My brother David was six years older than I. He moved out with our dad when I was nine and I saw him only sporadically thereafter. When we were grown, he stayed away from the family, coming only every few years for short and tense visits.
It remained that way until late summer of 1995. David called me from Atlanta to tell me he was dealing with lymphoma, but everything seemed to be going all right. Lymphoma? How could everything be all right? I fled to the bookstore and sat on the carpet in the aisle, reading everything I could find on the subject.
A few weeks later he called to say he was feeling better. Then he confessed something he'd apparently known since 1984.
"Oh, by the way, I'm HIV positive."
I spent the next few days in a fog, trying to grasp what was happening. I shared what news I had with my family. It was only a few weeks after that we received a call that David was in a hospital, suffering from dementia. Some decisions were needed, and someone should be there.
Every member of our family flew in to Atlanta the week of Thanksgiving, from Alaska, Missouri, Indiana and Florida. We were met by a woman who had been caring for David, the mother of his lover who had died the year before. Sarah briefed us on his medical history, and we all gathered at the hospital to see him.
My sister and I went to his room. Oh, David. He was curled up asleep, looking pale and emaciated and losing his hair. He looked nothing like the robust man I had last seen several years earlier.
The doctor told us about MRI "shadows" on the brain that were indicative of late stage AIDS. David was transferred to a local AIDS hospice, where he was given loving care by every staff member. Our family had to return to our homes but not before David saw all of us together. He knew we had come to be with him.
I learned later that set our family apart from most AIDS patients' families, who rarely visited at all back then. I was so worried that David would feel alone that I flew down to see him every three weeks for the next six months. Our mother and sister were able to come for regular visits too. Through all of this, Sarah and her husband Will treated David like he was their son, monitoring his daily care, working with insurance, and taking him to doctor appointments.
While in Atlanta I would stay in David's apartment and his friends would come to see me. They told me more about my brother than I had known in the lifetime before. He was so afraid of being rejected by his family for being gay that he lived as though it was true. He had never come out to us, but we pretty much knew from high school on. It was the elephant in the room during all those tense visits at home.
One friend, Tom, told me that David was especially afraid of me.
"Because you're a Christian."
Oh. Oh, no.
I had come late to my faith and had finally gained peace. It gave me the means and emotional strength to connect with the world. But the hatefulness being spread by a vocal minority had separated me from my brother, who worried I agreed. Tom and I talked more about the destruction being wrought by the Religious Right. It was heartbreaking.
During my visits to Haven House, David wasn't always lucid. Sometimes he didn't know who I was. And he wanted to pretend that he was coming home soon, so that prevented us from talking about important things. But once, well into his stay, David gave me the opening I needed. I jumped.
"David, we've always known you were gay. We don't care who you love. We love you."
I wish you could have seen him at that moment. He completely changed before my eyes. His body became fluid and melted into relaxation. He smiled, and his smile reached his eyes. From then on he was open, loving, at ease. I had never seen this man before in my life. He and I had five more visits before he died just short of his 49th birthday.
Tom, David's good friend who was so generous with his honesty, died broke and alone in the hospital emergency room three months later. His family had abandoned him, having believed the rhetoric from the Religious Right.
We cannot let this continue. We must stand up and tell the truth: that God loves everyone, unchanged, exactly as they are. For when all else falls away, love is what we have left.