I found out that my father was HIV positive when I was 22, during a phone call with my younger sister. He’d left New York City, where I lived, when I was 10. I’d only seen him a few times since then. My mother had done her best to keep us in contact with him when I was young, but when I moved away to college, we spoke on the phone less and less.
I already knew about my father’s many ailments. His was a body struggling to survive. He had asthma, hepatitis C, cirrhosis of the liver, neuropathy, and he was a diabetic. And yet, my father had always been the kind of man who just really fucking loved life. Anyone will tell you that about him. He was always dancing; always laughing.
Alfredo Rodriguez was the youngest of four brothers — Angel, Raymond and Jerry — which earned him the nickname “Tuffy.” Said in Spanish, it sounds like you’re saying the word “toffee” with a soft “t”. When he was about 10 or 11, his parents divorced. They each moved out of their apartment in the Smith Housing Projects near the Brooklyn Bridge on the Lower East Side, but neither of them took the boys. My father and his older brothers were left to fend for themselves, without any supervision or guidance, living in the late 1960s Lower East Side. It wasn’t until my father started dating my mother, at age 14, that he started to build a family support system.
Somewhere during that time he started injecting drugs. My mother told me that he and all of his friends would use the same needle and tools to inject. They kept their works hidden behind a loose brick in the staircase of their building, a housing project by the Brooklyn Bridge. My father’s drug use led him in and out of rehabilitation programs several times over the course of his life.
It was a journey that finally ended on Oct. 13, 2011, at Beth Israel Hospital on 14th Street in Manhattan. Earlier that summer, he’d moved back to New York from Cleveland, where he’d lived for about 12 years following his divorce from my mother. After a short stint in a small apartment on the Lower East Side, he entered into hospice care at Rivington House, a facility for those living with HIV/AIDS.
One of the final times I saw my dad, he was sitting in a wheelchair; the nurses had just declared him incontinent. He asked my sister and me to get him two things: orange soda and Mike & Ike’s candy. We told him no, so instead, he asked if we could get him a diet orange soda. We didn’t even know that existed. As he wheeled us out of Rivington House that day, he stopped at the vending machine for M&Ms.
On the day of my father’s death, he had been hospitalized for about two days. All the doctors had prepared us for the possibility that this might be his final stay in the hospital. That day, I got a call at about 10 a.m. from my mother, and was the first of my family to arrive. When I entered the “room”—really, it was just a bed behind a curtain—I saw a body there that used to belong to my father. The body was on a respirator; the chest was making inhuman, swift breathing movements; his eyes were rolled back. The heart monitor was still beeping, though I was sure that my father had long since checked out.
I grabbed his hand and told him I loved him, and at that moment, I heard that long beep that you hear on TV shows and movies. “He waited for you,” the nurse nearby said. A friend later told me that the ears are often the last to go, that even if a person is on the brink of death, they can often hear what is happening around them; that my love finally allowed him to pass and projected him into a better place.
At a family gathering after my father’s funeral, next to all the food on the table, there was, somehow, a bottle of Diet Sunkist Orange Soda. To this day, I don’t know who brought it. It felt like the first time my father spoke to me after his death. Even after he’s passed, his sense of humor never ceases to amaze me.
Today, I’m 25 years old, gay, and HIV-negative. I work at the APICHA Community Health Center, which provides HIV prevention and treatment services on the Lower East Side, especially to LGBT people and people of color; I work for TheBody.com, an online HIV/AIDS resource; and I am on the HIV Prevention Planning Group at the NYC Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene. I’m also an active member of ACT UP. People often ask me why I do what I do. I want to fight so that people like my father, who are HIV positive and struggling with drug use, might have a better life and not leave behind fatherless children like me.
Almost daily, I still look for ways that my father might speak to me. But I consider my activism a way that I can speak to my father.