AIDS 1980 III
Beginning of an Ending
The third man I was assigned to when volunteering in the late 1980s to work with people with AIDS was a man named Frankie. He lived on the Westbank, which if you're familiar with New Orleans, was a bit of a drive for me from Metairie. The first time I met Frankie, I had called and asked him if he'd like to go have coffee. He said fine. He answered the door when I knocked at his parents' house. The neighborhood was less than affluent but had lawns that were perfectly kept up and houses that were meticulously cared for. In sections of New Orleans, you'll find lots of those neighborhoods, full of character and a joy to behold.
A Pleasant Sight to Behold.
Frankie was very tall and slender. He was what I would call a beautiful man with copious amounts of coal black hair, dark brown eyes, and a nose usually described as patrician. His clothes were incredibly expensive and I could tell he had lost weight because they were loose. The shoes he was wearing were amazing, likely costing more than my whole wardrobe, including shoes. He smiled and asked me in. "I'm Frankie. Come on in while I get ready." Frankie immediately treated me like someone he'd known forever and I felt the same. We chattered as he combed his hair and applied something to erase the circles from under his eyes. I asked about it and he told me where to buy it and how much it cost. I didn't say so, but I'd be sticking to my Cover Girl cover-up stick. No way I could afford that.
We began to talk about his diagnosis. I learned that he'd been informed six months ago that he had full-blown AIDS. I asked, "How are you dealing with that?"
Establishing the Rules
"Well, see, here's the thing," he said, "I'm not. That's why I've been kind of nervous about meeting you. I want to remain where I am and that's in denial. People keep trying to tell me to prepare myself. I don't want to. F*** that. I don't think about it. I don't want to talk about it . I'll prepare when the time comes and not before. So if you don't want to play that game, you need to go."
Oh, I could have told him a thousand things I'd read and a thousand scenarios we'd played out in our role playing when training new members. What good would it have done? And I'm sure the psychiatrist who worked with us would say I should try to make him face reality. I just didn't feel that way. And I was the one here in his bathroom door as he waited for an answer. "That's fine, Frankie. It's your call. It's your life. We won't talk about it again." And we never did. Never.
Getting to Know Frankie
We had fun at coffee. At first I had a little problem with Frankie because he told me, "My dates leave a little cash here, a little cash there." I realized that he was a semi prostitute. But I couldn't get all indignant about it. I've never been into judgments. And although I'd never done anything particularly outrageous, I was far from being a saint. I talked to the minster at the church I was attending. My grown children called it the church of the open road, which it probably was and is. I think that's why I like it. Anyway, the minister said, "You have to make up your own mind about it. He's another living, breathing soul, just trying to get by. Why does any of that matter now?" Having her say that made me realize how ridiculous the whole idea was. Frankie didn't need to answer to me for anything.
That first day at coffee, we talked for almost an hour. He loved coffee as much as I did. He poured huge amounts of sugar in both of the large cups he drank and smiled at me once as he was pouring and said, "This is good, being here. I haven't been out a lot. My friends have disappeared." I told him about my family, my husband and two grown children. He told me about the apartment he had before he got sick, with fluffy white carpet and black leather couches and chairs, about his water bed and silk sheets. We laughed about silly things and just had fun. I felt totally comfortable with Frankie from the beginning.
Don't Think Beyond Today
I knew this was going to be a very hard assignment. Frankie seemed like an old friend, someone I had known for years. I tried to go often to take him out. He loved his mom, but she often was "on his last nerve." As he said, his friends had disappeared. There was a certain guilt by association regarding AIDS during those times. We often laughed until we cried about our families, our pets, anything that struck us funny. We drove to the levee and walked for a couple of miles at different times, watching the children flying kites and riding bikes. I wondered if Frankie ever thought about the fact that this was likely his last autumn. There were times when he was very quiet and I thought he was thinking about the future, or lack thereof, but if I asked if he was okay, he'd suddenly perk up, put on a big grin and be fine. We became better and better friends as the weeks passed, and Frankie became thinner and thinner. We never mentioned his illness, ever.
Toward the end of October, Frankie's mom called me at my house one night and told me that Frankie had had to go in the hospital. She said he was in Charity because his insurance had cancelled when they learned he had AIDS. That happened often during those years. "Can you go down and visit? He said to tell you not to come, but I know he'd love to see you." And of course, I went. If you've never visited Charity Hospital, you have no idea what a looming, cavernous, huge and intimidating structure it was.
I parked my car a couple of blocks away. I had no idea where to go or what to do, but a man with an amputated leg who was smoking outside answered all my questions. I went in and signed in, found out where Frankie was and began looking for an elevator. Everyone stared as I walked through the halls because my boss had bought a stuffed Toucan for me to bring to Frankie and they all smiled at the bird.
When I got to the elevator, I had one of the first experiences of what I suppose is some sort of sensitivity or psychic ability, on a very small scale. I was overcome with a feeling of fear and dread and hopelessness like nothing I'd ever felt in my boring life. I had to go to the 7th floor to see Frankie. It took every ounce of courage I had to step on that elevator. I learned later what I believe it was about, which I'll share with you after we visit Frankie.
Frankie was the only patient in the AIDS ward. So many had died during that year, the nurse told me. He named several of them, telling me a little bit about them. I asked about Frankie. Back then, there was no HIPAA law. The nurses freely shared information with anyone who visited on the wards because they felt it would help their patients and assumed everyone had the best motives. When I asked what was in store for Frankie, the nurse's answer was nothing good. "Let me just put it this way, dear. If you want to buy him a Christmas gift, go ahead, but he'll likely only have it until the New Year." As much as I already knew this, it shocked me. I had done the unthinkable and developed a deep friendship with this man, who was a mixture of smart-ass, prude, snob, and intellectual. In case I haven't mentioned it, Frankie was extremely intelligent. He was fascinated by books and read everything he could find.
Memories of My Friend
When I walked in to see Frankie, I was jolted by how thin he had become. He had on a hospital gown with a gray sweater that I loved over it. His arms were like sticks. "I told Mom not to let you come down here. This is just not anyplace you need to be." He was fussing, but I could see that he was glad to see me and just as glad to see the Toucan, which he immediately hugged close. Frankie had a huge collection of stuffed animals, including a boa constrictor. We talked for a long time that day about nothing of any importance. I'll always remember the autumn light coming through the window of the ward and across Frankie's bed. I remember Frankie in his sweater, propped up in bed with an afghan his mom had made across his knees and his Toucan in his arms.
As I was leaving I heard a group of nurses talking about the fact that a visitor had been raped in one of the elevators the week before. I started to ask which one, then realized I didn't need to. I knew. I've had other experiences like the one with the elevator and have learned that they almost always mean something. I pay attention to them. I waited for another woman to come to ride the elevator down with me.
After I visited Frankie that day, I developed a terrible case of the flu and was not able to visit for almost a month until I knew I was completely well. I knew that the flu would be the end for Frankie for sure. I visited him in the beginning of November. We had lunch at a little cafe by his house, but I could see that he was uncomfortable because people were staring at him because he was so thin. Back then, it was a huge cause for speculation. "I'm going to see some friends in California for a month. I want to be by the ocean and with people who have stuck by me through all this -- other than you, I mean."
"I understand, Franks. I'll be here when you come home." Franks had become my name for him. We still never mentioned his illness.
Frankie didn't come back until three days before Christmas. His mom called and asked me to come to Christmas dinner. I told her I couldn't because I wanted to be with my own family, but asked if I could just drop by. When I went in to the little house, there were wonderful smells of cooking. Frankie's mom was in a tizzy, cooking for and serving 15 people. The family was loud and boisterous. They all wanted Frankie's attention, and I could see he was growing tired. "Remember, Frankie, when we rode our bikes to that little store? Remember, Frankie, that suit you wore to graduation?" It went on and on.
I found a chair and moved it close to Frankie. I could tell he was happy to be here in the midst of his family. He asked me to hand him a package nearby. I had brought him a book of poems for Christmas and was hoping he hadn't gotten me something expensive. Well, hoping did no good. There, nestled in tissue paper, was a huge bottle of Joy perfume. I can only guess at what it cost. I didn't have a clue what I should say, so I hugged him and kissed his cheek. His biggest thing was to tease me about my pitiful clothes. When I hugged him, he said, "Well, you'll never have any taste when it comes to clothes, but at least you'll smell good." And I laughed. But for a brief moment and for the first time in my volunteer work, I could feel myself getting close to hysteria. There was a huge sob trying to escape into my throat and out my mouth. I wanted to grab him and shake him and scream, "Don't die. Just please don't die. Please don't leave me." But I didn't. And of course, he did.
The Beginning of Another Ending
Frankie began to have uncontrolled diarrhea the day after Christmas and was dead two days later. I never saw him again because his mother said he expressly told her not to let me come back. Frankie told me after we first met that he was afraid I was going to be one of those religious fanatics who wanted to change him. He said he didn't trust me for a while, just waiting for the preaching to start. Of course, I never dreamed of trying to change Frankie any more than I would change myself. We are who we are. When I go to JC Penney or Target to buy a new blouse or pants, I always laugh because I can hear his voice: JC Penney! Are you f***king kidding me? I bought an outfit one time that I thought was pretty cute. It was on sale to boot, so I was doubly proud. When I walked in the door to collect Frankie to go for coffee, he said, "That is without a doubt the tackiest skirt and blouse I've ever seen." I chased him down the hall and smacked him a couple of times but couldn't help but laugh.
I never used the perfume. I gave it to a friend. She asked a thousand questions and obviously thought I had had an affair and wanted to get rid of the evidence! No, I had a friend and couldn't even look at the perfume without a terrible hurting in my heart. I was much younger then and didn't understand a lot about the world. I understand a little more now, not a lot. I was always concerned about being accepted by the men I was assigned to. I realize now that even though I was bungling and often said or did the wrong thing, they knew I was sincere, that I genuinely wanted to help and that I wasn't there to judge. I think that's true of life itself. We may not always "perform correctly," but it's what's in our hearts that people care about, at least the people who matter.
Most people, that is; and I laugh when I say that. One time in the car as I was driving him to a doctor's appointment, Frankie said, "They call you a buddy at that organization. You'd be the perfect buddy if you'd learn how to dress! What are those flowers on that blouse supposed to represent? Jeez."
Thank You Card
In 1991, I received a card in the mail from California. It was addressed in handwriting I remembered, but didn't know from where. I opened it. It was a plain gray card with nothing on the front except a small tasteful palm tree. When I looked at the back for clues , it said designed by someone or other and it was obviously very expensive. I began to get a weird feeling in my stomach. I opened it and perfectly centered on the inside was writing in a flowery slanting script that I had learned to know well from endless crossword puzzles worked in coffee shops. There were only two words, "Thanks, Buddy." I had chills up my spine, down my arms, and had trouble breathing for a few minutes. It was two years since Frankie's death. I was at the funeral and I knew he was dead. The only thing I've been able to figure out is that he left the card with one of his friends in California and asked them to mail it later. But why two years later? I still wonder about it.
End of the Day
- Pieces of My Heart I
In the late '80s, I volunteered as a
- Pieces of My Heart II
Ritche was the second man I was assigned to during the time I worked as a volunteer providing support to people with AIDS. Blaine, the first man I worked with was a gentle soul and had made peace with the world and with his dying. Ritchie was another
- Pieces of My Heart IV
This is the fourth of a series of five articles I am writing about my work with people with AIDS during the late 1980s. Jeremiah was my fourth assignment. He became a dear friend, who was kind and funny and protective in an odd kind of way.