"I looked in her cat. I didn't see nothing, so I thought it was all right."
Do you understand this statement? Did you understand it immediately? I understand it now, but I was slow; I needed a few minutes to understand it. The speaker is a grieving 73-year-old mother who told me this is what her 41-year-old son told her. She believes God will not let her son die of AIDS.
Hands and arms in a most unnatural position and body covered with sores, the man lies in a nursing home bed unable to turn over without aid. Sometimes he spits his food out because he can't swallow. I watched his mother attempt to feed him Neapolitan ice cream and lemon cookies he had requested. Much of the food landed on his pajamas and the linen. He recognizes family and friends, talks to them but not always coherently. He is prone to repeat what any one says to him. He greets every guest with a loud, "Hug me!"
Maybe you now know what his sentences means. When he finally admitted to his mother that he had AIDS, he told her the words, which begin this piece. "Cat" is another word for "vagina." The "nothing" he did not see was AIDS. Several people had told him this woman had AIDS, but because he saw "nothing" when he looked in her "cat," he thought having sex with her was all right.
The magnitude of his ignorance dwarfs my ignorance of not immediately understanding what he meant. Anyone who believes he or she can determine whether a person is AIDS-free by looking at a vagina or a penis is deadly ignorant.
Though 37, this young man had never had sex. His brothers and friends often teased him. So he decided to remedy the situation. Doctors say he contracted the disease in 2002. For a long time, I'm told, he said he had a cold. He told a few people he had tuberculosis. His sister thinks he knew he had AIDS but did not want to tell anyone.
About three months ago he was hospitalized, and his family learned he had AIDS. The disease is in its fourth stage. The hospital recently sent him to the nursing home.
There's more. Health authorities want the name of the woman whom they believe has the disease. He won't reveal her name. He does not want to get her in trouble. He admits he had sex with one other woman. Nobody can make him divulge this information.
What I know about this situation distresses me terribly. I am writing at 4 a. m. because I cannot get this man, his family, and his predicament off my mind. With the information available, no one should be contacting AIDS. Statistics, however, say otherwise. AIDS knows neither age group nor ethnicity. AIDS cares not how long nor how often one has abstained. The multiplicity of partners may increase the possibility of contracting the disease, but contact with one infected individual is sufficient.
Public and private hospitals all over the country contain alarming numbers of AIDS patients because AIDS facilities are not large enough. Many of these patients are teen-agers.
Everything that makes me proud of Black history and American history reminds me that our ancestors endured too much for any of us to value our lives so cheaply. Sold and stolen from home, brought to a foreign land, forced to work with the only "compensation" being inadequate room and insufficient board. Malnourished and mistreated, punished and killed at the whim of one or many, our ancestors endured.
How can we disregard so much? Regardless of today's obstacles, many of us have opportunities that never entered the thoughts or dreams of our ancestors. A one-night stand or a stand every night is not worth destroying our lives, and the lives of those who love us.
I'll probably always conclude that the cost of this man's ignorance is extremely high to himself, his family, his friends, the community, and our society. I hope that he is the only person who knows so little, but I would never bet this is the case.
All I can do is encourage you to learn about AIDS, help spread the word about the disease, and get tested. If you do not have access to a computer at home, go to the library and look it up. If you know someone - any age - who is sexually active, discuss the subject with them.
A week ago I would never have guessed such a situation as this exists. In a culture when so many can bare so much there ought be no one whose life ends so carelessly because he had so little information or misinformation.
On March 13, the mother's grief became overwhelmingly complete when AIDS took her son's life.
SERIOUS FOOD FOR SOBERING THOUGHT
Race or Ethnicity - Estimated # of AIDS Cases in 2005 - Cumulative Estimated # of AIDS Cases, Through 2005*
White, not Hispanic 12,689 386,552
Black, not Hispanic 22,030 399,637
Hispanic 8,432 156,026
Asian/Pacific Islander 549 7,739
Am. Indian/Alaska Native 196 3,251
*Includes persons with a diagnosis of AIDS from the beginning of the epidemic through 2005.
Figures courtesy of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
South End writer Georgia McDade may be reached at email@example.com or BHN&SDJ, 4000 Aurora Ave. N. Suite 100, Seattle, WA 98103.