essay

The Ryan White Story, and Mine

By Melanie Brooks
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The Ryan White Story, and Mine
Lukas Haas and Ryan White (approx 1989). Haas played White in The Ryan White Story.

I stared out the passenger window at the high bank of snow lining the side of the road in our Ottawa neighborhood. The morning light glistened on its ice-crusted surface. Discarded Christmas trees sat atop the mounds at the ends of many of the neighborhood driveways. The crenellated grooves left behind by the plow crunched beneath the car tires asMom turned onto Hazeldean Road toward my high school. I watched our breath exhale in puffs of fog and held my hands over the vents to keep my fingers from freezing. I was ready for spring.

“How were the Taylor kids last night?” Mom asked.

“Ok,” I said.  “A little rambunctious.  Hard to settle them down for bed.”

I usually didn’t babysit on weeknights —it was my junior year of high school, and I rarely stayed up that late—but my parents had made an exception for our family friends. After reading bedtime stories, I tucked the kids into bed, cleaned up our game of Hungry Hungry Hippos, and flopped down on the couch in front of the TV. Wrapped in a plaid blanket, I flipped between MacGyver and Kate & Allie before settling in to watch the ABC Movie of the Week.

As John Mellencamp’s voice belts “Small Town,” the screen fills with images of an Indiana landscape: churches, factories, parks, schools. The Ryan White Story.  How do I know that name? I can’t remember.

Fifteen minutes into the movie, when the mom from Who’s the Boss?, now playing Ryan’s mother, sits in a hospital conference room and listens to her son’s doctor telling her that the recurring infection in Ryan’s lungs is likely caused by a blood virus, it comes to me: He was the kid on the news, posing in pictures with Michael Jackson and Elton John, whose face I’d seen on the cover of People magazine last year. The kid with AIDS.

Ryan White caught the nation’s attention three years earlier, when he contracted HIV from a contaminated blood transfusion. At the same time, “one of the worst public health disasters in Canadian history” was beginning to unfold. That phrase would echo throughout the news stories about the era. Although AIDS was first reported in Canada in March 1982, and infected blood products were known to be responsible for transmitting HIV, it took three more years for the Canadian Red Cross, which managed the nation’s blood supply, to start screening for it. The country’s blood system had been contaminated, and officials knowingly distributed tainted blood. Close to 2,000 Canadians were infected with HIV.

In the mid to late ‘80s, everyone was on edge, angry and afraid of even coming into contact with someone with HIV/AIDS. Across Canada, members of groups with names like “Citizens Demanding the Right to Know” spoke with ice-filled voices in public forums and accused medical experts of hiding the truth about the disease. Officials from the Canadian government’s Health Department debated whether or not to identify all individuals who tested positive for HIV and enforce mandatory quarantines to protect the general population. Many people known to be HIV positive or diagnosed with AIDS were fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes and shunned by their communities.

My father was 42 when he was given HIV-tainted blood during a quadruple bypass surgery in 1985. An accomplished thoracic surgeon and father of four, he was also a committed Christian and the son of a Baptist minister. Within our evangelical community, AIDS was “nature’s revenge”—God’s weapon of wrath against the sin of homosexuality. My father feared the stigma that his disease carried. What if people believed he was gay? He also wanted to protect my three brothers and me from the discrimination he was certain we’d face.

 

Melanie's family, the Messengers, in 1991.

The Messenger Family in 1991.  (Melanie is 2nd from left)

 

So he decided his illness would be a secret, a secret we’d all have to keep. I would keep this secret for ten years, through my adolescence and into my early adulthood. It became a way of life.

Ryan White’s family didn’t keep his status a secret in their small Indiana town. When his neighbors and friends found out Ryan was infected, they turned against the thirteen-year old boy, trying to keep him out of school and away from their children. They also attacked his family. In one scene, Ryan’s younger sister is taunted on a bus. “My brother says your brother is a faggot!” a girl yells. In another, set at the factory where Ryan’s mother works, a fight erupts between two workers after his mother pours coffee from the communal pot. When she assures one of the men that she doesn’t have AIDS, and that he can’t catch it from her, he spits back, “Yeah? How do you know?”

As I watch, a ticker tape of questions spirals through my head. Was it the fear of these sorts of reactions that compelled my parents to keep dad’s infection a secret? Could that really happen to us? Here?

Alone in the silence of my neighbors’ house, I want to punch the OFF button, get up from the couch, and disconnect. I want to pretend that what is happening to Ryan White—the community outrage, the isolation, the disease—has nothing to do with my family.

Pretending was easy. Dad didn’t look sick. He was robust and handsome, a doctor who got up each morning, put on a suit, and went to work as a medical advisor in an office building in downtown Ottawa. He mowed the lawn and weeded the garden on weekends. He skied and ice skated and swam and boated. He took Bailey, our golden retriever, on long walks every day. There was nothing in his manner that suggested he was different from anyone else. As far as I knew, apart from some days when he was especially tired, he seemed healthy.

 

Melanie and her father, Dr. Orville James Messenger (1942-1995).

Melanie and her father, Dr. Orville James Messenger (1942-1995).

 

In the movie, the actor playing Ryan White, the same wide-eyed, big-eared kid who’d played that Amish boy in the movie Witness with Harrison Ford, is pale and thin and sickly. He struggles to breathe and spends days in the hospital with active infection.

That wasn’t Dad.

But as I watch the truth of AIDS play out in vivid, cinematic detail on the screen, a new awareness funnels into my consciousness: not yet. I sit motionless, the blanket pulled tight against my body. I can’t stop watching. My fists clench against my lips, blocking the air. How will the story end?

Of course, a made-for-TV movie has a happy ending. Ryan’s family moves to a new community where they find acceptance and tolerance. The final scene shows Ryan arriving at his new high school. With reporters’ cameras flashing, the principal shakes his hand, saying, “We’re happy to have you.” He leads Ryan to a crowd of students who walk him toward the school building. Hope breaks across his mother’s face as she watches. She drives away, waving and smiling, to the catchy beat of Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing.”

I turn off the TV and stare into the empty screen. A fresh dread squeezes my insides. I know Ryan’s story is not over; the dying part just hasn’t happened yet.

At home, I climbed into bed, curled into a ball, my knees hugged to my chest, and buried myself beneath my duvet. My brain kept somersaulting around what I’d watched. All these things didn’t feel like they were supposed to belong in my world: the terrible accusations and assumptions about how Ryan had contracted AIDS; hatred from both strangers and people who’d known him his whole life; people who treated him like the disease was his fault. His family lost their privacy and with it, security—something they’d always taken for granted. But the worst were the moments when Ryan was so sick he couldn’t lift his head from the edge of the toilet seat. Hidden under my covers, a pressing question hammered against my skull: What’s next? What’s next? What’s next?

This question hung on my tongue the next morning in the silence of the car on my way to school. I glanced at Mom. Her short brown permed hair was still a bit damp from her shower, and the mousse-crusted curls needed to be brushed out. Her face was smooth, even without makeup.

 

Melanie and her mother, 1993.

Melanie and her mother, 1993.

 

She steered the car down Abbeyhill Drive. I drew in a shaky breath, waited a beat, and then blurted, “Is Dad going to die?” It came out as a question, but I was not really asking. The answer had been there all along. I just needed to hear it.

The car slowed. Surprise registered on Mom’s face. She opened her mouth to speak and then closed it. Her lips pressed together in a tight line. My words dangled in the space between us for another beat.

“Mel,” she began, and I could already sense in her tone that she was about to downplay, deflect, or reassure.

“Just tell me.” My voice was steady, but there was a pleading edge carving into each word.

We approached the school. Cars crowded the rectangular parking lot out front, and students stood in small clusters on the snow-packed sidewalk by the main entrance, backpacks slung over their shoulders, pulling their coats close against the cold. Near the wide glass doors leading into the school, I saw my friends:  Penny, John, Russell, Sunita. They were waiting for me before heading inside.

“Tell me,” I said again as Mom pulled up against the curb. “Is Dad going to die?” I turned in my seat and faced her directly. My eyes locked on hers, and I could feel in their intensity the burden of the weight she carried. I now understood she’d been carrying it all along.

She gripped the steering wheel with her gloved hands and inhaled a measured breath. Then, speaking in a defeated voice I’d never heard before, she said dully, “Yes.”

The single word ripped through the protective blanket that she’d carefully wrapped around me for the last four years. It tracked into my mind, sinking like a stone to the ocean floor, where it settled for good.

 

 

About the Author

Melanie Brooks received her MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast. Her memoir in progress recounts the devastating effects of AIDS on her family. She is also the author of Writing Hard Stories, a compilation of conversations with contemporary memoirists, forthcoming from Beacon Press. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband, two children, and yellow Lab. Connect with her at melaniebrooks.com.

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