My mother is the strongest person in the world.
I recently read a story about Ruth Coker Burks caring for AIDS patients in Arkansas on Out.com. It reminded me of the experiences my mother told me she had. We lived in Lubbock, Texas, a place far and remote in the West Texas desert. Gay men who were dying of GRID/AIDS were being sent to Lubbock hospitals to die alone -- abandoned by families to a desolate, invisible place. None of the nurses wanted to touch these dying men. They were poorly cared for. My mother was a social worker for the State of Texas. She was assigned a case at one of the hospitals, and when she went to go see the man, the nurses warned her to stay away. But she had a job to do. She'd seen the worst of humanity and fought through Hell trying to get all kinds of people the much-needed services they required. Nothing was going to stop her. When she went into the hospital room, her heart sank and she lost her breath at the skeleton of a man she saw.
The nurse in the room left in a hurry. She had been wearing gloves. Everyone was wearing gloves. My mom went right in and shook the man's hand. She didn't want to wear a glove. She did not hesitate. She had no fear. And upon that innocent and instant human contact, the man began to cry. He said he hadn't been touched by another human being without gloves for so long he couldn't even remember. He was inconsolable. He told my mom his family had abandoned him, he had no friends, and no one even knew where he was. He was all alone. He had been sent around the state because no hospitals wanted to deal with him. He was one of the first cases in Texas.
My mother held his hand and she remained steadfast in her mission to get this man the services he needed. She got him his services and visited him as often as possible until he died shortly thereafter. The county cremated his body. My mother sensed that this was the beginning of a longer saga. That was in the early 1980s. It was a saga that saw many more AIDS patients being sent to the remote hospitals of Lubbock, a saga that made her strong to love these dying, abandoned men until the ultimate test came. She said she instinctively knew then that this was going to hit much closer to home.
I told my mom I was HIV+ in 2008. She kicked my ass into getting medical attention even though I was in the throes of my addiction. But it would be my twin brother Albert who would come home to die. When Albert was taken to the hospital, and it was revealed that he had AIDS, my mother knew exactly what to do. It was 2012, there in Lubbock, Texas, almost 30 years since the first AIDS patients began dying, it was like déjà vu. My mother is the strongest woman in the world. She cared for my brother. She bathed him, fed him, wiped him, groomed him, read to him ... never wearing gloves or worried about any messes. She just loved him, unconditionally. She told me that what happened during the AIDS crisis in the '80s prepared her for this very moment. She knew exactly what to do ... right down to the death certificate. It was the hardest thing she ever had to deal with. And she never faltered once, despite how painful it was to watch her baby boy die. Human contact is the love that kept him going as long as possible. Love kept him going.
I understand a parent losing a child is the hardest pain one can suffer. My parents loved and cared for my brother through his dying breaths, holding his hands as they turned cold and surrounded him in love. For all those men and women out there who were abandoned by friends and family, I'm so sorry. I hope that your memory burns bright in the hearts of someone who loved you. I hold you all in my heart collectively. For all those women and men who took the dying into their arms and loved them as their own, thank you. Your unyielding sacrifice and service will forever be the love that keeps life burning strong. And for my mother, the strongest woman I know, I love you with all my heart. Thank you for always being fearless and never letting fear get in the way of love.
Robert Gamboa is a city official for the City of West Hollywood, sitting on the Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board, and a graduate student at UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs seeking a Master's Degree in Public Policy. He is nearly nine years sober and focuses his work expanding and promoting LGBTQ policy and the welfare of LGBTQ communities across the United States.
[Note from TheBody: This article was originally published by AIDS United on Sept. 28, 2018. We have cross-posted it with their permission.]