Thursday, December 1, 2016

When I Was A Girl Part 2

My parents were an unlikely pair.  In high school, my mother was voted Most Daring, while my father was voted Shyest.  Eventually, that all changed:  my mother stopped being a risk taker and my father developed a flair for the flamboyant.  He returned from Vietnam where the Army had virtually beaten the shyness out of him.  He often paraded about town in knickers and a full-length beaver skin coat, while speaking in a British accent.  But eventually he opened his own repair shop in South Alabama and traded the beaver skin coat for flannel shirts and a full beard in an attempt to blend in. 

It was a difficult task because he was a gay man in Alabama in the 80’s.  My father and his partner were not the upwardly mobile gay men you see on tv.  My dad was a mechanic who was known to rummage through the lost and found for clothes at the local YMCA.   Jimmy was a short order cook at the Waffle House. He wore cut off jeans, a sporty mustache and an abundance of product in his hair. We fought a lot, mostly for my dad's attention. But music brought us together. He introduced me to Boy George and Culture Club, Liza Minelli, Barbara Streisand and Prince. We would watch Friday Night Videos long after my dad went to bed, lip syncing to Purple Rain and Little Red Corvette. Music gave us common ground.
Jimmy came into our lives during Mardi Gras one year.  My dad owned a repair shop that specialized in British cars and had developed a friendship with Nancy, who worked for a parts supply warehouse in Birmingham.  He invited her down for Mardi Gras one year, having never met in person.  She brought Jimmy.  After a couple of days of partying, Nancy returned to Birmingham, but Jimmy stayed.
Soon Kay joined Nancy on their trips to the Gulf Coast.  They would spend weekends in New Orleans roaming the French Quarter and doing things that most people don’t want to imagine their parents doing.  Kay’s parents owned a butcher shop and they would arrive with steak, which my dad would grill.  In the living room I would perform for them, singing and dancing in front of a captive audience.
My dad told everyone that he had contracted hepatitis from bad oysters at a local seafood restaurant, but Kay, who is a hospital social worker, was quick to figure out what was really going on.  It was the mid-80’s and the AIDS crisis had made its way to Alabama.  He was tired all the time.  There were lesions on his hands.  Soon there were signs of dementia.  She urged him to seek treatment, but with no health insurance and a deeply ingrained distrust for the government, he was hesitant.  He was also worried about me, worried that if the truth came out he would lose me.  
He was right to be scared.  Fear, combined with uncertainty and homophobia, made it a terrifying time.
When he got really sick he entered the hospital and never left.  Every day my mom would visit him.  Because he had an infectious disease, children weren’t allowed to visit.  But one night, with the help of a sympathetic nurse, my mother sneaked me in to see him.  It was late and the halls were empty.  I wore a dress because I knew my dad would like it.  The bug bites on my legs were covered in band-aids, as was a cut on my hand.  He was unconscious, but that night I held his hand and said my goodbyes.
When he died, my father’s family went silent.  There were stories told to the relatives and excuses made.  When I returned to school, I made excuses as well.  No one told me to, but instinctively, I knew. 
I never saw Jimmy after my father’s funeral. His brother and sisters arrived at my dad’s funeral not to show their support, but to tell him that he was being disowned from their family. Desperate to hold on to a piece of their life together and with no legal rights, he loaded up his car with everything from their home that would fit and drove off.  Eventually, he ended up with Nancy and Kay who were with him until he too, died.
I’d thought about Nancy and Kay over the years, but I had no idea how to get in touch with them.  Then they showed up at the opening of a play I wrote and delivered photos and a few small possessions of my dad’s.  As it turned out, they had been following me all these years, keeping track of my work through the newspaper and online.  
I invited them for lunch.  We met halfway between their home and mine.  They arrived with an envelope filled with photographs I had never seen and told me stories I had never heard.  They filled in the holes that were left in memories from 30 years ago, memories that were recorded through the lens of a child.  They told me how my dad was determined to take me to New York before he died and how much he loved me.  He told me about their escapades in New Orleans and how he wasn’t always kind to Jimmy.  They are the only people who knew my dad as a friend.  He died when I was eleven, long before I had a chance to see him as anything more than just a parent.
Nancy and Kay are the unsung heroes of the AIDS crisis.  There are many more women like them, who nursed these young men who were often left all alone.  I am grateful that they were there to provide my dad with friendship and guidance.  
I often wonder who my dad would be today and what our relationship would be like.  My parents quietly lived their lives, blending in.  They went to work every day, paid their bills, drove carpool, and loved their family.  They gave me a good life and taught me to be a good person. They wanted for me what we all want for our children.
When I started to tell this story, it was because I wanted to fill in many of the blanks that were left behind when my father died.  But now I feel like I’m telling this story to put a face to an issue that seems to still divide us.  Maybe if these issues take a human form, if we can feel empathy for those around us and stand in their shoes, then we can start to understand one another.  And in that understanding perhaps we can find compassion.

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