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Periods, Bras and T-Cells 

A father-daughter heart-to-heart in the age of HIV

Thursday, Jun 17 2004
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Illustration by Pamela Jaeger

Daddy, I’m bleeding,” my 9-year old daughter yells from the bathroom.

Oh, my God, I think to myself as I sprint from the kitchen, she’s starting her period. The book I meant to refer to when I explained menstruation, titled simply Period, sits under a pile on my desk, along with the one about the daddy who is HIV-positive. So many things I haven’t told her.

As it turned out, today Tia has just lost one of her few remaining baby teeth. “It’s okay, honey,” I say, examining the speck or two of blood on her finger. “That amount of blood is completely natural.” I hug her close, feeling her head, sprouting long braided extensions, nuzzle right below my chest.

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“You don’t have to put anything under my pillow,” she says. “If there’s no Santa, there’s no such thing as a Tooth Fairy.” But in the middle of the night, I very gently slip a couple of bucks under her pillow anyway.

My little girl is growing up.

I have been Tia’s father since she was 5 months old, after her crack-addicted mother abandoned her at the hospital. She was born weighing less than 2 pounds and spent her first month hooked up to an incubator, fighting for her life. People accused me of selfishness back then, even insanity, for adopting a child when I already knew I was HIV positive, as I have been now for 15 years, although I have never been sick. All I could say in my defense was that it seemed like my life depended on becoming a dad.

Now Tia is thriving, physically and emotionally as well as artistically and spiritually. With each word she adds to her considerable vocabulary and each outlandish idea to redecorate her room, I am reminded that not only is she getting older, I am closer to the inevitable.

There will be more conversations about blood. Her blood, my blood. And they will not all be happy conversations: Few of us who have lived through the horrors of the plague deaths that darkened the ’80s believe that protease inhibitors are miracle drugs. In fact, some of the “side effects” appear to be fatal. And while I have lived far longer than anyone would have anticipated, and no dad can guarantee his survival, the future of our two-person family encompasses ineluctable heartaches few other parents know.

“Tia has kept you going,” some well-meaning person will say from time to time. “You can’t get sick and die.”

Hello? Yes, I can. And that is precisely what I must tell my daughter. Considering the list of Things To Do As She Matures, this will be considerably more complex than buying her first Secret roll-on deodorant. Or reminding her that the training bras are to be worn, not stored in her closet until she goes off to college.

 

Finally, I decide to put aside a weekend to spend at our cabin in Idyllwild. I pack our cat, Miu Miu, and her litter box, a videotape of John Waters’ Hairspray (camp always comes in handy) and, secreted in the suitcase wrapped in a pair of jeans, a copy of the book My Dad Has HIV.

We spend the first night and following morning acclimating to the altitude and just hanging out. I clean everything in sight, Joan Crawford–style, delaying the main event. As I scan the instructions on the new washing machine, the word blood jumps out at me like a goddamned cue card. Never in my life have I read anything about how to get rid of blood on the inside of a washing machine.

It’s time. We turn off the Disney Channel and sit on the dilapidated couch, facing each other. “I need to tell you something kinda important,” I say. “I feel like you’re smart enough and sensitive enough to know something about Daddy that I haven’t told you yet.”

There’s a part of me that wants to describe the disease’s dramatic trajectory from the early ’80s to the present, year by year, and perform a few monologues while I’m at it. I want to tell her what we went through, fought for, how far we’ve come. Instead, I remind myself that it’s only necessary to answer the questions that she asks.

She is completely attentive. I begin by going over a few vocabulary words: virus, white blood cells and immune system. She is not unfamiliar with these words but needs a bit of clarification. Then I ask her if she’s ever heard of HIV.

“No.”

“It’s a virus that affects a person’s white blood cells, which can throw the immune system off. Have you ever wondered about all those pills I take?”

“No,” she says.

“The pills won’t make it go away. But they seem to keep it from getting worse.”

There is a long pause. “Did my mom have HIV?”

“No,” I tell her, “and neither do you. It’s not easy to catch. You were tested when you were a baby. And you are not going to get HIV from me.”

I then try to explain that this new information about her dad is something she can keep to herself. “I have chosen to be open, but that doesn’t mean that you have to be. If you need to talk to someone about it, most of our friends and even some people at school know.”

She asks me who among our extended family has HIV. I go through the list of names.

Later that night, after I show her how many pills I take daily (for the record, 21), we watch Divine in Hairspray. She points out that Sonny Bono is dead, and then wants to know which cast members in the film are still alive. I reassure her that Ricki is alive, Pia is alive, Deborah Harry is alive.

“What about the mom?” she wants to know.

“She’s dead. I mean, he’s dead,” I say.

“HIV?” she asks.

“No,” I tell her, “Divine died of a heart attack.”

“Like John Ritter,” she says, processing every detail. When Ritter died, she compared his 54 years to my 53. Perhaps to demonstrate the vitality of my heart, I offer to show her that I can still do the Mashed Potato — just like those hyperkinetic teenagers are doing in the movie.

“Okay,” she says, rolling those eyes.

I mash on the wood floor, working up a sweat. Miu Miu makes a hissing sound and seeks refuge under the couch. Tia is not impressed with my spastic homage. I get a splinter in my foot.

After the movie, we nestle in bed. Since it’s a special occasion, she’s allowed to sleep with me but not before we read My Dad Has HIV. As we often do, she reads a page and then I read a page.

The thin book is written in the first-person voice of Lindsey, an upbeat second-grader with a vague resemblance to Ricki Lake in Hairspray. Tia reads, “When the number of your white blood cells goes down, your body can’t fight other illnesses.”

My turn: “You can become very sick.” The dad in the book looks a bit like Julia Sweeney’s Pat character — lumpy and limp, asexual and androgynous — not at all like an aging glamour-puss who can still do a mean Mashed Potato.

“Doctors and scientists around the world are working together to discover a cure for HIV,” I read. You can practically hear the string section swelling in the background.

“I love my dad very much, and I want him to be there for me as I grow up,” Tia finishes, with only a hint of emotion, as she closes the book.

She falls asleep first. The sound of her breathing lulls me.

I wake up in the middle of the night and have to take a pee. It is pitch black; I’ve forgotten that the light that seems to perpetually emanate from the living room is on a timer. Still, I bound for the bathroom.

Bam! I slam into a half-opened door, banging my face right below my eyebrow. For a second I can’t breathe, but when I do, I emit an involuntary cry, which quickly becomes a sob.

“Daddy, are you okay?” Tia asks.

“Yeah, honey, I’ll be okay,” I say, groping for the goddamn light switch.

I find the light. Tia offers to get me ice.

“I’ll get it,” I say, stumbling into the kitchen. I try to stop crying, try to stop the tears that have been accumulating and, although the physical pain is real, are about so much more than a bruise.

“Are you bleeding, Dad?”

“No, honey,” I say, “no blood.”

“Come snuggle,” my daughter says, in her nighttime raspy voice.

I crawl back under the sheets. The ice feels good. Her hand, rubbing the top of my head, feels even better. The warm tears subside.

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