A Diagnosis Is Burden Enough Without Being Burdened By Secrecy And Shame

When I was a poor student, I was fortunate to secure a waitressing job at one of the local hotels. I worked there for a few years whilst I completed my studies and became really good friends with the other staff at the hotel. Although we worked hard, I always enjoyed the good-natured banter and the shared meals at the end of our shifts. I had a particular soft spot for the Head Chef, a loud cockney with a ready twinkle in his eye and a fast one-liner for every occasion. He was a big man in every sense of the word and he’d worked for the hotel company for many years since leaving the army after achieving the rank of sergeant. Unlike many other chefs I worked with, he was an excellent mentor to many of his young trainees and wouldn’t tolerate bullying of any form within his kitchen.

He was a jolly soul and played up to all the new waitresses, pinching bottoms and leering suggestively over the hot plate always in a non-offensive manner. Of course, I knew that he was just play-acting as I was aware that he was gay man but it was never my secret to share and I respected his decision to live his life as he wanted.

Just before the last year of my studies he secured a top job at a prestigious hotel nearer to his family in London and from time to time, he would visit each time looking a great deal thinner than the last. He assured me it was the pressure of the job, and sometime later he moved back to Devon taking a less high-profile role in yet another flagship hotel.

Shortly after he relocated he was involved in a car accident in suspicious circumstances; he had apparently been driving across Dartmoor on his own in the middle of the night when the car had left the road. The police report said that there had been no other vehicle involved and the reason for the accident remained a mystery.

Immediately after his discharge from hospital, his mother and father collected him and he just disappeared from our lives, returning to his family home in London. Initially we had been advised that he had terminal cancer but eventually the real reason for his departure was disclosed and that was that he had contracted AIDS.

I sent him several letters, none of which he ever answered but I like to think that he read them. A few months’ later we heard that he had passed;I can’t begin to imagine the grief which his parents felt having to nurse him through this debilitating disease whilst watching him fade away in front of them. It saddened my heart that he felt unable to share these dark days with those that loved and admired him. Regrettably, we still live in a world full of ignorance and bigotry and I truly hope that our lives never get too busy or too full to be able to hold out a hand to comfort a friend.

So my dearest pal wherever you are, I want you to know that I often think of you and feel comforted to know that there is an extra star in the midnight sky burning as brightly as you did in life.

aids

80 thoughts on “A Diagnosis Is Burden Enough Without Being Burdened By Secrecy And Shame

  1. What a heart breaking story – survives an car accident – to die in HIV! I wonder why he never answered your letters .. could he been ashamed of is illness,??? You will never know, but you have some fantastic memories of a big soulful man – and maybe it was meant to be only that …
    You did your part and I think he loved getting your letters, there something that held him back.
    I think there is a risk – for us being too busy – or scared I think is more likely. I notice during my journey with the cancer that people stayed away, because they didn’t know how to handle it. Fantastic little post, Dallas … my heart got a nice warm feeling from it.

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    • Bless you Wivi, I think when he was in the services he could have been court marshalled for being gay so there was an element of shame there. I’m delighted to say that things have significantly changed in our armed forces these days.

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      • Yes, it’s wonderful that things are changing, no really there in all rights for homosexuals. I have worked with one gay chef too through all my years in the trade – what I know of.
        Not a job that gay men go to – lesbian chef’s I have worked with a couple

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  2. Oh Dallas, how very sad. We have lost so many dear friends this way going back to the 80s. How long ago did this happen? The stigma has receded incredibly over the years but I guess being from an army background, it was never going to be easy.

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      • We can’t go back and apologise to the thousands of people whose lives have been blighted by bigotry but we can do everything we can to prevent it in the future. Legal rights have changed but scratch the surface in some communities and you wouldn’t recognise what decade they’re living in.

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    • You most definitely would, he had a wicked sense of humour but I think that hid his more sensitive side and I particularly remember him mentoring a very withdrawn and shy young chef who had one of the worst stammers I’d ever heard and yet with patience my friend managed to build his confidence

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  3. What a beautiful post honoring a friend. He was lucky to have someone who cared for him so much. I am sorry for your loss and will look up at the brightest star in the Tennessee sky and raise my glass in cheers to you pal tonight. 🙂

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  4. That’s beautiful! I am sure he felt lucky to know that you were thinking of him, even if he never answered. I, too, have a friend who was diagnosed with HIV, and it is shocking to see how many people turn their backs upon him, above all his own family. You would think that things had changed, but they haven’t.

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  5. Nice tribute to a person you admire.
    Things has changed nowadays, but I still get very upset when I hear people associating HIV with being gay.
    That that I can’t donate blood in the US because of my condition (being gay) is beyond me, I have a rare blood type, there could be someone needing it, but because of the ignorance of our system I can’t donate.
    Really nice post Dallas.
    xx

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  6. St Paul’s Hospital, Vancouver, is a leader in HIV/AIDS research. The hospital was founded over 100 years ago by the Sisters of Providence. In the late 1970’s, very little was known about AIDS and there were many questions about treatment etc. I spoke with a Sister about that time. The doctors approached the Sisters and asked how they should handle the cases that came to the hospital, especially since they were uncertain how it was spread. The sisters asked one simple question – Are these people sick? When the doctors said yes, they simply replied. “We accept everyone who is sick.” From that moment on, St. Paul’s became known throughout the world for the research on HIV/AIDS.

    http://www.providencehealthcare.org/hivaids-0

    When one is hurting and sick, all of us suffer. Thank you for your wonderful tribute to your dear friend.

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  7. I think that even though a lot of people are less judgmental about gays and AIDs, it’s still especially hard for ppl like you friend who lived through a time where secrecy was a necessary way of life. That feeling of shame is hard to kill. At least if he read your letters, he knew he had one friend who still cared about him and accepted him.

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  8. Dallas, I am so sorry for the loss of your friend. You wrote a wonderful tribute to him. My little brother died of AIDS in 1988, when he was only 26 years old. Heartbroken, I saw him waste away to nothing in his last days. He admitted to me that he even sought out the disease because of the shame he felt over being gay. That was back in the day when no one would dare talk about this disease, and being gay was simply NOT accepted in society. At least things have changed a lot since then. Thanks for sharing this heartfelt post.

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    • What an absolute tragedy for your family, none of us should have to bury our children or watch our loved ones succumb to some ravaging illness and to have to nurse them through a fatal illness cloaked in shame and misery is positively inhuman

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      • Yes, I know what you mean, Dallas. Luckily my family really rose to the challenge, and all of us were there to support him in his last days. Many long-time friends came to his funeral and expressed their heartfelt sympathy, and this was in southern Virginia, not the most tolerant place at that time.

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  9. Oh D! This is so touching. You really have a magic touch with words even when they’re not quite so funny. I remember working with a bunch of gay folks back in the 50s (before AIDs). They were great dates when I didn’t have one ‘interested’ in me. No hassles, lots of fun and always very chic.

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  10. It must have been an unbearable burden to cause him to withdraw completely but he knew you were there (as you still are) and that will have meant a great deal.

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  11. So sad that someone who enriched the lives of so many others felt unable to be open about his illness and receive the support that would have surely come his way.

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  12. So sad. I may be wrong but attitudes seem to have changed (?). The gays I know today are proud of their sexual orientation. Again I may be wrong, but HIV no longer seems to be the death sentence it once was. I have a dear friend who has survived on a cocktail of drugs for close on 15 years and lives life to the full. South Africans, incidentally, are mostly non judgemental and known world wide amongst the gay fraternity as being ‘pink’ friendly.

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  13. I lost several friends in the early days of the epidemic, many were very secretive of their diagnosis it was such a terrible disease with such baggage attached. Now, a couple of my friends are fighting their diagnosis, still with HIV but living life.

    I am sorry your friend passed alone, without friends. I am sorry his parents had no support during his final days. I am sorry you and likely others couldn’t say good-bye. Sorrowful and painful for all of you.

    Dallas, this was a lovely and loving tribute.

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  14. It is so sad that people who can be otherwise compassionate regarding most illnesses cannot be compassionate about some conditions, such as HIV/AIDS. Regardless of the illness, regardless of its cause, it makes its victims suffer and, by extension, their loved ones and friends. A lovely tribute to your friend, and I’m sure he enjoyed your letters, even though he didn’t have the strength of spirit or body to respond.

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  15. I was saddened by this poignant story Dallas. I hope your friend is finally at peace wherever he is. Your acceptance and your letters would have meant a lot to him in his final days.

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    • I really really hope so Madhu but when I think of him it is as a vital man, laughing and joking in his kitchen amongst the other chefs so I hope he’s up there cooking for Elvis and Freddie Mercury cos I think he’d like that.

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  16. A lovely tribute to a dear friend. Even though he never replied to your letters, I am sure that he treasured them and got comfort from the fact that you cared. 😉

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  17. so sad. a terribly way to die. the stigma in our society of such illnesses cant have helped. please take comfort in knowing hes in a better place and is fully aware of your wonderful tribute. rest assured tinky.
    love O and OM>

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  18. It is good to look back at your friends and remember the good times. Good times will always outweigh the bad. You honored your friend and I know he is pleased. Regards, Sandra

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  19. What a poignant post. One of my friend’s son had AIDS, and passed away at about age 40. She nursed him. It was horrible seeing him fade. He was pretty upbeat until he he went into a coma. So sorry about your friend. Marsha

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    • I can’t imagine having to nurse a loved one through such a debilitating illness and I think it’s an act of true courage and compassion and I am so too sorry that they haven’t found a cure for this harrowing disease – thank you for sharing your story too

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      • It was very hard for her, and she had lost her husband to cancer about a year before that, so she felt terribly alone. She’s never really recovered, and it’s been a long time. I’ve lost track of how long, but probably 10 years. Thanks for caring enough to respond. 🙂

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