For World AIDS Day today, I would like to memorialize my brother who died in 1985.
When I was almost 8, my mother remarried and her husband adopted me. With the adoption, I got a much older brother, Robert Henry Dunn II. He was the second coolest guy I had ever met in my life.
Robby got a little sister that followed him everywhere- which was a natural consequence of being an amazingly considerate man. He sat and communicated with me, took me on small-plane rides, played with my dolls when I brought them out, bought me loads of books (a definite way to win me over) and was the one who bought me my one and only first-edition copy of Deaf Heritage. He lived in Washington, DC, near Dupont Circle, and worked for the EPA. Brilliant, educated, sweet, compassionate, tolerant, fun… He was just the best- especially to a little girl like me. I thought he was gorgeous, especially with his dark hair and huge Tom Selleck type mustache.
I remember once asking my mom why Robby wore pink polo shirts. This was in the early 1980s. I can still, in my mind’s eye, seeing her stammering through her answer, “Uhh… that’s just his style.” That was a good answer for me–there was not one single thing flawed about Robby in my eyes.
The summer I turned 11, Robby took me to Gallaudet for my first visit, then to Adams Morgan to an Ethiopian restaurant. We walked around Georgetown and Dupont, my pre-teen hand in his. He took me to museums and drove past the prostitutes on 16th St- I absorbed everything.
But that summer, Robby was sick. Nobody could really say what was wrong. He had boils on his back the size of large grapes. My mom helped lance them. I got embarrassingly dramatic– sobbing as I watched. He had gotten skinny. Something was going on, but nobody was talking. Later that year, my mom left his dad, and I became more involved with my friends.
One day, my mom sat me down and said, “Robby is very sick. He’s in the hospital. Write him.” It wasn’t real to me– he was still a healthy, handsome man walking around DC. So I didn’t write. Again, my mom said, “Write.” I demanded to see him, but I was told, “It’s better if you don’t.” I sulked. What I didn’t know until much later was that nobody was allowed to visit Robby. My 12 year old mind did not understand the gravity of the situation– Robby would not make it. And I never wrote.
He died on January 23, 1985. Pneumonia and liver failure. I took his death hard, but somehow, it still wasn’t real. Not until March, when the TV exploded with news. News about this disease. An epidemic. Something nobody has ever heard of before. Something highly contagious. Don’t share combs, soda straws or kisses. Panic burst from every corner. Ryan White and other children got attacked. Rocks thrown at schools. Parents going ballistic. Blood banks closing. The gay disease.
Pink shirt. Washington, DC. Dupont Circle. No girlfriend. Boils. Weight loss. Pneumonia and liver failure. Realization came to me slowly. I asked my mom, “Did Robby die of AIDS?” I saw my mom swallow before she said, “Yes.” “Was he gay?” Yes. I remember being very calm when I found out. He was gay? That didn’t bother me. He had AIDS and died alone, behind a wall of doctors? That saddened me to a level I hadn’t experienced until then. His body was confiscated by the government? I just hoped his cells had helped develop the drugs that kept later HIV+ people alive.
I was 12 when this happened, but became a 13 year old advocate. Nobody in my school could say anything about AIDS or gay people without getting yelled at by me. I stood by my young gay friends, long before we really understood what it meant to be a young gay teen in high school. AIDS has never been just a disease for me, but something that shaped my life– something that has taken some of the best people to ever walk this earth, like Robby. Like Clayton Valli. Bruce Hlibok. And so many others– one only had to see the Quilt Project once to know this is true.
To this day, I have never walked around DC without a glimmer of Robby’s memory twinkling in my mind. RIP Robby, I love you, still.
For World AIDS Day, let’s remember those that we have lost and continue to remember the value of AIDS education, world wide.
© Pamela K. Wright 2013