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A FAMILY SECRET

My brother’s death brought us closer-and farther from the truth.
By W.K. Stratton |

I DROVE UP TO ARLINGTON JUST AS THE GREAT FREEZE OF DE-cember 1989 smacked into Texas. Gray skies, fierce winds, record-low temperatures-looking back, I guess the weather was appropriate for the dismal situation I found in a private hospital in the midst of the vast Dallas/Fort Worth suburban sprawl.

I went to Arlington hoping to clear up some muddled reports my parents had been receiving about my brother’s health. On that cold Friday, I had no idea that I would deal with mystery and deceit for so long. Five weeks would pass before I was sure of the truth.

About two months earlier, my parents had spoken with my brother, Reggie, by telephone. His business in Dallas was not faring well, he told them, and barring a miracle during the Christmas shopping season, he did not see much hope for it. My parents had built a successful business in Oklahoma, and Reggie frequently called them for advice, with Dad talking on one phone. Mom on the other. Reggie also said he had contracted the flu and was having a hard time shaking it. Worried, my parents told him to take care of his own health First and put the business second.

November passed. Every time I talked to Mom, I asked about Reggie, and the answer was always the same: he still wasn’t able to shake the flu and his business still wasn’t doing very well. As for the latter, she told him that he should consider bankruptcy, a suggestion, she said, that angered him, She also said that Reggie planned to come home for Christmas, something he hadn’t done for two years. I suppose I should have given Reggie a call at this point. But his disease, from what I’d heard, didn’t seem that serious. And Reggie and I, due to distance and other matters, were no longer that close.

That was how things stood in mid-December when Mom called me to say, her voice funereal, that Reggie was in the hospital in intensive care. The chances were that he would not survive. His flu had become something like pneumonia, but it wasn’t really pneumonia. The doctors weren’t sure.

“We are just kind of stunned,” she said. “We can’t just go off and leave this business. We have work we have to get out.. .”

I rang off, then called the hospital in Arlington.

I should explain that Reggie, who was thirty-eight, was in fact not my brother but my stepbrother and that the man I call Dad is my stepfather. Mom married Dad when I was two years old. Since I never knew my real father, I grew up thinking of my stepfather as my father and my two stepbrothers, Reggie and Carl, as my brothers, though our last names were different.

The switchboard put me through to an intensive-care unit nurse who confirmed that Reggie was there and that he was in critical but stable condition. I asked what was wrong with him. “I don’t know how much you know about your brother’s condition,” she said, “but he was admitted with pneumonia and several complications, and we’re treating him for that.”

I was going to call my parents back and tell them what I found out. But what the nurse had said caused me to pause: I don’t know how much you know about your brother’s condition.. .What condition was she referring to? I began to speculate for the first time. Not surprisingly, my speculation ran in a single direction: AIDS.

Nothing we discovered at the hospital the next day changed my mind. My brother was so ill that visitors were restricted to family members and limited to ten minutes. Freida, Reggie’s real mother, said that in addition to a lung ailment, he was suffering from yeast and staph infections. I went in to see him and noticed lesions on his face and arms. There were four IVs implanted in his arms and chest. He sweated and his body jolted with each breath sent his way by the respirator to which he was attached. He was thinner than I’d ever seen him-his mother said he weighed no more than 120 pounds (Reggie stood about six-foot-three) and that he had lost some sixteen pounds in the two weeks before he was admitted to the hospital. The hairpiece that his vanity had long required him to wear seemed too big for his head. I patted his arm and found my hand could easily encircle it.

My wife Ceilia and I talked to him during that first visit, but he didn’t answer or open his eyes. Sometimes it seemed as if he were trying to respond by moving his eyebrows or shaking his head. But then his head never really stopped shaking, so I don’t know if he was trying to communicate. When Ceilia and I rejoined Freida in the ICU waiting room, she told us that Reggie was being sedated with morphine and Valium.

After two hours, we were allowed to see Reggie again. This time he opened his eyes and peered at me for several moments. My wife told him that our parents would be down soon, and he seemed to be trying to shake his head no. Later, as we climbed into the frozen car in the parking lot of the hospital, Ceilia looked at me and, shivering, said, “You know Reggie has AIDS.”

I shivered loo. I knew. But I didn’t know. No one had actually mentioned AIDS at the hospital. 1 didn’t know how you go about finding out if someone had AIDS without that person telling you himself, and Reggie, even if he were inclined to tell me, wasn’t able to talk.

That night I called my parents and told them they needed to come down the next day. They were already planning to do that, and 1 also told Mom to let Carl know that if he wanted to see Reggie alive he’d better get to Arlington in the next day or two.

I got off the phone and took Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On from the shelf to use as a sort of reference for AIDS symptoms. Everything I read suggested my speculation was not off-track. I thumbed from the index to the different parts of the book with a growing sense of horror-and. I had to admit, an odd kind of satisfaction at getting some answers to this mystery,

Outside the wind howled.



THREE YEARS EARLIER. I AM WORK-ing for a newspaper in the Indian Country of northern Oklahoma. My job takes me daily to one of three county courthouses, where I copy down court records, both criminal and civil. I frequently encounter a woman who happens to come from my hometown. She was in the same class in school as Reggie, and one day she wants to ask me a question about him. She stammers a moment, then comes to the point.

“Well, back in school-again, 1 don’t know how to put it-but, well, Reggie had the best handwriting of anyone, better than any girl. Do you know what I am getting at?”

I thought I knew, but I couldn’t answer her. Granted, I had my suspicions, built on more than handwriting. Reggie had gone through two unsuccessful marriages. Then he had a series of male roommates; he never talked about girlfriends. He quit his job in air freight to deal in wicker, silk flowers, and arrangements made of dried twigs, leaves, and stems. He also made macramé wallhangings. Granted, male roommates, flower arranging, and macramé do not in themselves mean that a man is homosexual. But they were enough for me, as usual, to jump to the conclusion that he was gay. For want of hard facts, though, I kept that conclusion to myself. Besides, whose business was it other than Reggie’s?

THE NEXT DAY. CEILIA AND I MET my parents at the hospital. We began to get some idea of what Reggie’s last days outside the hospital were like from stories told by Freida. her daughter Joanne, and Reggies roommate, Gary. Reggie had grown progressively weaker during the previous weeks. Finally he had taken to bed. One morning he called Freida and told her he could barely lift his head from the pillow. She went to the apartment and found water running under the front door. Climbing through a window, she discovered that somehow the tank of the toilet had cracked and the whole bottom had fallen off, flooding the apartment. Gary was gone, and Reggie was too weak to get up and deal with the problem. All he could do was listen to water flow as he lay in bed. Freida, panicked, ran outside to beg a Domino’s pizza deliver)1 man for help. Then she got Reggie to her Lincoln and took him to the hospital.

Out of this ordeal, I think the most depressing image is that of my stepbrother lying in his bed, too weak to do anything about the water rushing from the toilet. Though I didn’t witness it-and maybe it wouldn’t be so painful if I had seen it myself-what it must have been like frequently flashes across my mind. My soul sinks every time it does.

In the early afternoon. Dad went in to see Reggie. Then he came back and listened to some of the stories being told in the intensive care waiting room. A sort of grayness descended on his face. He left the waiting room, saying he wanted to find a water fountain. He was gone a long time. Tears welled in Mom’s eyes. Freida and Joanne cried.

Later I was alone with Mom and Dad. They were both angry at Freida and Gary. “I feel like I could have made him go to the hospital earlier if I’d just known how bad he was,” said Dad. “For the life of me, I can’t understand why no one called.”

Mom said, “If anyone could have made him go to the hospital, your dad could have.’” True enough.



I AM THINKING NOW OF A CHRISTMAS afternoon eight or nine years earlier. Reggie and I have been in our home town to celebrate the holiday with our family. At the time I am living in Oklahoma City, and I volunteer to give him a ride to the airport there so he can catch a flight back to Dallas. In the pickup on the way to the city we talk more honestly than we ever have.

Our family has been through some difficult times. Carl left home when he was in high school to live with his mother in Texas. Reggie moved in with his mother at an even younger age. I never have known what prompted them to leave. I had my own problems with Mom and Dad, but I never left. There was no place to which I could run.

I am telling Reggie that, sure, Mom and Dad made their mistakes as parents, but they never intentionally did anything bad to us. Their faults were acts of omission, not commission. They always tried to do what they thought was best. “Yeah.” Reggie begins, “but it always seemed that Dad liked Carl a lot more than he liked me. I just felt that I never measured up…”

Reggie stops. I hope that he will continue. I say a couple of things in an attempt to prod him to do so. I mention the mystery surrounding my flesh-and-blood father. But it doesn’t work. Reggie is silent.

This is the most open discussion we will ever have. And there is hardly anything to it.

Robert Bly, poet and guru of the male mystique, says we late-20th-century American men are emotionally crippled, in terms of our masculinity, because as children we were not exposed to the teaching and nurturing capabilities of our fathers. This gives us a distorted view of what our fathers are all about, as well as what our roles as men should be.

The father-as-teacher was never revealed to Reggie and me. Dad, an automobile mechanic, opened his shop about the time we boys were getting out of bed and closed it not long before we went to sleep at night. When we saw him was usually at the end of a frustrating day of hard labor. He would come into the house nearly always wounded, his knuckles busted open, his head scraped raw by the hood of a car, his arms burned by water from a steaming radiator. He was a big, strong man, covered with grime and grease, smelling of transmission fluid, gasoline, and earth. He spoke loudly, perhaps because he so often had to talk over the roar of an engine. This irascible man was not to be regarded lightly. After warring with the world, he had little patience for the frail egos of adolescents. Straighten up and fly right, was his answer to our problems. If you don’t like the rules here, then get out.

Reggie must have been terrified, even as a grown man, by this father lurking in his psvche. Sometimes I am.

A couple of days passed. Mom and Dad had gone back to Oklahoma. I was working at my house when Mom called to update me on Reggie. There was nothing really new. They had talked to his doctor, a man who wore cowboy boots and seemed to them like a “sure enough straight shooter.” The doctor told them that Reggie had only a 10 percent chance of surviving. He encouraged them to try as hard as they could to think of where he might have picked up his lung ailment. But nothing much had changed, as far as his condition was concerned. Except that now visitors to Reggie’s ICU room had to don masks and gloves before entering.

“It’s to protect Reggie from picking up some other kinds of diseases,” Mom said.

Right, I thought. I screwed up my courage.

“Mom,” I said, “I don’t want to upset anyone, or try to pass judgment or anything-but 1 feel like I’ve got to say this. Have you ever thought this could be AIDS?”

“Well,” she said, “it has crossed my mind. But 1 haven’t said anything to Dad. I don’t know how he would react. And wouldn’t the hospital have said something…”

“I don’t think patient-physician confidentiality would allow it. If Reggie told his doctor not to say anything, I don’t think he could tell us.”

“I’m not sure I’m going to say anything to Dad…”

We left it there.

Meanwhile, Carl had gone to Arlington to check into Reggie’s business affairs. They turned out to be in worse shape than anyone had expected. Reggie had gone too far into debt to ever be able to surface again. Moreover, there was evidence that Reggie planned to stick it to the money lenders; he apparently continued to amass debt even though he knew he could never pay it back. Carl found some forty credit cards in a drawer, each charged to the maximum the line of credit would allow. Through some creative use of minimum payments, Reggie had been able to keep his credit good enough to acquire new cards. He needed them. They were his source of cash.

Dad and I talked a few days later at length about what Carl had discovered. “I just can’t believe Reggie would do something like this. You boys weren’t brought up that way. Don’t get me wrong. I hope the boy makes it. But 1 don’t think I can ever forgive him for all of this. I’ll never be able to trust him.” Straighten up, fly right,

I remember thinking that a man on a short route to the grave wouldn’t care much about credit or being trusted. But I didn’t say anything to Dad.

Carl and I didn’t get a chance to talk again until I went to Oklahoma for Christmas. The mood around the house was gloomy, as one might expect. After a rather awkward gift exchange, I walked outside with him. We talked about business matters, and he confirmed something we had heard from a couple of Reggie’s coworkers: Reggie’s health insurance had been canceled because of non-payment on the premium. The hospital had discovered this and was anxious to be rid of him. The plan was to move him to a public hospital in Fort Worth as soon as his health would allow it.

Then Carl and I talked about his conversation with the doctor. He had asked the doctor directly whether Reggie had AIDS. The doctor had told him no. Gary, who was standing right beside him, said nothing.

“I guess we won’t know the truth until we see the death certificate,” I said.

“No, we won’t. But we better hope to God it’s something else, because I don’t think the old man could take finding out that Reggie was gay and died of AIDS.”

My wife and I stopped in Arlington to see Reggie on the way back home from Oklahoma. He never came around while we were there. This time, there was one thing new. We wore masks and gloves when we entered his room, just as we expected we would have to do, but we were also (old we’d have to scrub up before we left. I was more certain than ever that he had AIDS, no matter what the doctor had told Carl. The masks, gloves, and scrubbing were to protect us as well as him.

And then, over the next ten days, everything changed. The doctors had performed a tracheotomy to make it easier for Reggie to breathe, and that, by all accounts, helped him to improve greatly. Soon he was off the respirator-my wife had read somewhere that once an AIDS patient goes on the respirator, he never gets off of it; this meant he didn’t have AIDS, right?-and was eating soft foods. I felt guilty about jumping to conclusions.

Soon he was moved to the hospital in Fort ’ Worth, where the astonishing recovery continued. My parents drove down to see him and reported that he was able to walk to his bathroom with the aid of a walker. Amazing, I thought, just amazing, for I was sure I had seen death in his doe-like eyes just two weeks earlier. Once more I felt certain that my worst fears had been unfounded.

Four days later. Mom called again, this time to say Reggie was dead.



GARY HAD SAID THAT GRAY WAS REG-ie’s favorite color, so my parents and Carl picked out a gray coffin at the funeral home in Oklahoma. The lid was propped open when I arrived the next day with Mom and Dad to view the body. “One thing I forgot to tell you.” Mom whispered back to me. “You’re not to touch Reggie. Something about the makeup they had to use.” After a moment I stole away to the office of the funeral home director, an old friend. I asked if I could see the death certificate.

“It’s probably what you’re thinking,” he said. He opened a file folder on his desk and removed a form. There were several lines on the form for listing a cause of death, far more than were necessary for the seven letters typed there: (HIV): AIDS. So now I knew.

We talked for a while about the stringent precautions that undertakers have to take with AIDS victims. I told him I appreciated the job he was doing; my parents thought he had gone well out of his way in their behalf. Then Dad entered the office and we hushed up. He wanted to thank the undertaker for the job he had done on the body.

“It’s not good,” the funeral home director protested. “I don’t like it, but there was just nothing we could do.”

Leaving Dad in the office, I went to take a last look at Reggie. Not much was left. The forehead seemed to be its normal size, but the rest of his head was hideously shrunken. The face looked as if it might have been dipped in an off-white wax. He wore a suit but the body was much too small to fill it out. Over his stomach, two yellow and brown claws were clasped where his hands should have been. On a stand next to the coffin was a picture of Reggie at the peak of health, smiling, his face filled out, his moustache well trimmed, his hairpiece fitting his head. There was only the vaguest resemblance between what was in the coffin and what was shown in the picture.

I could think only of the photos I’d seen of the dead at Dachau and Auschwitz. Reggie looked like a victim of a Nazi death camp, one who starved to death before the Germans could give him (he gas. I was grateful death had come to put him out of his misery.

Gary came to my parents’ house that evening. After a while, he started talking about Reggie’s last days. The doctors detected a pocket of water around Reggie’s heart and gave him a medication to get rid of it. Reggie had a bad reaction. In addition, he began to bleed from his nose and mouth. Attempts to stop the bleeding were unsuccessful. Tests showed that his blood platelet count was too low to allow for clotting. Also, the skin of his face had begun to disintegrate. After three days of this, a doctor told him decision time was at hand: did he want to keep on fighting or did he just want to be made comfortable until the end arrived? Reggie said he wanted to sleep for a while, then make a decision. About an hour later, the doctors, alarmed at his continued bleeding, prepared a probe to determine the cause of bleeding. As soon as the probe was inserted, Reggie went into cardiac arrest. A hospital medical team went through standard code blue procedures, but Reggie did not respond. He was pronounced dead at about ten past four on Thursday morning.



IFOLLOWED MY MOTHER TO A BACK room in the house, where she was preparing a hide-a-bed for Gary to sleep on. I helped her fold it out and put on sheets. “Mom,” I said, “Reggie died of AIDS. I looked at the death certificate at the funeral home.”

She continued to spread sheets. “I thought it was going to be something like that,” she said. “1 don’t know what I’m going to say to Dad.”

I couldn’t offer any suggestions. 1 went to the living room and saw Dad rocking in his chair, staring off at nothing, or maybe everything. He looked old and sapped of his vitality. I figured that he was thinking about when his two boys were little, when he and Freida were living in a small trailer house while he roughnecked and drove trucks for Halliburton in the oil fields of West Texas. I felt pretty sure that he knew Reggie had died of AIDS, and he was probably trying to come to grips with Reggie’s homosexuality, a way of living that had to seem as foreign to him as life in distant galaxies. Maybe he was thinking back, trying to pinpoint what he had done wrong that caused his son to grow up “queer,” Throughout the weekend of Reggie’s funeral, Dad sent out one overpowering signal: he blamed himself.



GARY SAT ON THE FLOOR NKXT TO THE television while members of my family moved from room to room, getting ready to sleep. I squatted down next to him. “Who all knows how Reggie died?” I said. Gary was taken aback for a moment, then started to give me what I’ve come to think of as the family’s “standard lie”-that he had contracted pneumonia and died of a heart attack. “No.” I stopped him. “I know what he really died of.”

Gary seemed relieved. He told me that Freida and Joanne knew, and probably Carl. He asked if my parents knew the truth.

“Mom does. I don’t know about Dad.”

“That was Reggie’s greatest fear in life, that his father would find out he was gay,11 Gary said. “He thought your mom could handle it pretty well. But not your dad. He told me that your dad could never find out.”

About a year earlier. Gary told me. he and Reggie had decided to take out life insurance policies on each other to protect their business investments. In order to get the policies, they had to take physicals, including blood tests. Gary took his physical first: he was devastated to learn he had tested HIV positive-and, of course, the insurance company turned down his request for a policy. Reggie went next, and he, loo. tested HIV positive. But Reggie was “real into denial,” Gary told me. Even after several subsequent tests came back positive, he still wouldn’t admit he had the disease. He even insisted that Gary fly home to Georgia to tell his parents.

But not Reggie. When he first went to the emergency room, when he checked into the hospital, and up until a week or so before he died, Reggie denied the disease. Only at the end did he give in to the truth.

“It was the day Joanne was coming to get his power of attorney to take care of some business matters,” Gary said. “Always before, I would put Reggie’s hairpiece on first thing in the morning, before anyone else could see him. This time he said he didn’t want to wear it anymore, and I knew he was admitting he had AIDS.”

Tears trickled down Gary’s cheeks, but we talked on and on, deep into the night. He told me about how he and Reggie met, at a gay bar in Dallas (“I was first attracted to him by his laugh. I heard it clear across the room and I knew he was someone 1 wanted to meet”). A few days later, Reggie called Gary and offered him a job with an apartment painting business he had going. Shortly after that, Reggie and Gary started to go out.

Gary smiled, remembering. There hadn’t been many pleasant evenings at home during the past year. “But he told me,” said Gary, “near the end, not to worry, that as soon as he got out of the hospital, we would get jobs driving cabs or something and spend more time together. But he never…” Gary didn’t go on.

At two o’clock in the morning, Gary and I embraced and went to our respective beds. I was tired and my wife’s body was warm and soft next to me, but sleep did not come easily. I could not help but think there was something tragic about the void that existed between Reggie and the rest of his family because of his sexuality. I don’t understand homosexuality; I have no urges in that direction myself. But I don’t condemn any acts that consenting adults might do together in bed, Reggie’s homosexuality would not have made any difference to me; I was truly sorry he did not feel comfortable telling me. We had shared some secrets, but 1 suppose he thought a semi-cowboy type like me could never understand his sexual preference.

And Gary, poor Gary. I could not imagine how bad living must be for him. It was bad enough for him to have lost someone he loved, and lost him in this most horrid way. But he had to do so knowing the same fate awaited him.



THE DAY BREAKS GOLDEN OVER THE winter prairie. I have showered and shaved and put on a suit. An hour before the funeral is set to begin, relatives start to arrive. I greet aunts, uncles, and cousins I have not seen in more than ten years. There are handshakes and embraces.

At 9:30, the family car arrives to lake my parents, Gary, Ceilia, and I to the chapel; Carl, who has his own way of grieving, chooses to avoid the family until we all meet at the service. (Later 1 smell booze on his breath.) Inside, Gary sits next to my wife in the first row of chairs in the family section. Beyond the gauze curtains is the gray casket and a large display of flowers. I watch as the chapel fills, amazed at the number of people who turn up; it has, after all, been a long time since Reggie lived in Oklahoma, even longer since he lived in this little agricultural town. A favorite grand-uncle of Dad’s has made it, despite his blindness and bad heart.

A Campbellite preacher who never met Reggie leads the service. We repeat the 23rd

Psalm and listen to a soloist sing “How Great Thou Art.” Then the preacher eulogizes Reggie as a creative person, one who saw beauty in places where other people don’t. (Afterwards, family members will say that it was a beautiful eulogy, but I couldn’t help but think that, with just a few changes in emphasis, the same words could have been used by, say, the old cast of “Saturday Night Live” to satirize every fag stereotype on the books.)

At the cemetery I join Carl, Gary, Joanne’s husband, and two of Reggie’s favorite cousins as pallbearers. We carry the casket to the gravesite, then huddle with the family as a chill wind, suddenly aroused, whips down from the north.

We return to my folks’ house, which quickly fills with people, and I listen as the standard lie is spread. Later I walk up to my grandmother’s house and share coffee with her. She says, “’Did Reggie have something wrong with him that caused him to get sick like that?”

“Yes,” I say. I’m not going to lie.

“Was it something bad that the family could catch from just being around him?”

“It was bad, but it was not something we could catch from just being around him.”

“That’s just what I want to know.”

When we leave that night for home, 1 tell Mom (hat I pretty well know the story about Reggie. If she or Dad ever wanted to know it, I would be glad to tell them. She says she probably will want to know someday.



IJUST LOOK AT IT AS A PRIVATE THING,” my mother is saying on the telephone a couple of days later. She has called to ask a few questions about the story. 1 am handling it as I would a child’s questions about sex. I answer only her questions; when she wants to know more she will ask.

This matter of privacy bothers me somewhat. I don’t agree it is best. But my family considers Reggie’s death as a potentially embarrassing thing. So the names of Reggie, Gary, Carl, Freida, and Joanne are all invented. I’ve also obfuscated some other identities in relating the death of Reggie. That’s how they would want it.

So the names are not real, but the people and the numbers are. Through August 1989, 113,211 Americans tested HIV positive; 67,382 died. In Texas, 7,296 AIDS cases were diagnosed, with 4,496 deaths. That 7.296 included my brother and Gary.

I, on the other hand, think it is important for those of us who have been affected by AIDS to tell our stories. That’s why I’ve taken to my typewriter. I come from a family of laborers and farmers in the middle of America, a family with conservative American values, Work hard, clean your dirty laundry in private, drink your whiskey straight, keep your upper lip stiff. If AIDS can strike my family, it can strike any family. People should know what it is like.