet, because she was going back to her bedroom to make phone calls. After she left the kitchen, my brother, who was 4 years old, told my sister and I, ages 9 and 11, that someone shot themselves. My 4 year old brother repeated the statement again that someone shot themselves. We asked him over and over again who it was. He didn’t know. My head was realling. Who could it be? Was it someone on the news? A celebrity? After what seemed like forever speculating who this could be, and really, I probably didn’t even know what “shot themselves” meant, but by then my mom came out of her room. We asked her, “Mom, who shot themself?” She looked at us and said, “Uncle Jeff.”
I couldn’t even process this information. It was Wednesday, my dad was off on Wednesday. There was spaghetti on the stove, but where was my dad? My dad was at his parents house helping to clean up his little brother off of the bathroom floor. My mom was making calls. Who was she calling? My dad’s nine other brother and sisters to tell them that their brother was dead. Didn’t I just see Uncle Jeff on Sunday. How could he be dead today? I was so confused. I was eleven. What did I know about suicide?
The next morning, my dad sat his three small children down at the table and explained to us that Uncle Jeff was gay, had AIDS, and took his own life. We had no idea what any of these words meant. My dad tried his best to explain what being gay was. I think he told us that it’s when two men dance together. I also remember hearing that it was because of his being gay that he had AIDS. Well, what was AIDS? I had never heard these words before.
After his death, I remember hearing the words AIDS in the media. There was one night my grandmother was watching us. There was a commercial for a television special that talked about AIDS. She turned the tv off right then and there. I got the message. We don’t talk about it.
You see, my Uncle died in October of 1990. It was 13 months before Magic Johnson announced he was HIV+. At the time of my Uncle’s death, AIDS was still very much a “gay disease.” My grandparents were very active members of the community in Fenton, MO. They were good, upstanding Catholics. In fact, the morning of my Uncle’s completed suicide, my grandmother was cleaning their church. The funeral home in Fenton charged my grandparents an obscene fee to embalm my Uncle, and the paramedics were less than tasteful removing my Uncle’s body from his childhood home. In fact, my father recalls they were inhumane.
I tell you all of these things, not to share all of my family’s stuff, but to shine light on history. The AIDS epidemic is a part of our human story. We need to talk about what happened in the past, because for some communities this is not history. This is how people living with HIV/AIDS are still treated today. If we don’t talk about HIV, we perpetuate the silence. Silence is the root of stigma. If I learned anything from my Uncle’s death is that we have to talk about suicide. We have to talk about HIV/AIDS.
My beautiful, 30 year old, talented Uncle Jeff shot himself in the bathroom of his childhood home in Fenton, Missouri on October 10, 1990. He left a suicide letter that stated he had AIDS for two years. No one really knows any more of the details then that. I imagine he felt extremely alone, and that he also knew his fate. I imagine that he watched many of his friends die from AIDS, and he knew how his story was going to end. He never told anyone in his family that he was sick. He never told his parents or siblings that he was a man who loved and had sex with other men. He was alone in his illness, and he was alone in his death. This was almost 26 years ago. People are still living and dying in shame. As far as we have come in reducing stigma for people living with HIV/AIDS in this country, we have so much more work to do.
Prior to my work at PROMO, I was privileged to work at St. Louis Effort for AIDS. I worked with people who were living with HIV/AIDS and out of medical care for 12 months or more. Most of my clients were really sick. It was amazing to me that after about three to six months of anti-retroviral therapy, they were better. Like way better. Like went from their death bed to getting married and starting a new job six months later better. I would think to myself, “what made them stop and get so sick before getting back on the meds?” Most of what kept my clients out of HIV medical care was the stigma associated with having HIV/AIDS. The denial, the shame, the isolation, the lack of education, and the thinking that they were unloveable is still killing people. These are senseless deaths. These are preventable deaths.
There is hope. Use your words to shine the light.
This month is National Suicide Prevention Month, and today is National HIV/AIDS Aging Awareness Day. Join me in sharing this story, spreading awareness. Do it my Uncle’s honor. Do it in honor of all of those who died from and continue to die because of silence and stigma. No more shame.
HIV is a chronic manageable illness. Get educated. Know your status.
Talk about suicide. Do not be afraid to say the word, because your silence will not silence the suicidal thoughts.