Stephanie, someone I’ve never met, is what I’ve heard from some friends at church. Basically, it can be written in a single sentence: Her father died because of AIDS.
I have never known anyone with AIDS. Like most people, I’ve read a lot about the disease in magazines and seen a lot about it on television. But as I prepare to talk to Stephanie on the phone, I’m aware that reading about AIDS is a lot different than watching AIDS take the life of someone you love.
So I call Stephanie, and we wade through the basic awkward chit-chat of two strangers who are about to discuss something very painful. After a few minutes, I ask Stephanie to tell me about her dad, and she begins her story.
“My parents got a divorce when I was in grade school,” she tells me right away, “but their relationship was friendly, so I saw Dad quite a bit. I went to college in Chicago, where my dad lived, and we got really close. He was my only family in a new city.
“My dad and I could talk about a lot of things, but not about God or faith. I’d accepted Christ when I was younger, but in college, I felt somewhat disconnected from the church. I wasn’t very involved with other Christians. Dad had searched for ‘religion’ in all kinds of places after the divorce, trying out different churches and even different faiths. During my college years, he was a member of a church I didn’t agree with, so God wasn’t tops on our list of discussion topics.”
Stephanie goes on to tell me that during her senior year of college, she began noticing things about her dad that concerned her. “He was experiencing some pretty serious dental problems, which I later found out were a result of AIDS. But what really caught my attention was how exhausted he was. He helped me move once, and he was tired after going up the stairs only a few times. He was obviously having a hard time carrying things. He had always been a strong, active man, so I knew something was wrong.”
At this point, Stephanie stops talking to get a drink of water, and I wonder if our conversation is about to get harder for her. She comes back to the phone and says, “One day my dad called and asked me to stop over on my way to school. I went to his place often, so I didn’t have any reason to suspect something was wrong. When I got there, he sat down with me and told me straight out that he had AIDS.”
Stephanie is quiet for a moment, then adds, “I don’t remember much about that morning—what he said or what I said. But I do remember feeling very anxious to get out of his apartment so I didn’t have to hear any more. I just wanted to be alone. I remember telling him I had to leave for class. It was just an excuse to get away.”
She never made it to class that day. “I had to walk through Grant Park in downtown Chicago to get to school. I’m sure it was a beautiful spring day, but I didn’t even notice. I was in shock, I suppose. And I couldn’t stop crying. When I got to school, I just couldn’t face the teachers and students. Instead, I called my boyfriend from a pay phone and told him I needed to talk. He came to get me and brought me back to my apartment.”