By Maggie Kneip
After my husband died of full-blown AIDS any talk of him came to a full-stop.
I was reminded of this recently, and how far we’d come since, when I received an invitation to a Zoom from his former office.
In the late ‘80’s John was a rising star journalist, I was a stay-at-home freelance writing mom, we had one adorable baby on board and another on the way. John didn’t feel well, though, he was always exhausted or sick with something. The doctors diagnosed “stress”—John was apparently one more young married guy with kids who worked too hard.
Then, one hot July day in 1990, what ailed John was diagnosed as something much more.
AIDS. When I could recover from the shock, I yanked the shades down in our sweet-scented babies’ room. I notified John’s office he wouldn’t be in for a while, (I’d explain later). I put out there the imposter disease, “Encephalitis.”
No one could know what John had.
That we kept John’s illness a secret seemed most important to him. Hospitalized, feverish, he seemed surprised he had AIDS. When I asked him how he got it, he suggested I‘d given it to him. (In fact, I couldn’t have; my own HIV test had come back negative, meaning, mercifully, the kids were, too.)
For John, things went rapidly downhill from there. Having been closeted and now outed by AIDS, he was consumed with shame, denial, and anger.
When he died in early 1991 a major newspaper cited in his obituary as the cause of death, “Lymphoma.” This was a professional courtesy extended us to protect our kids; stigma associated with AIDS was rampant.
After that, to keep things “normal,” I knew I had to bring any mention of John to a kind of “full stop.” I boxed up his personal effects and stashed them away. And though I feared I never would, I found a nice man to round out our family in fine, fatherly style.
As the kids grew, they did pretty well not mentioning ever having had another father. After all, one had barely known John, the other, born just after his diagnosis, was only nine months old when he died.
In their teenage years I would occasionally try to insert John into their active, disease-free world—we’d visit his grave or I’d mention how proud he’d be at awards ceremonies, but their response was polite resistance. Why darken their bright, promising lives with these “unmentionables?”
“Move on, mom,” they advised.
But I couldn’t. In fact, after they left home I found myself thinking about their father, this man we couldn’t talk about, this man we were supposed to forget, 24/7.
In a time long ago, I’d been in love with him. In a time long ago, he’d been my world. Forget him? Instead, I would need to find him. I would need to learn…how to talk about him.
The time was right. In the twenty years since John’s death, here in The U.S. scientific research was saving lives affected by AIDS. People’s voices were loud and strong about who they were, and how they lived. The letters LGBTQIA seemed to roll off people’s tongues.
Too bad the words “My husband died of AIDS” couldn’t roll off mine.
After so many years, every time I would resolve to casually mention I’d once been married, or something about “my children’s real father” they would trip me up. I couldn’t say them.
It seemed I had my own boatload of shame, denial, and anger to contend with.
To figure things out, I wrote. I explored AIDS in the form of books, plays, movies and exhibits. I took part in several AIDS Walks, where I met women—like me. This was surprising…I’d felt so alone.
Eventually I published this writing in a book, which I was gratified to learn helped many women who also couldn’t say these words but needed to.
It was a great unburdening, we found, to say them; a great unburdening to finally tell the truth.
The Zoom invitation I received filled me with delight, as it was from some of John’s closest work colleagues who, in the thirty years since he’d died, had remained my friends.
It was for an “Alumni Zoom” for the paper, and for anyone to be listed “In Memoriam” we were requested to submit obituaries.
I didn’t want to forward John’s citing his death falsely. In its place, I submitted a column I liked he’d written.
However, checking the Zoom’s website recently I saw John’s obituary posted, evidently by someone else, and
I was reminded, all over again, of the time when you couldn’t talk about, you couldn’t tell the truth, about AIDS, or about the lives and loves we lost to it.
Now, we can. Let’s not stop—ever.
Maggie Kneip worked in publishing at Bertelsmann and Scholastic. Her book, Now Everyone Will Know, is available at https://www.amazon.com/Now-Everyone-Will-Know-Rediscovered/dp/0692537813.