Another essential essay from John S. Blake, this one about AIDS. Ahead of World AIDS Day, December 1st, this is a poetic tribute to his brother Benny and a reminder to give to those in need … give clothes, give food, give warmth.
There is something so perfect about being alone while it snows at night; the pressed silence, the glitter from moonlight, the cushion of falling feet into something that feels like hands pushing your body upward—towards Heaven. Sometimes the snowflakes fall like high-pitched keys on a piano. Other times they split in tiny white explosions like soft cymbal crashes. For a short time, I even forget it’s cold. I just watch my breath fill the air and gaze with a panoramic view and tell myself how beautiful the peace—how glorious the sound of rest.
Benny was gentle—an almost impossible feat—growing up in the Baruch Project Houses. He smiled constantly and could tell a joke during the darkest moments. When our mother raised resentments at how much we looked like our fathers, Benny would simply, softly say, “I’m sorry, Ma. I know they weren’t no good. I love you, though.” And, with all of her rage and alcohol and quivering hands, our mother would calm. Then Benny would look at me and wink, then motion us out of the house.
When I was small, Benny used to take me to the top of our project building when it snowed. On the roof, there was usually discarded beer bottles and empty Bambu cartons, stomped Newport butts and gravel—lots and lots of gravel. But when it snowed, the world was warm. The Lower East Side of Manhattan was perfect. Benny would put me on his shoulders so I could be the tallest boy alive. We’d look out over the East River at the factories in Brooklyn seeming to gaze back. There was wizardry about being on Benny’s shoulders. His were a set made to carry me—anyone really—who needed much carrying.
I remember, when I was a teenager in the eighties, when heroin took most of Benny’s time, his smile was fixed when we saw him. He’d appear either fresh out of jail or some rehabilitation program with new tales from trips through the system. Somehow, they were always funny. Benny’s breath was usually perfumed with gin and his body was always curved. Heroin kept him bent. It was decades before I realized Benny was high since he was fourteen—the same age I was when he showed up sicker than usual, with lesions on his face and hands.
We were living in Lodi, New Jersey then. When Benny showed up at our door, I remember it being a shock to my system. I was overjoyed. It had been snowing for the entire day, well into the night, and I thought of my brother since the first flake. We always left our door open, but when Benny showed up, my other brother saw Benny coming and quickly locked it. We heard rumors—the Junkie-Bug some called it—Benny had that thing people were talking about on the news; the “Virus.” Benny showed up to a locked door. Through the window panes, my brother’s blue eyes squinted from his smile. When I got up to open the door, our other brother threatened me.
Our sister, Lori, was there as well. She quickly grabbed a plastic garbage bag from beneath the kitchen sink. I watched as she placed items in: fork, knife, spoon, mug, plate, bowl, food, and the shirt off of her own back. She then walked to the door—guiding me away gently. Benny’s muffled voice and white breath continued to ask for safe passage into the living room.
Lori said, “We can’t, Benny. We just can’t, man.”
In the eighties, AIDS was an unexplainable death. People avoided toilet seats and coughs, cuts and sniffles alike. Certain people were targeted: the homeless, LGBTQ, and the heroin-addicted, sex workers, and even women who were considered “loose.” Hospitals began utilizing quarantine rooms for victims with HIV. When the hospitals ran out of quarantine rooms, they began to turn potential victims away. Homeless shelters would turn away anyone suspected of being infected. If you had the Virus, you lost everyone in many cases. There was no cure. There wasn’t even treatment. If you were informed you had the HIV, it was a death sentence that wouldn’t take longer than a year in most cases, from infection to fully-developed AIDS.
Lori cracked the door fast enough to hand Benny the bag, and even then our other brother yelled. Lori cried. I didn’t understand. Benny stood there, breath against the glass, his hand on the doorknob, mumbling—snow glistening behind those perfect, supportive shoulders. He then turned, stepped off our porch, and left a perfect trail of footprints in what had to be over eighteen inches of new snow. I looked at Lori and began to ask, “How come we …” when Lori cut me off and said, “He’s sick, John. He can’t come in.”
I would come to understand after I was placed in foster care some years later. I saw my sister in New York City—still using, sick then herself. I asked her what was wrong. She said, “I got what I deserved.” I asked about Benny. Lori told me, “Benny died a week after we saw him. I heard he was found at Coney Island in a car.” I stared at Lori, lighting her crackpipe and avoiding eye contact. I was flooding. Benny was gone—my sister soon to follow, but truthfully, we all died the night we locked our brother out of the house.
I am forty-five now. I don’t lock doors. I have a hard time, still, seeing footprints in snow without remembering how easy it is to be paralyzed by fear—how the silver trail makes me think of abandoned loved ones. We are spirits first. We are the tallest boys and girls when someone loves us enough to take us to the roofs, to see rivers and the “Brooklyns” we admire. We are warm-blooded despite the chill of propaganda and serrated messages in media and politics about how AIDS is all but gone—how anyone with the illness deserves what anguish they endure. Someone’s sibling is cold. Someone’s child sits in a car. There is a Benny buried every day. December 1st—daily for me—remember how many we lost to a medical illness we couldn’t understand, and how a flawed species killed countless more with ignorance.
Pressed silence is peaceful, even if it isn’t habitable.
December 1st is World AIDS Day. It is a day of compassion. There are countries crippled, still, by the AIDS virus. There are children who have lost both parents to the illness. There are people here, in the United States, who have had their hearts snatched in the middle of the night, only to be shrugged at because this sickness is continuously viewed as the smack of a wrathful deity.
Virginia is expecting record snowfall. What I ask of you, All of you who share this planet with me: if you see someone cold, offer them something warm. Soup is cheap. Coffee even cheaper. Donate blankets and gloves, socks and coats. If you have three, let go of one. If you don’t fit it, give it away. Leave it out where you know someone sleeps tonight. And if you know of anyone who has the Virus, hug them how snow holds our bodies—Heavenly. Hold them up and remind them that death is no righteous consequence for love, or sex, or chemical dependency. Kiss their faces. Hold their hands. Tell others to do the same. Do not let them be labeled “untouchable.”
Wear a red ribbon. Wear it because no one should die alone. Wear it because no one need die in silence. Do it because we are human beings with memory and rememory. Remember with me. Do not forget. We all recall dreams we’ve lived of warm winters. For Benny who had no shoulders to carry him. Who could never be the tallest boy.