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A Sad Silence
D.G.
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There was a secret in my family that went on for years. Well, it wasn't a secret to everyone, only to me. One day, on a drive home with my dad, he told me, "Your Aunt Sheila is sick."

Aunt Sheila was my father's sister, my Titi. We were close and spoke on the phone about every two weeks. I thought it was strange that she didn't tell me herself that she was sick.

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"Sick?" I asked curiously. "With the flu?"

"No, she has AIDS," he said blankly, staring at the scenery outside. He said it as if it were no big deal, as if it wouldn't affect me.

Had No Idea What AIDS Is

Being only 8 or 9, I didn't understand what AIDS is. I had no idea it's a deadly disease.

I just nodded, thinking nothing of it. My father didn't make a big deal of it, and they were close, so I figured it wasn't a big deal and felt no need to continue the conversation. I had no idea how devastated I'd feel later on.

My mother, who I was closer to, talked to me more about it later that night. Titi Sheila had wanted to keep her illness a secret from me so that she could find a way to tell me herself. Mom said she caught the disease from someone she loved and trusted-her fiancé.

I didn't understand what she meant when she said Titi got the disease from her partner, but I didn't ask any questions since Mom said I wasn't supposed to know. Maybe Mom didn't want to tell me much so that the news would still be somewhat fresh when Titi told me.

But Titi didn't bring it up.

I saw her a few times after my talk with my parents during her yearly visits to the city from Montreal, Canada, where she lived. She looked as I always remembered her: healthy.

She had meat on her bones and looked vivacious and gorgeous in clothes she made herself. She was a fashion designer, and was often decked out with embroidered scarves, makeup and gold jewelry.

I always looked forward to her visits and our trips shopping in the Village, where she'd buy scarves and purses. She was free-spirited, fun, fashionable and loving, which is what I remember most about her.

Learned More At School

I didn't know how to bring up Titi's illness when I was with her, so I didn't. But I began to better understand what she had when I learned about AIDS in 6th and 7th grades.

I soon realized that AIDS was a condition that developed from being infected with HIV, a virus you get through unprotected sex or sharing needles. Because of the AIDS virus, her immune system had shut down.

Because her immune system wasn't working, it was harder, if not impossible, for her to fight off other viruses, such as a cold or the flu. Catching those viruses could lead to bigger illnesses as well.

Cried in Class

It was frightening learning about a disease that hit so close to home while my classmates seemed like they couldn't care less about the topic.

I couldn't keep my emotions bottled up. I often cried in class. One of my best friends at the time, Jackie, would console me. I'd told her about Titi Sheila's condition. I trusted her and needed someone to talk to about how I was feeling.

It was nice to have a shoulder to cry on and a friend to talk to who knew just as much about the disease as I did. But I didn't talk to Mom about it. After learning about AIDS, and hearing comments all day on the subject, I didn't want to go home and discuss it any further.

I Wanted to Know How She Felt

Still, I feel horrible about never hearing the words come straight from Titi Sheila's mouth about her condition. I think I would've understood her illness more if we'd discussed it. I wanted her to tell me how she felt. I hate not knowing how she felt then, and I hate knowing that she'll never be able to tell me.

She probably wasn't comfortable discussing it with me, even though when we talked, I told her whatever was on my mind. I wish she'd done the same. At times, I felt like she didn't trust me, or thought I couldn't handle her condition.

Maybe I never gave her the opportunity to talk to me about her illness since I was often so busy talking about a celebrity crush I had or something that happened in school. But I figured that if she didn't want to tell me about her illness, I shouldn't ask.

image by Gary Smith

Stick Thin...

But the changes I soon noticed spoke mountains. When I was 13, Titi Sheila visited us. Her physical appearance had changed dramatically. Although her personality was still lively and bubbly, she was stick thin.

I'd never seen her that thin before. I was scared for her. I knew she must be really sick. I remember her showing my mother and me how she had to wear extra clothes and "butt pads" under her jeans to make them fit.

Even with all the extra layers and padding, she was the thinnest person I'd ever seen. I overheard her telling my mother she'd lost her appetite.

"I can barely keep anything down," she said. I understood much more about the disease at this point, but didn't know that AIDS could cause you to lose your appetite and weight.

...And Sickly

She was always catching small colds, the sniffles, stomachaches and headaches. Even though these are normal things people catch, for Titi, it was bad. Her im-mune system was shut down, so a simple cold could turn into pneumonia. Titi often had to go to the hospital. I felt terrible that she had to have it worse than most.

Titi Sheila still wouldn't tell me about her illness, even though she must've known I could see how poor her health was. Plus I'd overhear my mother talking to her, or see my mother crying because Titi was in the hospital or home in bed for weeks. I worried, but whenever I spoke to Titi and asked how she was feeling, she assured me she was doing fine.

But three years ago, in August, she took a trip to Spain with her boyfriend and caught a small stomach flu. "I was at the hotel for most of the trip," she told me when she got home. "I just kept throwing up. It's just a small stomach bug. It'll go away."

It didn't. She was admitted to the hospital a week after arriving home.

Last Time I'd Ever See Her?

My parents and I visited her in the hospital in Montreal that December. To see her so sick, barely able to do anything herself, not even able to stay awake, hurt me more than any physical pain I'd experienced. I cried all day, and it was hard, because I didn't want her to see me cry.

I knew it might be the last time I'd ever see her since she was so sick. I couldn't handle the thought of growing up without her humor, love, guidance, understanding and support.

I wanted so badly to tell her that I knew, since I knew I'd probably never have the chance to talk to her about it again. But I just couldn't. I didn't know how to say it, or how she'd react, so I brought up other things.

Phone Call at 2 A.M.

A few weeks after we got back home, my grandmother, who was still with Titi at the hospital, told my mother and me that Titi was feeling better. We were relieved.

Then, about two weeks after Grandma said Titi was doing better, the day before I was scheduled to take my math Regents, the phone rang. It was around 2 a.m.

After Mom got off the phone, she started crying. She turned to me and said, "Sheila didn't make it." And we both cried on the couch.

I cried myself to sleep that night. I couldn't believe she'd passed so suddenly when we thought she was getting better.

Mom and I didn't go to her funeral, which was held in Canada, but my father did. Mom said it would be too depressing to go. She didn't want her last vision of Titi to be in a casket.

I felt the same way my mother did. I wanted to remember Titi for what she'd given to me and shown me throughout the years, and that's how I remember her now.

Wanted to Be by Myself

Still, I felt awful. Mom was concerned. "Do you want to talk to me about it?" she asked. "How do you feel?" I just avoided her questions by telling her I wanted to be alone or had nothing to say. She wanted to be there for me, but I wanted to be by myself. Maybe that's how Titi Sheila felt when she was sick.

I never talked to anyone about my feelings over her death, even though it's affected me deeply. [See sidebar.] I wonder how dealing with Titi's illness would've been different if we'd talked about it.

I think we would've become even closer. But I'll never know, and maybe that's just how she wanted it.

(NYC-2002-11-08a)