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Reasons I Walk in the AIDS Walk

Reflections on Losing a Father to AIDS

April 23, 2009

Amanda and her father, Robert Hill Millis
Amanda and her father, Robert Hill Millis

On October 8, 2002, my dad died suddenly from pneumocystis carinii (AIDS-related pneumonia). He was only 47 years old, and I was 21. I believe that my dad actually died from the shame associated with sexually transmitted diseases because he never received HIV treatment. He kept his positive status a secret from everyone around him, and because he did not seem sick, his death came as a huge shock. Every day he had worked diligently throughout his secret illness to ensure posthumous financial security for his loving partner Doug and me.

Having no idea that the next day would be the last day I would see my father alive, some kind of loving grace woke me from a deep sleep with an instinctive compulsion to talk to him. The next afternoon I went to his house to visit and bring him flowers. When I left, I said to him, "I love you Dad." He died the next night.

After his death, I went through the motions of making his funeral arrangements and then, after the funeral, I moved to California. Once there, I fell into a major depression. Soon my grief turned to anger. I hated a world that would take away my dad so abruptly. I lost hope in anything good and was left with overwhelming fear and loneliness.

Through it all, my dad's unfaltering love and acceptance remained in my heart and I realized that the best way to commemorate his life would be to reach out to other people who are affected by HIV and AIDS.

I am an artist and my first inspiration to create again occurred when I made an AIDS awareness illustration that depicted my dad's life and the circumstances surrounding his death.

A week before my dad's first postmortem birthday, I went to my neighborhood drug store and purchased hundreds of condoms. Then I went to the copy shop down the street to print my AIDS awareness illustration multiple times on vinyl -- I now had an AIDS awareness poster series.

When the actual day of my dad's birthday arrived, I dressed up in high-heeled boots and a purple vinyl skirt, went to West Hollywood -- home to Los Angeles' gay community -- where I entered as many gay bars as I could so that I could distribute condoms and my posters. I must have given out hundreds of condoms that night. This reaching out to build community in memory of my dad was my first step toward believing in life again.

I was surprised when many of the younger men I encountered didn't want anything to do with me, saying things like, "You just ruined my night," and (with attitude), "I was planning on getting laid."

I was crushed but I stayed the course. I was finally gratified when I happened into the gay leather and "bear" bars. The men in these establishments reminded me of my dad. Most of them were 40-something, hyper-masculine looking men. Many were scantily dressed in leather with tattoos, piercings and lots of facial and body hair. In contrast with the men I met in the other gay bars, these men supported me with kindness by encouraging my HIV/AIDS activist beginnings. (This began a course which is now an infinite life path.) While out that night, I noticed an advertisement for AIDS Walk Los Angeles and jotted the date in my calendar. This would become the next step in my AIDS activism.

I was sleepless the night before the AIDS Walk and could only think of my dad. I may have gone to the walk by myself, but I was carrying him in my heart. The only person I spoke to was at the sign-in area where I made a donation of $25 toward my personal fundraising.

As I walked, joined by thousands of participants, I suddenly no longer felt alone in my grief and I sobbed behind big sunglasses. Dozens of partnering organizations set up at the finish line advanced my stride to regain hope of daily life-purpose -- I picked up every pamphlet I could find to begin various volunteer opportunities.

One year after AIDS Walk Los Angeles, I moved to San Francisco to study sculpture. While I was in school, I developed my art practice with HIV/AIDS advocacy.

In June 2005, synchronistically, I saw an AIDS Walk San Francisco advertisement. It was only a few weeks before the Walk, but I decided to form and lead a team of my closest friends called "Group of Drunks." With seven team members and very little time, we raised $2,000 for the fight against AIDS. The camaraderie I experienced at this walk --combined with the achievements of my team -- multiplied my recovering hope.

Today, I work for AIDS Walk New York and help circulate the same type of advertisements that catalyzed my journey by ensuring visibility of and information on AIDS Walk New York throughout the local community and on a national level as well. I have made a commitment to be a "Star Walker." This means I have set a goal to raise $1,000 or more for AIDS Walk New York.

My dad's birthday is the week before the AIDS Walk, and for his celebration I have been embraced by the gay leather community once again! Eagle Bar New York City (554 W. 28th Street) has donated their venue for an AIDS Walk fundraiser called "Bob's BDSM (Bondage Domination Sado-Masochism) Birthday Bash" (named for my dad, Robert H. Millis) on Sunday, May 10 from 2 to 5 p.m.

Now that I am a part of the community that I longed for when I lost my dad, I hear stories like mine every day. On October 8, 2002, if I had tried to imagine the biggest difference that one person could make in the fight against AIDS, I would have colossally sold myself short. I have created activist opportunities for myself that began with a simple sketch and prophylactics purchase so that I could voice my passion and grief. If one child who has lost his or her parent(s) to AIDS or even one HIV-infected parent, who is afraid to seek treatment, sees an AIDS Walk advertisement or reads this story, we are succeeding in the eradication of apathy. I know that we will walk together through this reality until we exist in a world without HIV/AIDS.

Click here to e-mail Amanda.

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This article was provided by AIDS Walk New York.
See Also
More on AIDS Walks

Reader Comments:

Comment by: jeff malcom (texas city tx) Mon., Jul. 20, 2009 at 3:47 pm UTC
the death of youre dad still hurts me deeply. i love and miss you and hope to hear from you some day
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Comment by: harvett (east cleveland, oh) Tue., May. 12, 2009 at 12:37 pm UTC
I can relate to your story, I would talk to people about AIDS/HIV and I was cursed, yelled at and belittled because of it. I do believe facing your fears will conquer them. It is true with this horrific disease.
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Comment by: Neal (Indianapolis, IN) Thu., May. 7, 2009 at 7:18 am UTC
What a truly touching story. I work in HIV and had to share your story with co-workers. Keep walking...
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Comment by: Tom Thu., May. 7, 2009 at 4:54 am UTC
Hi Dear,
I am very very touched by reading your story. what a brave girl you are. I believe your dad would be very proud of you. The wounded healer is a true healer. You've given healing to so many people with your efforts and hopefully those who read this story of yours. I could not imagine how would you forgive your dad and accepted his statues in younger age. I experience that others having difficulties in accepting their dads as a gay and at the same time infected with HIV/Aids. If they found out about it they would stay away from him. The wife of course would ask for divorce. They feel asamed even more than knowing he's having HIV/AIDS. I work as a counselor. These gay fathers in the end separate from their marriage and live with their partners. However, they desire one thing: To be present at their son's/daughter's wedding when they walks down the isle.

You have been blessed to live in a open-minded society. I hope your story help to bring about a change in people's mind that no matter what he is your father. Respect him and be proud of him.
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Comment by: erick (santiago de chile) Fri., May. 1, 2009 at 9:54 pm UTC
has a big heart, never miss it ... full force from latin america
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Comment by: Matt B (New York City) Mon., Apr. 27, 2009 at 11:48 pm UTC
This is both deeply personal and wildly open and giving. It's inspiring to know people like you, and to see the positive and constructive things that can come from a tragedy. You're a deeply heartfelt human being.
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Comment by: Lesley (New York, NY) Mon., Apr. 27, 2009 at 8:10 pm UTC
I'm so lucky to work with such a great person! I just teared up, because people like you remind me that hope is out there.
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Comment by: James (New York) Sat., Apr. 25, 2009 at 11:08 pm UTC
This is such an inspirational story. It was EXTREMELY difficult to read, especially since I've been getting to know you over the past few months, and I think it's your bravery that I admire the most.

Keep doing what you do!
See you on Thursday babe.
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Comment by: Daeha Ko (Brooklyn, NY) Fri., Apr. 24, 2009 at 10:41 pm UTC
I so didn't know! I'm sorry and I'm glad you could come forth with your story to share with us.
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