Dear Larry Davies, I am thrilled and honored to be the winner of your writing contest. This is such a pleasure to receive your call. I have certainly become more spiritual through this volunteering. I hope if I ever need someone to be with me in an illness that they will be there for me, too. Again, thank you so much for the award.
Teresa Spies Dempewolf
Almost fourteen years ago at the height of the AIDS infection and as a newcomer to Modesto, Ca. I began volunteering as an emotional support person with the San Joaquin AIDS project.
I had four years training with death and dying at Sutter Memorial in Sacramento, Ca. and also was a Hospice volunteer in Stockton for a short time.
I worked in our parish visiting very ill parishioners to give comfort, and in my neighborhood. Down our alley was a down and out retirement home and I would visit them. Some I brought to my home, and others I just went to their funerals. I felt comfortable in these roles.
My parents didn’t say too much when I talked to them on the phone about what I was doing.. They just listened, as this AIDS talk was so very new and sad, yet beyond their social understanding. They heard the words death and dying, and knew I was involved. The possibilities of knowing an infected person was not in their realm. I got most of my negative comments from neighbors, a few social friends and one of my four sons.
“Mom, don’t just gays get AIDS? Can’t you find something else to volunteer with besides this stuff? I’m not at all comfortable having you do this?”
(Fictitious name) “Jerry, it’s nice we can talk about this together. What’s the bottom line here for you. What makes you fearful? Is it for you or me I hear the anger in your voice?”
“Some of each, I guess. I don’t like gays. It’s unnatural Mom.”
“Hey, wait a minute. We’re talking AIDS here, not gays. All kinds of lifestyles are involved. It’s a disease we all have to be careful about.”
“Not me. I only date girls like me.”
“Jerry, you’re smarter than that. Looks tell you nothing most of the time. Who that person had sex with before you doesn’t show. If you’re sexually active and don’t use condoms, you could eventually set yourself up for AIDS. Plus, any alcohol or recreational drugs makes you a target as you’re more apt to make bad choices.”
“Mom, you know it’s a gay disease, don’t give me that.”
“I agree it’s more prevalent among them, but they say it’s not going away.”
“I hate the word AIDS. I wish you’d get out of it. I hope you don’t have any of them in your home.”
This conversation was thirteen and a half years ago. Jerry, my son, is proud that I’m still volunteering, but still is not happy talking about it, and asked me to be sure I don’t have anyone over who has AIDS while I have his son, my grandson in the house.
I said I don’t agree, but asked him to call before he stopped by, and if someone is here, I’d tell him to come another time. I will not let him tell me what can happen in my home, but on the other hand, life is about compromise, and I will certainly listen while I have his son. He still has many fears.
I have learned so much during these years. I have seen seven of my “matches” die. Matches are someone whom you have close contact with; someone you visit, call, and see in the hospital. Matches are those who have AIDS and need someone to listen to them. Two more matches moved away, but one has since died. My tenth match I have now has been in my life for seven years.
I learned to be more understanding of different ways to live and love. I have met and made friends with many who choose a different way to live than I. I have met and seen the heartfelt sadness of parents and family members whose child has died.
I have learned how lucky I am to be in good health, and have much I can lose if I get ill. I honestly can say I’ve met a lot of very good people.
A conversation visiting a very ill young man with AIDS
“Hi Johnny, how was your night?” I took his hand in mine, and covered it with my other hand. He felt hot. His hand was sweaty. I could see the thin blue line of his veins as they lay close to his skin. He had lost a lot of weight since I first met him at thirty-one years of age.
“Not good. Twice I had to get up and change the sheets. Those damn night sweats.” I saw the sheets that he had flung into the dark corner. Zebra print, which made me smile. The others were whitish gray, not sleek looking next to the other sheets.
“Can I get you some ice water?” he shook his head, but I got up and went to the linen cupboard. I got a dark blue wash rag and walked to the sink. I ran the water till it felt good and cold, then I wet the cloth. I wrung it hard so the clear water drops would not drip on the hardwood floors.
“Here, Johnny. Let me use this cool cloth on your forehead. You’re really hot. How long has this been going on? Have you talked to your doctor?” I gently ran the cloth over his head and eyes too. I lifted the water glass with the bent yellow straw to his parched dry lips. He drank deeply with his eyes closed. I placed it back on the messy night table. Pills of all colors and sizes were sitting there beside his little black radio. He was quiet and so was I.
“I’m afraid to die, Teresa. What will my mom do? It will break her heart.”
“She loves you a lot. You’ve been a good son to her.” The tick tock of a clock can be heard from the small apartment. “What do you think death will be like?”
“I’m afraid it will hurt.”
“You mean pain wise?”
“No, not really… I mean emotionally. Will I fight leaving consciousness?”
“Remember last week when you asked me what happened when a person dies, and I told you the body closed down usually into a coma?” He shook his head. He forgot most everything after a couple hours. He sleeps a lot and if he eats he usually can’t keep it down.
“A coma is like you’re sleeping. It’s easy and comfortable I hear. I’ll be with you, Johnny. I’ll be sitting by your side, talking to you. Your mom and sister Marie will be here too.”
“Will you help mom for me?”
“Of course I will.”
“Will you visit her and come to the funeral and hold her hand?”
“I’ll do all of that. Anything you want me to do you just ask.” Johnny closed his eyes. I bent down and kissed his forehead.
“I’ll touch bases tomorrow, and I’ll lock the door behind me,” but he’s out of it again. I head home across town with tears in my eyes. He’s so young to be dying.
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