The following is a column I wrote in December 2008 – three years ago this week. While time has passed by quickly, the message I hoped to convey three years ago remains as strong today as it did then. Dec. 1 was World AIDS Day – and it’s a day that always holds significance in my mind and in my heart. The piece first appeared in DiversityInc magazine and on DiversityInc.com.
I’ll never forget the last time I saw my uncle Patrick Slane. I had just returned from a visit to Scranton, Pa. He was lying on the couch, and the moans he was emitting were chilling — he could barely breathe. After years of suffering from HIV, it was finally catching up to him, and from all indications, the end was near.
Days earlier, I found him aimlessly walking around the house. He was completely demented and had no idea who he was, who I was or where he was. When I returned from Pennsylvania, things appeared even worse. The television was on loudly. He had his favorite drink, a chocolate milkshake, sitting on the table. But he was struggling to take in air. He was going to die soon.
The next day, under his own power, he walked down a flight of stairs and was driven to the Jersey City Medical Center, where he died 24 hours later. He was once a vibrant power-plant worker but eventually withered away to a 90-pound former shell of himself.
To shake his hand was to shake the hand of a skeleton. Some 25 years after he first injected himself with heroin, often with used needles, the repercussions finally caught up to him.
Dead at 41, Pat was the second son my grandmother lost.
In 1970, four years before I was born, her son, Thomas died from ulcerative colitis at 21. She had no idea on that September morning in 1995 that 10 years later she’d lose yet another son, my uncle Matty, also to complications from HIV/AIDS.
Ironically, it was Thomas’ death that caused Pat and Matty to abuse drugs. Neither of them dealt with Thomas’ death well. One drug eventually led to another, and another, and another — until finally, the drug of choice was heroin.
Of course, back in the ’70s and early ’80s, no one could have known that drug abuse, a horror in itself, would lead to the even greater horror of HIV/AIDS.
But it did — and Pat paid the ultimate price, as have so many others who’ve abused drugs.
When Pat died, Matty wasn’t able to attend his funeral. It wasn’t because he didn’t want to go — Matty’s own addiction caused him to abandon his family and turn to the streets for comfort. His addiction was so strong that he wasn’t able to maintain a family. He lost everything but the clothes on his back — and he, too, was living with HIV – at Riker’s Island in New York City. On the day his little brother was buried, Matty sat in a dormitory in one of the nation’s most horrendous jails, unable to go to the funeral.
All because of drugs.
But despite his ailment, Matty was able to turn his life around after Pat’s death. About a year after Pat died, Matty returned home from his stint at Riker’s. For me, his release was unacceptable at first. His addiction forced him to steal. He never stole from the family, but I was concerned he’d eventually find a way to take from us, too. Maybe he’d pawn my computer, I’d often think, or perhaps he’d find a way to trade my car for drugs.
None of this happened.
From the get-go, Matty was determined to turn his life around. And that’s exactly what he did. Although he was HIV-positive, he took a job at a grocery store, where he worked for the next eight years or so. He loved the job so much that he was there just two days before he died.
During the years he “reformed” himself, he was an integral part of our family. His laughter and spirit were contagious. Everyone was so happy to have Matty back. He showed us that despite his addictions — and despite a former life of homelessness and crime — he truly did have a heart. He truly did love his family. He truly did love life.
Fast forward to July 2005. It all happened so fast. My mother called me one Friday morning and told me that Matty had gone into hospital. He was having trouble breathing, so as a precaution, he went for observation. Truthfully, I thought nothing of it. A lot of people go to the hospital for routine issues.
But Matty never came home.
Two days after he went in, he died. The strangest part of his death was that he showed no signs of being ill — quite the antithesis of his brother Pat. He wasn’t well during the last day or two of his life, but he never suffered in the way so many who have HIV/AIDS do.
In a sense, his sudden death was a blessing in disguise. It was difficult to lose him, especially after his incredible bounce back, but everyone, including my grandmother, who was now going to bury her third son, was incredibly grateful that Matty didn’t suffer. What could have been an unbelievably difficult time was instead a time to give thanks.
Matty was buried in his favorite white pinstripe New York Mets jersey. His death at 53 was yet another stark reminder of how vicious HIV/AIDS really is. All of these years after we first learned about the disease, there’s still no cure. Sure, there are the cocktails that slow down the virus’ progression — but no matter how you look at it, when someone is diagnosed with HIV, it’s still a death sentence for many.
As we have just marked World AIDS Day, it’s my hope that our president seriously meets the demands required of AIDS research and finding a cure. Considering that in this country alone, 22,000 new cases of HIV are reported each year, the need for beefed-up research has never been clearer.
One person dying from HIV/AIDS each year is too many. I had to watch two uncles die from it.
It will be a beautiful day when no one will ever have to worry about dying from or watching someone die from HIV/AIDS, when there is a cure for those already diagnosed and a vaccination to prevent the further spread of this devastating disease.
I’ll tell you what, though: I’m not holding my breath in anticipation.