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.
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