This is the second installment in a series of blog posts chronicling life with my partner, Robert, who died of AIDS March 21, 2002, which, ironically, was my mother's 80th birthday. I'm retelling the events in this installment as he reported them to me several years ago. Read Part 1 here.
Home from the cruise, Robert went back to work and tried to resume a normal schedule. Sifting through Jim's personal belongings sent Robert into such a deep depression that he spent most evenings eating Chinese take-out in bed. He would read the rolled-up paper fortunes, one by one, as if they were messages from God. He had no energy. Francis ("Tootie"), his mother, had warned him that if he stayed in bed too long, "the bed would drain the life out of him." Lessons and superstitions from the barefoot counties of Virginia stay with you, no matter how far you go in life, so Robert believed her.
By late winter, the visitors stopped coming to Robert's door. One friend reported that he had stopped by numerous times and banged on the door, with no response. Phone calls were never answered. Tia, Robert's younger sister, became especially alarmed. Out of the six siblings, she was the closest to him, emotionally. Another outlaw, she had left home early in life and married an Army private. Hoping to be taken to exotic places all over the world, she was devastated when she found herself raising four children alone, her husband sitting in a military brig for an extended term. Reasons for his stay were never discussed among the family members. Robert's take on it was that he dabbled in pharmaceuticals as a sort of humanitarian endeavor to help those in need.
Tia packed her kids into the family van and headed north, leaving South Carolina behind. She prided herself on being the only enlightened one in the family. She always accompanied him to his favorite gay bars and was thrilled with the attention she received from the other bar patrons. If her gay brother needed her, she would be there for him, even if she was the last one standing.
She stopped to pick up her mother and some of her siblings, headed north again, this time crossing the Potomac River into Washington. The family arrived at Robert's multilevel townhouse late in the afternoon. Led by Tia, half the family went to the back and started throwing stones at the master bedroom window, while the rest of them stayed out front. When there was no response, Tia went ahead and called the police.
"We think he is in some kind of danger. Nobody has heard from him in more than a week."
The police arrived with an ambulance, and after the door was taken off its frame, they entered the lower level. Robert was found on the third floor, in bed, semiconscious. While the rest of the house looked fairly untouched, the bedroom looked more like the "pink room" in Grey Gardens, minus the raccoon. Half-eaten cartons of General Tso's chicken covered the nightstand, while a six-pack of Mountain Dew lay on the bed beside Robert. Newspapers and paper towels covered the stale vomit already dried into the carpet.
The next morning, Tootie and Tia sat in the hospital lobby waiting for some kind of news from the attending ER physician. The other family members wanted to get home and tend to their own business, which consisted of watching TV, getting their nails done, and buying scratch-off lottery tickets at 7-Eleven. They had written Robert off years earlier, after he'd moved to the city and come back home announcing that he was gay. He was rarely mentioned in their conversations, unless, of course, there was a need for money. To some in his family, that made him their best friend.
When the physician came to tell Tootie the news about her son, she cupped her hands together as if she were saying a prayer. She heard several words, but the only two she recognized were "thrush" and "pneumonia." Unsurprised, Tia had already read up on AIDS and knew about T-cell counts, viral loads, and pneumocystis pneumonia.
"You can go to Robert's room now," the physician said. "I've already spoken to him. He's awake but very weak. We're going to keep him here several days."
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Footnote: According to the latest data available, there are approximately 34 million adults and children living with HIV/AIDS worldwide (2010). The United States has 1.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS (2009), the same amount as Uganda (2009) and Zimbabwe (2009).