Tracey Kirkwood Baker
On June 18, 1999, my brother, Ricky, died of AIDS at the age of 34. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1989, but hid this from the family. He told us about his illness in December of 1998 because the doctors told him he didn’t have long to live.
I can remember different times between 1989 and 1998 when Ricky would go to the hospital but didn’t want anyone to come and see him. He would make up reasons why he was there, like he had a bad fall or he was giving blood and fainted. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t give it a second thought, and besides, my brother was very secretive.
Around 1991, a rumor circulated among the extended family of cousins, aunts, and uncles that Ricky had contracted HIV. When I got wind of this, I immediately confronted him. He adamantly denied it, but I still wasn’t convinced. I really believed that my brother was living a secret life and was dealing with the effects of a deadly illness alone.
I can recall the numerous times when Ricky would borrow large amounts of money from me, and would tell me not to question why he needed it. I later found out that he needed the money for medication to delay the onset of AIDS which was not covered under his medical insurance plan.
In May of 1999, Ricky’s health took a turn for the worst. I would go to his apartment and he was emaciated and physically weak. Many of our cousins would help him by cleaning his apartment, giving him medication, and feeding him. We spent a lot of time just talking and getting to know each other on a spiritual level. Out of the 30 years we had together, we had never connected on this level before.
I asked him why he waited so long to tell us about his condition. We could have helped him sooner. He stated that he was ashamed and afraid of rejection. He was under the impression that maybe we wouldn’t love him the same. I immediately thought, “Where did you get that from? We would never do that.” Then, Ricky reminded me of the time he tried to tell me about his lifestyle and I seemed to be very jugdmental and self-righteous, and he decided not to tell me. He believed my parents would be ten times worse.
At that moment, I felt embarrassed and sorry for my feelings and behavior, but couldn’t erase how alone and alienated Ricky must have felt all of those years. I asked him for forgiveness and he told me sincerely that he had already forgiven me and was at peace with himself. He stated, “This may conquer my body, but I won’t let it conquer my spirit or soul. Tracey, I’m a conqueror!”
On June 18, 1999 at 4:50 p.m. ET, I was holding my big brother’s hand when he made his transition, and he was wearing the smile of victory. However, I realized that there is a price we all pay when we judge and berate one another. Love and understanding is what we need. It is time that we embrace this belief before more of our brothers and sisters die of this very public disease privately.