Thursday, August 21, 2008

Looking back

Many of us have at least one chapter in our lives so significant, we were forever changed. For me it was the years from 1985 to 1990.

My first boyfriend after my marriage ended was with a handsome and fun friend of my sister's. We met at a barbecue at her house in the early summer of 1985; both twenty-seven at the time. It was an instant attraction, the beginning of a relationship that would last nearly two years. Our romance was everything my marriage wasn't; passionate and stormy. I was completely enamored; attracted to both his playful spirit and intelligence; he introduced me to a world I'd never known. It seemed like we were always doing something fun; picnics on Mt. Tam, sailing, dancing, dinners in the city with his interesting friends. A Berkeley grad, driven to be successful, he worked hard building his business. He seemed to be the perfect blend of ambition and play. Mostly I remember the comfort I felt when I was with him and the enormous patience he had with my children, and me.

Most of the time we spent together was on the weekends when my boys were with their father. What is obvious to me today; was the source of much frustration for me then, as a young mother with responsibilities, his life and mine were desperately out of sync. Week nights I was home with my working single parent routine; pick up the boys from daycare by 6:00, prepare dinner, give baths, read stories and fall asleep myself by 9:30 or 10:00. In spite of the obvious challenges, I was in love and could not envision a life without him; projecting expectations of him and our future that were clearly unrealistic.

We broke up in May 1987. It was almost immediately thereafter I learned from a mutual friend that he had a new girlfriend, a friend of one of his friends. I was told he met her before we had officially broken up. At the time I believed I had lost him because I was desperately flawed; surely she was everything for him I wasn't; prettier, smarter and easier to spend time with. Time has given me a new perspective; she was merely the catalyst for what was inevitable.

I took our break-up hard. I had gone from my parent’s home to marriage at eighteen. He was the first man I dated after my marriage ended. In six short months I had gone from marriage and full time motherhood, to single parent and career girl. I had not yet learned to be alone. Our ending left not only a void in my life; there was an overwhelming void in me. I was growing, not yet grown up. I had been going through the motions of adult life; marriage, children, divorce, though emotionally I was still a girl, completely dependent on what others thought of me to define my self worth.

The key event that added a particularly devastating dimension to that dark spring and summer of 1987 was Andy's diagnosis with Kaposi’s Sarcoma an AIDS related cancer. In March 1987 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved AZT as the first antiretroviral drug to be used as a treatment for AIDS, this drug was not offered to Andy until the spring of 1989; by this time he was too sick to tolerate it. What we knew in 1987 was that there were no drugs on the market that had been proven to be effective in stopping the progression of his cancer, we were told he would likely die within a couple of years; the perception was that anyone with the virus had a certain death sentence.

In the years since his death I have researched the history of AIDS and the drugs used to treat it. I now believe it was the cost of AZT that prevented Andy from receiving it sooner. He had what we perceived to be "good" health insurance at the time, it was with an HMO called Pacific Care. I've since learned that at that time a year’s supply for one person would cost around $7,000; the clinical trials showed that AZT could slow progression to AIDS in HIV positive individuals with no symptoms, As a result of his cancer diagnosis, Andy had full blown AIDS. I'm certain they spent their money where they thought it would do the most good, he never had a chance.

My first HIV test was performed by Alameda County in early 1987. My blood was drawn and I was given a number; that number identified my blood rather than my name, confidentiality was a serious matter; people feared that if they were HIV positive and their status revealed to health insurance carriers, they could lose not only their coverage but their jobs. I was told to return two weeks later and present my number.

Fortunately the results that matched my number were negative. I do not know why I did not tell anyone, not even my boyfriend. At the time I was tested I was unaware of Andy's diagnosis. There was so much we didn't know about the virus back then and so much fear. I recall asking Andy about getting tested, he told me not to worry, he would get tested but I would not have it, I believed him. After his diagnosis my doctor advised me to be tested again and to have the boys tested, even though we were told that you could not be infected by casual contact, at that time no one knew anything for certain. Fortunately, we all were negative. Emotionally this was a time of catastrophic life changes; the perfect storm, the ending of my two year relationship, and the beginning of the slow wasting away of Andy's life.

Two weeks after learning of Andy's AIDS diagnosis, I accepted a promotion with my company and relocated to Southern California with the boys, it was September 1987. I thought that if I could move to a new place and make a fresh start, I would be able to put everything that was painful from the past behind me. Andy supported my decision, though it is one I have regretted often; those last two years of his life, I should have given my children every possible moment with their father. Truth is, I was scared. I wanted to run as far away from his illness as I could.  I wanted to protect my innocent children from the awfulness that is terminal illness. Of course that would ultimately prove to be unavoidable.

In the preceding two years my career continued on an upward swing while my personal life became increasingly more difficult. By the spring of 1989 Andy's condition had worsened to the point that he needed help, we needed to return to the Bay Area and care for him. In May 1989 I found a job with a San Francisco Peninsula territory and rented a house in San Mateo. By late summer, Andy could no longer live alone, with the help of Hospice, he moved into our home. The last weeks of Andy's life were spent in a hospital bed in my bedroom while I slept on the couch. This arrangement was not only necessary, it was the right thing to do. Andy died with me by his side on September 21, 1989.

More than two decades have passed, I've chosen what memories to savor, and those to release. The changes that took place during this time launched the beginning of a new life chapter that would take me to all the places I was destined to go.

After so many years living away, I have returned to live in the Bay Area I love. I am alone and remarkably okay after the ending of a seven year marriage to a man who was often angry, scary and violent. I am, once again, healing. I look forward to the possibilities of all that life may still hold in store.

No comments: