Busy 4th and 5th graders sprawled on the sidewalks of the Castro on December 1st. Their tiny hands clutched chubby sticks of colored chalk and index cards printed with the names of those whose lives were lost to HIV/AIDS.
It was World AIDS Day 2015.
All morning, these students from Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy inscribed the names of the dead on sidewalk squares.
Loved ones had sent in names the week before. Two were out-of-state friends of mine, daughters who’d long ago lost their young fathers to the disease. In their absence, I wanted to bear witness to their fathers’ memorials for them.
I was impressed by the young children’s focus and by their silence. They spoke only when inquiring about the interests of the deceased. About one friend’s father, I mentioned Paris. Two girls working on his memorial drew not one but two Eiffel Towers!
I thought about my own father, fortunately a survivor of those times.
As I wrote in my prior post, he’d volunteered as an “AIDS buddy” during the epidemic’s early years. He sat with with dying men, many in their prime whose families had abandoned them.
He never told me their names. I wondered if any of them were memorialized on the sidewalks of the Castro.
In my post, I’d recalled how my father was unafraid of the sick, unlike some at the time, and how he had a glow about him that year, strangely so I thought.
A blog follower wrote to me about this last point. She granted me permission to use her name and sentiment.
Your dad . . . the strong, closeted gay man who turned to beauty, art, and creativity instead of drugs and alcohol; this passionately intentional father who provided for his family against all odds, and who was clever enough to change his name to be in the Army; this one who loved Stanley and his family deeply, and who stood intensely for the dignity and rights of blacks and gays . . . of course, he would have the compassion and strength to fearlessly reach out to those dying of AIDS. Of his many life-purposes, perhaps that was his highest calling. –Lisa Gruman
Hmmm. I think she’s on to something. (Thank you, Lisa.) Comforting the dying, especially those whom society had rejected, buoyed my father’s spirits.
As his child, perhaps I was following in his footsteps with my small act on World AIDS Day, bearing witness for the fatherless daughters. Perhaps I am also doing that in writing my memoir by showing the consequences of homophobia on an otherwise average-looking working class family.
Thinking about it now, I’m sure I glowed amidst the chalked inscriptions and the solemn sweetness of the children artists. I wouldn’t be surprised if some observers concluded, just as I had of my father in the 1980s, that my “joy” was unfitting for the activity.
But it didn’t feel that way to me. And it doesn’t appear that my dad felt that way, either. These acts called to something deep inside of us.
I spoke to a gay man a few days later who told me he’d volunteered in an AIDS hospice in the 1990s. He told me the dying men changed his life.
“Because of their strength and dignity,” he said, “I finally found the courage to come out.”
There’s something about this particular epidemic. It stigmatized so many. It decimated a generation of gay men. Yet it also brought out authenticity for some who ministered to them. For others, it brought their callings to light. Even still.
What brings your callings to light?
Read more in Laura Hall’s My Dad’s Closet: A daughter’s memoir, coming eventually to a bookstore near you. Laura and her husband live in San Francisco.