September 3, 2013
Before I was 22, I rarely talked about HIV. After the summer of 2012, I began working at APICHA Community Health Center. I now work for TheBody.com, I am on the HIV Prevention Planning Group at the NYC Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene, and I am an active member of ACT UP. This is probably solely due to my dad.
The summer of 2011, my father, Alfredo Rodriguez, moved back to New York City after having lived in Cleveland, Ohio, for about 12 years following his separation and eventual divorce from my mother. After a short stint at a small apartment on the Lower East Side, he quickly entered into hospice care at Rivington House, a facility that provides an array of services for those living with HIV/AIDS.
It wasn't until I was 22 that I learned that my father was HIV positive. I found that out over a phone call with my sister. A few minutes later, my mother called to say that she and my sister hadn't been aware that I didn't know my father had HIV. He had moved away when I was only 10, and I had only seen him a few select times since then. I guess, there had never been a good time to tell the baby of the family that his father had HIV.
That doesn't mean that I didn't know about the many other ailments that my father was facing. His was a body that had to struggle to survive. He had asthma, he had hepatitis C, he had cirrhosis, he had neuropathy, and he was a diabetic. And yet, my father had always been the kind of man who just really fucking loved life. Anyone and everyone you meet will tell you that about him. He was always dancing, always laughing. I could try to draw some correlation between how under siege his body was and how much he enjoyed life, but there would be no point. My dad had always enjoyed life, since he started dating my mother at the age of 14, up until his death at age 55.
One of the final times I saw my dad, he was sitting in a wheelchair, having just told my sister and me that he had been declared incontinent by the nurses. He then asked us to get him two things: orange soda and Mike & Ikes. My sister and I told him that we wouldn't get him either of those things, so he asked if we could get him a diet orange soda, to which we had said that we had never even heard of such a thing. As he walked us out of Rivington House that day, he stopped at the vending machine for M&Ms.
My father was the youngest of four brothers -- Angel, Raymond and Jerry -- and he has one younger sister, who everyone calls "Chavi." Being the youngest of four brothers earned him the nickname "Tuffy" (said in Spanish, it sounds like you're saying the word "toffee" with a soft "t"). Anyone who knew him called him Tuffy.
When he was about 10 or 11, his parents, my grandparents, divorced. They each moved out of their apartment in the Smith Housing Projects near the Brooklyn Bridge on the Lower East Side, but neither of them took the boys. My father and his brothers (I'm not sure about Chavi), were left in the late '60s without any supervision or guidance in the middle of the Lower East Side. It wasn't until my father started dating my mother that he started to have a better family support system. I don't know when, but somewhere in that time, he started using injection drugs. My mother told me that he and all of his friends would use the same needle and tools to inject, which they kept behind a loose brick in the staircase of their building.
My father's journey with drug use led him in and out of rehabilitation programs several times in his life. It was a journey that finally ended on Oct. 13, 2011, at Beth Israel on 14th Street. On the day of his death, he had been hospitalized for about two days and all the doctors had prepared us for the possibility that this might be his final stint in the hospital. That day, I got a call at about 10 a.m. from my mother that the doctors had told her to come and see him. I arrived at Beth Israel at about 10:30 a.m. (I was working at APICHA Community Health Center only a few stops away on the 6 train) and was the first of my family to arrive.
When I entered the "room" -- I use that term loosely, it was just a bed behind a curtain -- I saw a body there that used to belong to my father. The body was on a respirator and its chest was making inhuman, swift breathing movements, and its eyes were rolled back. However, the heart monitor was still beeping, though I was sure that my father had long since checked out. I grabbed his hand and told him I love him, and at that moment, I heard that long beep that you really only ever hear on TV shows and movies. The nurse a few feet away said to me, "He waited for you." A friend later told me that the ears are often the last thing to go, and that even if a person is on the brink of death, they can often hear what is happening around them. She also told me that it was my love that finally allowed him to pass -- projected him into a better place.
After a short period of zombification, I called my sister who was on her way to the hospital from New Jersey. I told her he had passed and I still feel bad about it to this day, because I forced her to continue driving through tears. At the funeral, which was held on a Saturday (he had passed away on a Thursday), when he was lowered into the ground, my sister's body became all gelatinous -- just like when she was a kid, and she would make her whole body go limp when she was upset and didn't want to move -- and she had to be held up.
Here I am, an HIV-negative young man, only 24 years old, and people often ask me why I do what I do. Perhaps my love for my father spurred him into the afterlife, but it's the love of my father that has started me on my path. I want to fight so that people like him who are struggling with drug use and are HIV positive might have a better life and not die and leave behind other fatherless children like me. I also am a part of the HIV prevention field because I find myself in a unique situation: I am navigating the waters of the epidemic as a young gay man 30 years after my father had to navigate the epidemic as a drug user -- both of us in New York City. Though I look almost daily for ways that my father tries to speak to me, I consider my activism a way that I can speak to my father.
The first time I remember him talking to me was when, at the gathering of family after his funeral, somehow, on the table, next to all the food, there was a bottle of Diet Sunkist Orange Soda waiting for our refreshment. To this day, I don't know who bought it and brought it to the repast. His sense of humor never ceases to amaze me.
Mathew Rodriguez is the editorial project manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.
Read TheBody.com's blog, The Viral Truth.