I read recently that dreams always start in the middle. There is no real beginning, there is no chronological sequence; just snapshots of visions in jarring order. I think memories work the same way. A lot of my more important memories seem to be snapshots of the climax in a particular moment, or glimpses filled with detail. I can still remember what it felt like to have two dozen or so sets of eyes glued to my face, intently awaiting my response. I was in 7th grade, sitting in Ms. Wurster’s English class. It was the late 90’s and in very late 90’s fashion we were having a discussion about HIV and awareness, and prevention and such. My classmates, specifically a girl named Shantelle, had expressed a surprisingly laissez-faire attitude about the possibility of contracting HIV. “We all gonna die one day anyway, so what’s the difference?” The rest of the class chimed in by humming and shrugging in agreeance. In retrospect, maybe it shouldn’t have been that surprising. We were all Black kids living in Chicago, during what were some of the city’s more violent years. Death was not something a lot of my classmates were unfamiliar with. Still, I felt my face heat up with a visceral annoyance at Shantell’s comments. I responded by blurting out “You don’t just wake up and die when you have HIV, you suffer, you deteriorate, and your loved ones just have to sit by and watch it happen, that’s what happened to my Godfather.”
Stunned by my uncharacteristically passionate interest in a class discussion, I was then asked a question that prompted a response from me which still haunts me almost two decades later. “Well how did your God-Daddy contract HIV?” Shantell asked me with crossed arms. I wasn’t prepared for that question, but now the rest of the class, even my teacher, turned to stare at me, deafening silence awaited my answer. I sunk down in my chair, and without even meeting her glance, I lied, and said he got it from a blood transfusion. Shantell and the rest of the class nodded at what was deemed an acceptable answer, a truly innocent victim they approved of and saw worthy of mourning. Ms. Wurster soon segued that moment into a discussion about the importance of safe sex and how HIV can happen to anyone, cautioning about assuming it’s just a ‘gay disease.’ We would soon be ushered into the assembly hall to listen to a dynamic speaker, a Black woman; who would reinforce the prominence of HIV infections among people who didn’t fit ‘the bill.’ Heterosexual, married, and ‘not a ho.’ I looked around at my classmates reactions and could tell she was hitting home. They saw themselves in her, and thus accepted her teachings.
All the while however, I was riddled with guilt. My Godfather was gay, and as far as I understood he did contract it sexually. I kept asking myself ‘Why did you lie?” Deep down I knew the answer; I couldn’t handle them judging him. I knew that if I answered honestly, the reaction would be a collective ‘well, that’s what happens when you’re gay’ dismissal and an assertion his death was Godly judgement. Nothing I said before that would matter, I would be tasked with the inhumane job of defending the value and life of a man that my family and I loved dearly. Still, I hated myself for what I considered my cowardice, I felt like I did a huge disservice to my Godfather, by denying a part of who he was, to spare my feelings. It’s very likely I was being too hard on myself, for God’s sake I was in 7th grade, and in no way prepared to combat the long taught homophobia of dozens of my churchgoing peers. My feelings however were still pretty raw; it had only been two or so years since he passed. My Mom says I took it harder than my sister; I was always the surprisingly more sensitive one out of the two of us. I do recall crying a lot, not understanding, and not wanting to understand. It was my first real experience with death of a loved one, and it left an indelible mark on my life.
My memories of my Godfather are a lot more snapshots and random screengrabs of my LA childhood. The smoke rising from the barrel of his curling irons as he rolled them against his thick black mustache, before expertly winding them around sections of freshly pressed hair. His obnoxious laugh, his cat he unceremoniously named ‘Kitty’ that he chased around the house with a spray bottle because he was bad as hell. His wardrobe that consisted of a collection of mainly black classic pieces, and Ray Bans. Spending a lot of our weekends in his LA apartment with my Mom and sister, cackling, eating takeout., trading verbal barbs, watching his favorite Speed Racer VHS tapes. Eavesdropping on him and my Mom’s ‘grown folks discussions’ when he’d lament about the celeb’s he hated while working as a hair stylist (he was NOT a fan of Whitney). Going out in the LA streets to paint the town red, riding around in his beloved Jaguar, belting out En Vogue songs, it was always a mini adventure. Every moment was always full of laughter, and love. Some of the happiest times of my eight year old life. He and my Mom were soulmates I think, they met when they were both kids, no older than 19 on the LA club scene. Raphael was younger. My Mom says when they met, he had dyed a stark white streak in his hair, and lived in black blazers. ‘Always ahead of his time’ she’d say. He left his Louisiana home when he was a teenager, for reasons never explained to me, but aren’t hard to figure out. My mother felt as if she adopted him as a little brother, and loved him like one. He was there for our graduations, birthdays and lazy Sundays. The milestones and the minutia. His name was listed beneath my Dad’s in my Mom’s will, detailing who would care for us in the event of her passing.
We held up in his one bedroom apartment in the hills when the riots started, and LA started burning. I recall being out on the patio with him and my Mom, while they drank wine and cackled at the billowing clouds of smoke rising from the chaotic streets. We had a good view of the anomie, watching years of anger and anguish boil over. LA finally began to consume itself. The riots marked a huge change in my life in more ways than one. Shortly thereafter, with what seemed like sudden urgency at the time, my Mom decided it was time for us to get out the city, and move to Chicago. A change she insisted was desperately needed for herself and us.We left everyone and everything I knew, and soon the only interaction I had with my Godfather were his weekend check in phone calls. My mother would call me to the phone whenever he’d ask for me, and we’d spend several minutes engaging in our traditional game of shit talking and roasting, before she’d shoo me off so they could finish gossipping, cackling, and catching up for hours.
It wasn’t long before the gaps between his calls started to widen. When I did speak to him, I noticed his voice sounded different, weaker, his laughter had grown softer as if it had become laborious. Then one day my Mom nervously announced she’d be spending a few days in LA to spend time with him in the hospital. I don’t remember when she told us he was diagnosed with HIV, I only remember the moment she sat me and my sister down in the living room to tell us he had succumbed to the virus and passed away. I stayed in my bed all night, clutching the teddy bear he gave me before we moved, and desperately tried to recall all the details of our time together. He had two services, one in LA , which my Mom referred to as the vanity service for his fake LA friends and celebrity clients. The other in New Orleans, where she and my sister went to bury him with his family. I stayed behind in Chicago, devastated that my Mother didn’t think I could handle seeing his funeral.
Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, then years passed and as the business of living goes, the world has the audacity to keep turning after a loved one is abducted from our lives. We still talked about Raphael and our memories of him frequently, and years later when I found out I was pregnant, my Mom suggested that I consider including his name in that of my sons. I was unsure of how much I wanted my Mom’s input on my baby’s name, until after the delivery, when I looked over and noticed her falling asleep in the chair next to me. She never left my side really, except to keep her eye on nursing staff to make sure they knew I had someone there to hold them accountable. That hawkish protective nature of hers that I absolutely resented and rebelled against as a child was something I was grateful for at that moment. I was scared and in pain, who wants to be alone when they’re at their most vulnerable? That’s when it hit me, the magnitude of what my Godfather had done years ago. Suddenly my mind recovered a moment when my Mom was sitting on her bed crying after hearing of Raphael’s diagnosis. ‘He waited until we left to tell me, he did it on purpose, he knew I would never have left LA if he did I couldn’t have left him.’ I didn’t understand it then, as a child. However at that moment I recognized it for what it was. Raphael knew that if he told us before, we would have never left. My Mom would have practically lived by his side, agonizing over every detail of treatment, keeping her boot on the neck of every health professional who came in contact with him, tirelessly advocating for every measure possible that might extend his life.
I wondered how scared he was, how many nights he spent in his hospital bed alone, when the visits from what my Mom referred to as his ‘flighty friends’ began to happen less and less? When the disease started to take its toll, and he became gaunt, his mortality more imminent, and people began to avoid him so as not to be overcome with self centered grief. We would have been there, for every moment, a comfort that most people would never deny themselves. Instead he chose to not disclose his status, so my Mom would not have an excuse to stay, and move on to what he felt would be a better life for us. An act of selflessness, and strength, and love that took years for me to understand and appreciate, an act that I knew I would never be capable of doing. I am not that strong. I am not that selfless. I laid in bed with my heart swelling with grief and love, wondering what kind of things he had to endure in his life that imbued him with all the more beautiful parts of humanity, to have a heart like his. A love as unselfish and unconditional as I had ever witnessed. The nurse soon walked in to hand me my son, and I stared at this beautiful, squishy creature that I felt unworthy of having created. I wanted to give him the best of me, to protect him, to love him in the best ways that I knew how. Like my mother loved me, like Raphael loved us. It became clear to me that it was perfect to use Raphael as his middle name, I wanted my son’s name to reflect the love I felt in my life that meant the most to me. It is my hope that when he grows up, he has Raphael’s love of life, his infectious spirit, strength, his love of family, his heart, it is my wish to be fortunate enough to raise such a remarkable person. To raise a man, like him.