On World AIDS Day I want to share a memory of someone special to my heart.
One of the most influential people in my life died when I was 17 – he died of complications due to the AIDS virus. My foster brother Bernie was an incredible creature. I can’t even hope to convey how unique he was and how large an impact he had on my life in the handful of years I had him. Circumstances had us placed in the same home, a home that could handle kids who came had high profile cases or dangerous families. To say it wasn’t a great time in my life is a disgusting understatement. But Jaysus, when Bernie pranced out with, “It’s a girl! I have a new sissy! Can I keep her?” He freaked me out with his swishing, dramatic effusiveness. The minute the foster parents cleared the room, he dropped the affectation from his voice, cocked his hip, got in my face and set me straight. “Don’t touch my shit, stay out of my room, and keep out of my way – or you’ll regret it.” Whoa! The princess had claws! And he was a princess, a diva, and a drama queen of the highest order. He had the tiaras to prove it – or did eventually. He was exhausting at times. Looking back, he could have been the poster child for ADHD.
Over the next few years, this kid who was 17 to my 12, became my world. He let me tag along with him and his friends, he let me sleep in his room, I wore his shirts and jackets – he was my safety net. He was my heart. Once he aged out of the system, our foster parents let him live in the basement apartment. Most nights I snuck down to sleep with him still. Then one day, when I crept down the stairs, I found him in a messy, bloody heap by the back door. Someone had hurt him. Bad. He refused to let me get help. You see, that kind of thing doesn’t happen to guys. He knew that Chicago Police wouldn’t do anything to his attacker… his boss, a respected businessman. They would say he asked for it, or he was lying… we’d seen it happen to other boys before. Nothing would be done. It was awful. But it wasn’t over. Within the year he got sick and stayed sick with one thing after another, cold, flu, ear infection, strep throat, pneumonia, cysts, boils… the list went on and on. Finally one doctor tested him for HIV. He was positive.
There’s so much I want to say about this young man who was taken far too soon. There are so many stories and memories I have hoarded away, humorous glimpses into what made Bernie so incredibly special to my heart. He was more than a victim of AIDS. He was ‘make you wet your pants’ funny. He could sing like an angel. He couldn’t cook to save his life, but ate like he had a tapeworm. He would wear a scarf in the hottest days of summer… because he thought his neck was scrawny. He was right, it always amazed me such a skinny neck could hold up his massive head… and I told him so often. That’s what sisters do. There’s one more thing you should know about Bernie – he was mine. Heart and soul. It makes me sad to think that I never had to learn to share him. Never had to step aside to make room for his love. I console myself with the knowledge that I loved him with every fiber of my being, and that he loved me in return.
In the winter of 1990 my Bernie died, he took an enormous piece of my heart with him. It amazes me to realize I only had him for a tiny 5 year window, but 23 years later, his existence continues to have a tremendous impact on my life.
I wish so hard that he had had the advantages of the medications of today – research has come a long way. But there’s still more work to be done. It pains me to see so many young people acting as though HIV/AIDS has been cured and is no longer a threat. That’s not true.
Get involved. Know your status. Know the facts!! My GOD, know the fekkin FACTS!!
I miss you, Princess.