|Amaryllis this year, in front of painting by Mom from her early adolescence.|
On Friday January 24, 1997, early morning, I stepped out of the Blue Bus STD Clinic on the UW Madison campus, my negative HIV test results in hand. Out of what I thought was relief, I turned quickly to a bush and threw up my freshman dorm breakfast.
I was in an open relationship, my first, with a woman and a man, both of whom had other lovers. I had been unsafe a couple of times, and was convinced I had contracted HIV. Feeling deeply relieved, I took my time getting home, walking in the sunny crisp winter day.
Back at the dorm, my roommate looked at me morosely and told me to call one of my brothers before doing anything else. Just then, the phone rang, and I knew something was up. It was one of my oldest friends, calling to ask if I’d talked to that brother yet. She said to call him then call her right away. Neither the roommate or friend would tell me what it was about.
Ten minutes later, I sat on the floor of my dorm, aghast after a quick exchange with the brother. My mother had died of an aortic aneurysm that morning, just as I was leaving the clinic. I called back the old friend. When I started an ugly, angry cry, she was confused and asked if my test results had been positive. In utter shock, I had forgotten she was waiting to hear the results.
The roommate left as soon as the old friend appeared with a bowl of requested mac and cheese from the cafeteria. I poked at it as the friend made plans to get me home that evening, Super Bowl weekend, when a bunch of our other friends from Appleton were headed back anyway.
Once I was back, I wandered around my childhood home, now rendered a brand new place due to my brand new orphan hood. I talked in low voices with my brothers and godmother. I looked at all my mothers plants, a hundred or so, and began wiping them down, paper towels and bowl of warm water, cleaning dust from their leaves. It felt good to help something non-human but living.
When I got to the end of the plants, I found my mothers prized amaryllis, bright red. Every year my mother tried to get it to bloom around Christmas; it was late this year. The last of four blooms had just opened that morning.
Today is January 24, 2021. For a few years now, I have tried, and failed, to get an amaryllis bulb to bloom around this time of the year. They always leaf out, but never with stalks or buds. This year, I bought another one and it took off immediately. On January 20, the first big bloom opened, and every day since, another has opened. Today, the fourth bloom opened.
Mama, we had a hard run of it. But I have grown to miss you and wish you could know my wife, my life. I feel more connected to you now than ever. This is for you - four blooms going, and a second stalk budding, as if to make up for years of bloomlessness. I celebrate you on this 24th anniversary of your death.
As I mourned, and still mourn, those in my community killed too young by the AIDS pandemic - but more dead than should be because of discrimination and negligence - I now mourn those dead from the ignorance and denial of the COVID pandemic.
When you died, Mama, I didn’t know any other orphans. Now I do. Now I know I am not alone in traumatic loss, whether from oppression or isolation. I am finally feeling out the difference between the trauma from loss, versus garden variety grief. 2020 was a rough year for death, for me and so many. And so it is I need this amaryllis bloom more than ever this year specifically. It is helping me remember to celebrate as I weep.