Streets of Philadelphia
Initially this post was going to be about the challenge of trying to take care of summer camp for my kids. Some of you are probably shaking your heads wondering why in the middle of January I would be worried about this. Chances are you’re not parents, but we’ll hit that story on a different day.
I was seventeen years old when I found out that my dad’s brother was gay. I don’t mean for that to sound overly dramatic. It wasn’t a secret. It was never hidden from me. I never thought about why he wasn’t married or considered anything about his personal life. Maybe that is more of an indictment about being a self-obsessed kid, I don’t know.
Somewhere around the time I turned seven he moved from Los Angeles up to San Francisco. We still saw him on a pretty consistent basis. We’d go up to visit and he’d come down to see us. So it wasn’t like I didn’t see him. For whatever reason it just wasn’t something that I thought about.
The day that I found out that he was gay was one of those moments in which you are surprised but know that you shouldn’t be. My middle sister and I were up in the Bay Area for a youth group convention and had arranged to have dinner with our uncle.
It is funny how the passing of time muddies your memories. I can’t tell you what we ate, but I haven’t any trouble remembering my sister asking my uncle if he was gay. He laughed and said that he was. He was surprised that she had asked.
For a moment I was speechless. At seventeen there are so many things going on in a boy’s head. I wanted so very much to be seen as a grownup. I remember calling the waiter over and ordering a beer. My uncle laughed and so did my sister. I wasn’t upset or angry, but for a moment I was a bit confused at what to think.
But I loved my uncle so I just drank the beer and tried to look cool. I must have looked kind of silly, but he never did anything to make me feel foolish. Just smiled and resumed the conversation.
I think that I was twenty when I found out that my uncle had been diagnosed as being HIV positive. That was harder because I knew what the most likely outcome would be. It was harder because as a young man who was trying to figure out what life was about I looked up to the older men in my family.
My uncle didn’t have any kids. My uncle and my father were very different men, but in some ways so very similar. In my uncle I had a confidant that I could speak with about things that I might not approach my father with. There was a special relationship there. It was safe to hit him with the stuff that I knew would get me blasted at home.
Since I was in college it was easier to find excuses to head up north and spend some time with him. It was interesting to hear his perspective about various family stories, especially a few about my dad. It wasn’t like my uncle didn’t chastise me if he thought that I was screwing up. He chewed me out on more than one occasion.
It was a bit surreal. This voice that was a cross between my dad and grandfather would start in with the same cadence and expressions that I was used to. I didn’t mind. He didn’t do it all that often, just regarding a couple of situations in which I was acting like a jerk. I can say that now, I was a jerk about those things, but back then…
It took a while for the disease to really get a hold of him, not nearly as long as I would have liked, but a while. Slowly it began to eat away at him. We watched as it took things from him. The disease tried to rob him of his dignity, did things that were truly awful to watch, but my uncle never gave in.
He was tough. He handled it, often with a smile. The men in the family are famous for being strong willed and he certainly showed it then.
By January of ’94 it was clear that the end was in sight. Each day I’d call his apartment and check in with him. Most of the time I would hear voices in the background. They belonged to his friends. He was too weak to do much so they’d come over and handle the chores. They really demonstrated what true friendship was.
Eventually he stopped answering the phone. I’d call and someone would fill me in on how he was doing. If he was up for it they’d give him the phone and we’d spend a couple of minutes talking. In time that ended too. He was just too tired to talk, so I’d ask them to put the phone to his ear and I’d tell him about my day.
I don’t think that I told him that I loved him enough. In fact I am not sure that I ever did. It is far easier for me to share my feelings here, than in person. And fourteen years ago I was far more reserved about such things.
It would be really dramatic if I could say that when I heard the phone ring I knew what the news was, but it wouldn’t necessarily be true. I am not certain about it. What I do know is that I was the one who got the call.
I told my mother. I told my father. I told my grandfather and grandmother. I can’t express what that was like. I can’t tell you the horror I felt when my grandfather began to cry, how ashamed and sorry I was about that.
I was almost 25, old enough to know that it wasn’t my fault, but I felt like it was. Even though I knew better I still felt like I had stabbed my grandfather, not that it was easy telling my parents. It wasn’t, but my dad was my dad. He was and is eternally protective of his children. He made a point of asking me how I felt.
His first impulse wasn’t selfish, it was to make sure that I was ok. He and my mother disappeared into a room and then a short while later he and my grandfather went out.
I remember when they left. It was hard watching them go. I felt like a little boy who was too young to do grownup stuff. It was hard being left behind, but then again they needed to grieve.
It is almost fourteen years since my uncle left us. He missed all of the weddings, never got to see us become parents. He missed out on sharing so much. But I still remember and as long as I do I suppose that he’ll never truly be gone.