My second child was born two days after Father’s Day in 1990. Three weeks later, my husband collapsed, disoriented and feverish, in a restaurant. Soon, he was lying in a hospital bed with full-blown AIDS.
It’s hard for people who weren’t around then to imagine what AIDS used to look like. It was an epidemic that turned young men old; murdered beauty and promise. You knew someone at work who wouldn’t feel well, you wouldn’t see him for a few days, you would never see him again.
AIDS made men ghosts.
Before he got sick, John was an attentive lover to me, a doting dad to our 2-year-old, a gracious son-in-law to my aging parents and a successful journalist. He was home for dinner every night like clockwork. He was someone it was hard to believe could get AIDS.
In the months before our son was born, John had been experiencing a string of nagging illnesses, including intestinal distress and a persistent cough. The many doctors he consulted, because he was “straight,” married and overworked, did not even consider AIDS. They diagnosed stress.
After John’s AIDS diagnosis, I was rushed in for my own test. It remains the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Back then, it could mean a death sentence.
I asked him how he happened to contract a disease largely transmitted through gay sex. He told me he’d slept with men, which, at the time, surprised me. It was the beginning of a world falling apart.
My AIDS test came back negative: The kids and I had been spared. But nine months later, John died, leaving me asking, “What just happened?”
He left me crying out for him in the night. He left me with many painfully unresolved feelings and unanswered questions. John also left me with two small children, and I was determined to raise them free from the stigma of AIDS.
I resolved that I had to keep how he died a secret. No one could know. We never talked about him. I stashed away all his pictures. When the kids were old enough, I shared the truth with them, and emphasized why they couldn’t talk about it — or their father.
I then determined to give us a picture perfect life, in a suburban Connecticut house with a white picket fence, and a really nice man, a former altar boy and Eagle Scout, no less, filling John’s Italian loafers. I worked in children’s publishing and brought home cute books. We had a rescue dog!
Life was good, and I was proud of how I’d restored us.
What I wasn’t proud of, though, was continuing to keep John a secret. I wanted my kids to know about their father, who had once been a great guy — before AIDS. I wanted to Photoshop John into our family picture, undiseased.
For a while I found a way to do this by taking them to New Hampshire every summer, to visit John’s grave in a sunny corner of a maple-shaded family plot. It was hushed, peaceful and green. They’d stand at shy attention at his footstone, their sneakered feet pressed tightly together, their chubby hands offering up tired-looking daisies. Sometimes they’d sing camp songs, and leave behind dream catchers.
Beneath the dignity of his tombstone, desexed, sanitized and dead, John could be a father my kids could really respect. He could even be a husband I could like again.
But by the time they hit middle school, my kids didn’t want to go to New Hampshire anymore. They didn’t seem to want to do anything connected to their late father.
They left for college at about the same time I lost both my job and my elderly parents. My relationship with my boyfriend also flattened; we’d been wonderful caretakers together, now what? I began to feel compelled to thaw those unresolved feelings I’d put on ice in 1990.
No more Photoshop. No more family tableaux. No more sanitizing cemeteries. Just me, John and AIDS.
I read his love letters. I looked at pictures from when we were young, beautiful and smitten. I began to practice saying, “My husband died of AIDS.” I began to write.
And I began to stop caring if my kids ever felt anything at all for their late father they barely knew. I realized you can’t manufacture such things.
Then, in 2009, my daughter graduated from John’s alma mater, Brown University, where the alumni participate in the processional. After the ceremony was over, my daughter surprised me by asking, “Mom, didn’t you think today was sad? I looked at the Class of ’76 and thought, where’s Dad? Why isn’t he here?”
Three years later, after receiving his diploma from Claremont McKenna College, my son said, his eyes glistening, “Mom, you know who I thought about during the whole ceremony? My father.”
Relieving John of his ghostly status after he died of AIDS has been a long and, at times, painful process. Some family members and friends have viewed my talking and writing about John truthfully as a form of “outing.” “Why now, after so long?” they ask. Can’t I just get over it? Mostly heterosexual and married, virtually none had walked in my — or his — shoes. They failed to grasp the weight of John’s closeted lifestyle, and how crippling it was, first for him, and then for me, to keep it closeted.
They failed to grasp how powerful and indelible was the stain of his disease.
This reaction, for me, has been painful, causing me many nights of fitful sleep. Was I doing the right thing, telling John’s truth — now mine?
I now know that telling our story honestly was the right thing to do. To relieve John of ghostly status has been liberating. For so long I’d thought I was just among a handful of women who’d lost their husband to AIDS; but during AIDS Walks, I have marched alongside thousands of women who have lost a husband to this “gay man’s disease.” We have stories we can finally tell.
Recently my kids and I went to a revival of the musical “Falsettos,” which deals with familiar issues: a gay husband and father, a man lost to AIDS, a wife calling into the night.
My children and I went to dinner and talked afterward, about their father, and about how hard it’s been, for so long, to not talk about him, to deny his existence. In telling our story honestly, we have brought John back in three-dimensional, human terms. He happened, we happened, it happened.
On Father’s Day 2017, John is no longer a ghost.
Maggie Kneip is the author of the memoir “Now Everyone Will Know: The Perfect Husband, His Shattering Secret, My Rediscovered Life.”