By Stephanie Laster, 4 July 2012, as told to Patricia Wakida
“It all began when my uncle’s wife fell sick, but she told everyone that she had cancer. When the baby was two, I noticed on Christmas that she was buying her son so, so many presents, saying ‘This is my last Christmas with my baby,’ and I said, ‘Girl what are you talking about?’ But sure enough, she passed away a few months later.
Ever since the baby was in the world, he had bad nosebleeds all the time. We took him to the doctors, and started treating him for leukemia, but his nose continued to bleed. My mother finally said, ‘Something isn’t right—his nose shouldn’t bleed all the time,’ and that’s when we found out and he was only five years old. We decided to have my uncle tested, and my mother tested. And me too, I got tested. We were all HIV-positive. If we had known, we would have taken precautions, but lack of knowledge put the whole family at risk, because you know, it’s a baby. You would wipe the baby’s nose with your hand, and not think about it. I lost my mom, my uncle (mom’s brother), his wife, and their son—all to AIDS. They birthed him, but after they both died, I raised him, so he was my baby. But now he’s gone, too.
And I’m HIV-positive. That’s why I spend so much time educating people—safe sex, condom negotiation classes, teaching people to be comfortable enough to share their status and not be rejected by others. Teach them that it’s the stigma that allows the virus to continue to transmit and transfer. But they’re human and they don’t want to be lonely, they want to be loved and are often too afraid to share that information. I understand.”
Postscript: On the very first morning of my duties as a volunteer handler for The AIDS Memorial Quilt, my eyes fell upon an unusual constellation of panels and the portraits that were duplicates of the same picture, but cropped to feature a different person in the photograph. As I slowly pieced together the pictures and the names, tears flooded my eyes as the realization hit me like a bolt: AIDS had taken four members of the same family. I took a single photograph that morning, and kept turning the images of the panels in my mind as I tried to imagine the suffering of the panel maker who had sewn those tributes, who honored those that he or she had loved and who would never forget their names. By chance or perhaps by the magic of the Quilt, I serendipitously met the panel maker, Stephanie Laster, that same day, in the Quilting Bee section of the Festival’s Creativity and Crisis program area, where she volunteers tirelessly and selflessly helping and educating the public that we are all vulnerable. We are all human. We are all cut from the same cloth.
Patricia Wakida is a writer and historian based in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.