Unmasked: The Day I Visited Dad in the AIDS Ward
artwork by Jenny Laden 2018
In the hospital lobby they looked at me funny when I told them I was visiting the 3rd floor.
I took off my headphones, turned off the Pixies on my CD player, wrapped the cord around it and shoved it into my backpack.
In the hallway, the tv’s were showing interviews with Magic Johnson, who’d just told the world he was HIV positive, and Anita Hill, who’d just told a bunch of politicians about how shitty her male boss was and instead of dismissing him, they put him on the Supreme Court.
This was my first, “I’m visiting my super sick parent in the hospital regardless of the fact that I’m only a teenager” hospital visit.
They don’t have special passes for visitors like me. Nobody seemed to notice I’m not even voting age.
“I’m here to see my dad, Richard Laden, Room 323.” I said.
The woman there didn’t look at me, but acknowledged I was there with a quiet “mmhmm,” and handed me something blue.
Like the ones you wear when you’re doing chemistry experiments. Or sanding a canvas. Made of soft paper and wire and an elastic band.
“Put this on. Down the hall to the right.”
I thought, he must be really sick if they think he might infect me.
I put it on. At least it covered up that hospital smell.
I knocked on the door and heard voices. No one responded to my knock. I slowly opened the door.
Dad was sitting up on the bed and a man stood beside him wearing scrubs, his hand on my Dad’s shoulder. He wore a mask like the one I have. “Stay back by the door, Dear,” he said softly.
I wondered if he was the doctor? His voice was too kind to be a doctor, I thought.
From the doorway, I could see Dad had his feet on the floor and was sitting on the edge of the bed. There were wires between his arms and some poles. Dad was leaning over looking down at the floor. On the floor was a puddle, a color like the worst kind of neutral shade — reddish and greenish brown.
On the sheets I saw drops of red splatter coming from his arm. I suddenly put together what had happened just before I opened the door: He’d thrown up and pulled out his IV, and now he was just sitting there, staring at the quiet mayhem. Humpty dumpty all broken. And the scrubs guy was trying to put it all back together again.
Dad didn’t see me.
Blood with HIV.
Right there on the bed, and the floor. What all the fuss is about. It was all over the place. I’d never seen a doctor clean up after a patient. Not even on tv. Was he a nurse?
My dad coughed again.
Then the scrubs guy asked me to wait in the hall a minute so he could finish cleaning up.
Yeah, definitely a nurse.
I walked out the door. My face was hot under the mask. All I smelled was my own breath and the mask smell. Like chalk and window cleaner.
I stood outside the room, feeling like that wasn’t really a place to hang out. A hospital hallway is a strange composition of airport gate and after-school dismissal. Simultaneously calm and frantic. The people working there all seemed unhappy, bored and tired. They all looked like they could really use some fresh air.
It had been 5 years since Dad told me he was gay. Since he’d come out of the closet at the age of 43, and left our house and started a new life.
It had only been a month since I found out he was HIV positive. He’d told me he was ok. He’d told me he had tons of T-Cells. He’d told me it was 1991 and things were getting better. Science was advancing, he’d said. A whole, long month ago.
I thought by the time my parents got sick I’d be a grown up. I thought my mom and brother would be here, and somehow there would be lots of food.
There was always a lot of food when my grandparents got sick and died, Jews love a cold cut spread at a shiva.
But my mom was out of this picture now. There was too much upset between her and Dad drove a wedge so big between them that she moved to France. And my brother Tony was wrapped up in his college life, and all Dad’s friends had gone to a funeral for the weekend and somehow I was left to show up here alone. Here. Where it wasn’t ok and you had to wear a mask.
No one from school even knew. I didn’t even talk about my Dad being gay at school, much less this. I couldn’t imagine the excruciating glances. Only my best friend Amy knew, and she’d never tell anyone.
The nurse finally brought me back into the room. Everything was cleaned up, and Dad was tucked back into bed, still looking down.
“Hi Dad.” I said quietly, not wanting to startle him.
He didn’t respond.
I said, “Dad, it’s me, Jenny. How are you?”
He slowly looked up at me, like an old turtle. Slow. Dry. Confused. Then something flashed across his face like anger mixed with confusion.
“Jenny. What are you doing here?”
I just stared at him.
Then he looked around the room, realizing everything all at once, like waking up suddenly. . .
“Oh god, I’m so sorry.” he said.
He was embarrassed. More like a child than I’d ever seen him.
And old man turtle child. Lost and worried.
I leaned over and kissed his cheek through the mask.
How scary it must be for everyone to be wearing masks. I looked into his eyes and tried to smile enough for him to see. To see he shouldn’t be sorry.
“Hey Dad, what’s shakin?”
He smiled the smallest smile.
“Oh you know, so great. You?”
“Just fabulous. . . “
He started to cry.
The guy in the scrubs got a tissue and stood next to me. He turned and looked at me, somehow validating the entire mess of feelings I was having.
“Now, who’s this, Richard?” the scrubs guy said with this air of someone who wants to be introduced to a new guest at a family picnic. Familiar and sweet.
My dad was drinking water. He whispered in between sips, “That’s my little bunny. Jenny. Isn’t she gorgeous?”
Dad wasn’t wearing a mask. Maybe it came off? He was the sick one.
“Nice to meet you, gorgeous bunny,” said the scrubs guy, his eyes smiling above his mask. We didn’t shake hands, but I knew why.
“Richard, honey, do you want to close your eyes a minute while this gorgeous daughter of yours and I go find you some more ice chips?”
“OK,” said my Dad, already lying back into the bed, shutting his eyes and relaxing.
The scrubs guy got up and motioned for me to come stand near the door.
“He’d had stomach pains.” he explained to me, “When he arrived to the hospital, he was having trouble breathing. His doctor ordered tests for what might be going on. Could have been anything… but he tested positive for Pneumonia. So now they’re giving him antibiotics.”
“And the vomit?” I asked
“Probably a reaction to the meds and his other meds – AZT. They’re hell on the stomach, and together they’re a hurricane for the stomach.”
I didn’t know he was on AZT. I didn’t really even know what AZT was. I needed a notebook. I needed to start a list of things to look up.
“And the IV in his arm?”
“He was dehydrated, due to the vomiting.”
“He seems confused? Is that, like a thing too?”
“Well,,. they gave him a mild sedative last night, when he arrived because he seemed to be having a panic attack. But also, there may be early signs of some dementia starting. Time will tell.”
“Is that a thing too? Like, does everyone….Is this like, what. . . “
I knew AIDS was bad, but more like the way you imagine the monster under the bed to be bad, but you never actually have to see it. I thought, so dumb of me, that maybe I’d never have to see it. My Dad had said so many times, ‘you never know…I could live to be 100.’
He put his hand on my shoulder. “Go show him your gorgeous eyes, talk to him with your warm voice, and make him smile like you just did. I know it’s cliche, honey, but love is much more effective than antibiotics.“
“Um, can I ask you one more thing?”
“Sure thing… what?”
“Doesn’t he need a mask? I mean, Isn’t he the sick one?”
He took in a deep breath and nodded, “You know how his immune system is compromised?”
“From the HIV”
“Right. His immune system is weak, like tissue paper instead of a steel wall, so we need to make sure we don’t give him anything more to deal with. He’s got enough going on right now.”
The mask was so that he didn’t get sick from us.
It must be so scary for him to just see masks, to be all alone.
I looked over at Dad. He was asleep, his mouth open. Breathing up and down.
“OK.” I said.
He was the sick one, but we were the ones who could make it worse.
“One day at a time, honey, yes?”
I asked him where the payphone was.
“Wait,” I said before I left. “What’s your name?”
“I’m nurse Justin, honey” he replied. I could tell by how the mask on his face moved he was smiling. Big.
Thank God for Justin.
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