It's very rare that we have an opportunity to sit and talk with the children of people who are living with HIV/AIDS for our This Positive Life Series. John Whitty's mother, Cassandra, had been living with HIV/AIDS for almost decade and was completely unaware until she was finally diagnosed in 2000. Despite showing numerous symptoms and having multiple hospital trips, like so many others, she fell through the testing gaps. Cassandra admits she never really thought that HIV could happen to her.
We sat down with John to briefly talk about the impact that his mother's diagnosis had on him and his family, and what he learned about HIV in the process.
When did you find out about your mother's diagnosis?
Probably six months to a year after.
And how long ago was that?
Ooh-wee, it's been a while -- over, what, 10 years?
And so what was your initial reaction?
Total hurt. Anger. Rage, really. That's the best way to explain it.
And what was your rage about? Who or what was it toward?
It was more or less one of those things that, uh -- how could this happen?
Did you ever think maybe your mother was at risk of contracting HIV?
Until it happened, no. It never crossed my mind. Never.
Why was that?
It was just something that was not in my sphere, nothing I considered to be an immediate threat to me or Mom. Just never thought of it.
And so when she told you that she was positive, were you concerned? Were you worried? You know, some people, their reaction is they don't want to share certain things. They feel weird about people using the bathroom. Did you have those types of fears?
No. Basically, that's my mother. I mean, I had to get over the initial trauma. I was kind of traumatized about that. Even though it was a painful stab to me, I eventually sided with her, to see her through this.
So what does that mean, you sided with her? Were you upset with her?
No, I didn't stop talking to her. But it was just the initial putting this together, and how to go forward with this. How long does she have? And things of that nature.
I mean, before my mom, Magic Johnson was the only one that I knew of that had the medicines and doctors to survive this thing. So that was my next step -- to try and find out what did she need to do. How are you going to ... basically, educate me.
What was that education process like?
It was kind of slow, because I was not in the immediate area of her, pursuing it. So it was kind of slow, bits and pieces of her initially getting me, you know, informed on what I need to do -- the truths, the false accusations, of the disease.
How has your mother's diagnosis changed you?
It's changed me. Well, to be honest with you, it's helped me. I'm not going to say it really changed me because the one thing she's always told me, and I've always heard, was, you know, "Wear your condom. Protect yourself no matter what."
But I have daughters. I have a son. So that basically brought me to a "What am I going to do to educate them?"
I'm not letting what people say keep my children away from their grandmother, you know? Or what people may say bother, or hurt, or hinder my mother. That's still my mother, whether she has HIV or not.
What are some of the things that people have said?
I haven't heard anyone say anything about her but, you know, just the idea of people not wanting to touch a doorknob after someone that they may know has this disease or going to the restroom after someone who is positive is just ignorance, basically.
So like I said, I haven't really heard too, too much. But what I know is that that woman, my mother, she's a very strong woman, person. She's survived this. And that's all I'm really concerned with right now, is that I still have her here.
Do you think that people in your community in Baton Rouge know enough about HIV?
To be honest with you, they have many avenues out there. If they don't pay attention to it, then that's them signing their own death certificate, to the effect that they're not getting educated about it. But I would say that, yes, they have the materials out there, and throughout the community, for you to know that safe sex is the best sex.
That's where I'm at. Matter of fact, my wife made me wait for a year. We took one test. The first six months we took it, and then the second after six months; so it was a year before I actually had unprotected sex with my wife.
Had you ever been tested before?
Prior to her?
And so what would you tell straight black men out there who think, "I don't need to be bothered with this. This is not my . . . I don't need to get tested, whatever"?
I would say the best thing that I've heard is what my mom likes to say: "I know my status. Do you know yours?" That's basically it. Know your status so you can go forward. So that in the event you want to get married, or find that woman that you would like to be with, and you don't want to use condoms . . . you could get her tested, or you all could get tested together.
Knowing your status was a comfort to me.
If there was anything that you would want for people to know about your mother what would that be?
She's definitely determined to educate you, so that you can know, "It happened to me but it doesn't necessarily have to happen to you." So I would call her a determined person. She's very determined.
How do you think HIV has changed your mother?
She's more aware and more empathetic. That's the key word: She's more empathetic to what's surrounding the community.
See Cassandra's video here
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Follow Kellee on Twitter: @kelleent.