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AIDS Volunteerism in the 1980s

Updated on May 21, 2017
Marsei profile image

I have lived in a suburb of New Orleans for 40 years. I work at home with my two cats, Lucy and General, and my husband of 50 years, Joe.

Setting Sun

Meeting Jeremiah

This is the fourth of a series of articles I'm writing. It is about the men I was assigned to during my work with people with AIDS. There are links to the first three articles at the bottom of this one. Those articles give more insight into the times, the 1980s, when I did the work I did and the climate surrounding AIDS in Louisiana. Each story is unique, though, and you may choose to read only this one. This is one is special because it is about Jeremiah.

My coordinators asked me once again to take an assignment with an African-American man. During that period -- and probably still -- a gay white man would not have been always easily accepted by an African-American man with AIDS and especially not by his family and community. When I got my assignment and saw where Jeremiah lived, I knew I'd have a battle royal with my husband, which I did. He was not happy about the area I'd be going into. There were many things he did during those days that made me unhappy, so I figured he could just suck it up. He got over it and at one point, he and Jeremiah exchanged cooking tips.

The first day I went to see Jeremiah, I was nervous, of course. It was difficult to know if you'd be accepted, much less welcomed by someone with as much to deal with as these men were living with. I had gotten a strange message on the answer phone the night before. This was before the days of cell phones and there was a brief message in a cultured voice: "If you come visit, don't mention to anyone at the complex anything about AIDS." Well, okay, I hadn't planned to. I found the message strange, but figured I'd find out more soon. When I reached the address I'd been given, it was a large building of red brick that looked like any other apartment building. I had been told that Jeremiah lived in a complex that housed people with disabilities where he paid a much reduced rent.

As I looked for Jeremiah's apartment number, I had to go through a courtyard. There sat several people, some in wheelchairs, some in lawn chairs, all of them very obviously staring at me. I smiled, but they didn't smile back, so I went on my way, looking at apartment numbers. I finally located Jeremiah upstairs at the back of a row of apartments. When he came to the door, I was surprised because he was a small man. My husband is a giant of a man and Jeremiah was my size at the time, about five-foot-four and 120. (Oh, to recapture those statistics!)

Jeremiah had quite a lot of gray in his hair. He was small and wiry and full of nervous energy. He said: "Come on in." Well, actually, he practically whispered it and seemed to be rushing me in, looking around furtively.

Tentative Talk

Jeremiah was a bit more reserved than the other men I had been assigned to. I think part of that was because he was in his late 40s and they were all much younger. They thought of me as a mom or an older sister. He thought of me at first as someone to be suspicious of. He asked if I wanted coffee and, of course, I said yes. I drank the first of many cups I would drink in his small immaculate apartment.

"Jeremiah, why are you so worried about me saying something about being with the AIDS group?"

"Do you see those people out there, out in that courtyard?"

"Well, yeah, I saw them."

"If they knew what I had, they'd come in here and beat me to death." At this point, he got up and made sure the door was closed and looked out the peephole to check for eavesdroppers. He did this constantly during the time I visited him. I truly don't think the people were that interested, but he did.

"Well, they'll never know it from me. They look kind of mean." At this point, I changed the subject and asked Jeremiah how long he had been sick. He began to tell me a little bit about himself. He had worked for a prominent doctor in the community, doing domestic work, mostly cleaning and some cooking for him. He told me when he first got sick, he thought it was just the flu, but then he kept getting sicker and having more fever. Dr. Joe, we'll call him, came to see him in his apartment and took him to a doctor, who diagnosed him with full-blown AIDS and opportunistic pneumonia. If these terms have changed or I have them wrong, I'll have to be forgiven because I've been out of the loop for many years. He was admitted to the hospital and was there for a month, coming close to death, but fighting his way back.


Time to Go

All at once, Jeremiah jumped up: "You've got to go."

"My God, you scared me to death. What's the matter?" My heart was racing.

"This is no place for a white woman to be at night. I hear shooting around here almost every night. You need to get in your car and get out of here. I think your husband is right. This is a dangerous place for a yellow-haired white woman." I had told him of my husband's apprehension.

"My hair is not yellow, Jeremiah, and you're both ridiculous. But I'm leaving. I'll see you in a few days. What can I bring you?"

Now, Jeremiah was not one to be taking gifts from anyone, but he'd been shut up a lot and I could tell there was something he wanted. "I'd like to have something from Brocato's if it's not a lot of trouble, some of that lemon ice. I do love that stuff. I don't drive much anymore since I have those dizzy spells."

"I'll bring you a quart next time. Now lock up. I'm gone." And I was off, back to the interstate, not meeting anyone's eyes and breathing a big sigh when I was safely on my way.

Two days later, I went to Brocato's, got his lemon ice and headed out. I called and let him know I was on my way. This time, he seemed happier to see me. He was delighted to see the lemon ice. He fixed himself a big bowl and offered me some, but I wanted him to have it all. He handed me a small book. "This is for your husband. You said he cooks." I was touched. "Thank you, Jeremiah. That's very kind of you." It was a book about growing herbs and my husband was thrilled to no end. He actually was successful in growing some herbs to use in his cooking with guidance from Jeremiah's little book.


Daylight Is Slowly Leaving

The Family

This time, Jeremiah invited me to sit down in his living room. He pointed to an urn on the mantel. "That's what I'm going to have my ashes put in."

"Well, that's beautiful, Jeremiah." And it was lovely. Jeremiah's home as well as his clothes were tasteful and subdued.

"But I don't know who is going to take it. Momma and them don't talk to me anymore. I asked my sister if she'd take my ashes and she said: "I don't want no faggot's ashes on my mantel." He laughed as he said it, but I knew it hurt him. He said, "Oh, she was just kidding, but I don't know who to give them to."

"Jeremiah, she'll change her mind. Don't dwell on all that. Tell me about your son." Jeremiah had tried to live the straight life and had been married for five years and had a son who was in his teens.

"Oh, he's doing good in school. He's a smart kid like his mom." I figured he was like his dad too. Jeremiah had perfect grammar and knew a lot more about current events than I ever thought about knowing. "His mom brings him every once in a while. He still loves his daddy." And I knew he did. As I got to know Jeremiah, I understood that. He was funny and kind and even protective of me in a strange way, always running me out an hour before it got dark.

He eventually, after weeks and weeks of visits, talked to me about being gay in the African-American community in Louisiana. "You can just forget ever being accepted because it's just not going to happen. When I told my folks, my dad said, 'Well, you just died to me.' My mom just shook her head. I've never seen them since. I don't care, though. I just got tired of trying to make them think I was one thing when I was something else. I like it better this way. At least I'm just hiding from those fools out there in those wheelchairs, not from my family."

"I've never been in that position, Jeremiah, but I think you're right. It's like pretending to be right-handed when you're really left-handed. I'm not defending your folks, but it's what they learned growing up. They don't know how to accept something they were taught was so wrong."

"If they had ever really loved me, they would."

"I'm not defending them, Jeremiah, but you don't know what was in their hearts before or after you told them. Even if they didn't love you -- and I'm sure they did and still do deep down under all that fear -- you have to love yourself anyway."

"Don't start preaching at me, girl, or I'll put your ass out of here."

And I never did again.


Time Passes

I spent many afternoons with Jeremiah, drinking coffee and talking about life. I told him about my family, my children, my dogs, my messy house and my dream of eventually having a court reporting school. He told me that if he could ever get well and get his strength back again, he wanted to be a nurse. He had checked in to what it would cost and thought he could get some government help with tuition. I could tell it was something he had thought about a lot. We talked about his son and politics and Mardi Gras and recipes he and Joe both made and we got to know each other better. He came to trust me in everything except leaving when I was supposed to, before dark. He still scared me half to death when he realized it was getting dark outside, jumping up and handing me my purse, pushing me out the door.

First Dusk

Venturing Out

One Sunday, Jeremiah and I went to the grocery store. He depended mostly on friends to bring his groceries and the man who usually did it was sick. We walked past the group in the courtyard without getting kicked or spit at and both felt relieved. I told him maybe they would think I was his girlfriend and that seemed funnier to him than anything in the world. He laughed till he had tears in his eyes. "Girlfriend, indeed," he said, choking back laughter.

"Well, it's not that funny, Jeremiah." And that caused him to snort through his nose, so I let it be.

We bought everything he needed. I helped him carry everything upstairs and put it away. I could tell he was getting tired. Before I left, he said, "I don't feel too good. I don't think it's long now. I just want to say I appreciate what you've done for me, coming here to this awful place, walking past those nasty folks out there."

"Don't be silly, Jeremiah. They don't bother me. And I'll see you soon. I want to meet your son one day, you know."

"Okay. Well, call me next week."

That was Sunday. On Wednesday, I had a call from a young man. "My dad wanted me to call and tell you he's in the hospital, so you don't drive all the way out to the apartment to see him." I asked what hospital. He told me and I dressed and headed out. He was downtown on Tulane Avenue. I parked my car and found the room on the eighth floor. When I knocked on the door, a mini Jeremiah opened it. He looked so much like his dad, it was eerie except his skin was many shades lighter.

"Hi, how is he?"

"He's in and out. He doesn't know anything anymore."

Dark Descends

Losing Jeremiah

Just then a very pretty young woman came in. "I'm Margaret. I'm Jeremiah's ex-wife." Margaret was as white as I. Now I understood the beautiful color of their son's skin."

"Have you met Martin?"

"Well, we spoke. "

"Hi, Martin."

He raised his hand and went back to the chair by his dad's bed.

Margaret and I got coffee from a vending machine. We talked for a short while in a small lounge near the coffee machine, and I realized that she still loved Jeremiah and still blamed him for marrying her when he couldn't return the kind of love she had for him. We gradually wandered back in the room. Jeremiah was thrashing all over the bed. His fever was incredibly high and nothing seemed to be bringing it down. A priest Margaret had called earlier came to give him the last rites. I sat with them until midnight, then I knew I had to leave. It was downtown New Orleans and any later than that was just foolish for a woman alone. I hugged them both and kissed Jeremiah on his burning forehead.

At 4:00 a.m., Margaret called to tell me Jeremiah had died. I could hear Martin crying in the background. She told me that Martin said to tell me that one of the last coherent things his dad said was not to be letting me come down there in that neighborhood; it wasn't safe.

I'll never forget Jeremiah. I still have the book he gave Joe. I have lots of good memories and I have the peace that came when Margaret called me to go with her and Martin to scatter his ashes. I felt it was something they should do alone together and I declined. But I realized that while Jeremiah was afraid to ask either of them to take care of his ashes, they gladly would have. That makes me happy.


Old Habits

A week after Margaret called about scattering the ashes, I got in my car to go shopping. I had the radio on and was driving on automatic. Then before I even knew where I was headed, I was sitting in front of Jeremiah's building. I laughed at my stupidity, then I cried for a very long time, sniveling and snorting and making a fool of myself in front of anyone who passed by, including some of the mean people from the courtyard. One of them murmured something and they all laughed, probably some slur about Jeremiah. I remember thinking I might take my husband's .38 from under the seat and shoot them all. But, of course, I didn't. And as dusk approached, I could hear that voice: "It's time for you to GO!" And I headed back home.

Perhaps He Visits Me

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    • Mike Robbers profile image

      Mike Robbers 4 years ago from London

      ALL your "Pieces of My Heart" series where deeply emotional & touching .. I admire you for truly doing what you were meant to do. Thanks & hoping to read the fifth one..

    • Marsei profile image
      Author

      Sue Pratt 4 years ago from New Orleans

      Thank you, Mike.

      I am slowly putting the fifth together. These men were

      very important to me, each in a different way. Mostly I want to

      try to convey a bit of their personalities in the articles and how much

      was lost when they died.

      Thank you again.

      marsei

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 4 years ago from london

      Good Soul. Thanks for sharing.

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