Brink to Bliss
LaWanda Gresham’s Battle to Stay Alive Proved Beneficial to Others
by Dann Dulin
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Louis Kengi Carr
This was LaWanda Gresham’s reaction in 1996 when a Los Angeles doctor told LaWanda and her boyfriend of eight years that he had AIDS. He was already experiencing weight loss, and lesions covered his face and neck. Though sober before they met, his prior heroin addiction and needle sharing had taken their toll.
The news left her numb. She doesn’t remember anything after leaving the doctor’s office. In fact, she doesn’t even recall leaving the office. When she heard “AIDS,” she instantly thought “death.” Thoughts raced through her mind at high speed. Would she tell the family and, if she did, what would they think?
The love of LaWanda’s life, with whom she had frequented Dodger games and played on the beach, had a life-threatening infection. It was too much.
Later, her beau was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx. In and out of the hospital, struggling with treatments, he decided not to continue the chemo and radiation because of severe pain. LaWanda brought him home, fed him healthy foods, rubbed his feet, and cared for him. Others helped out so she could bring money into the household.
On Christmas Eve 1999, LaWanda held and rocked him, saying, “Don’t be afraid. Let Jesus hold you.” Her partner shed some tears and then passed away. “When he took his last breath, I completely lost it.”
The following year, LaWanda was diagnosed with HIV.
She wanted to die. LaWanda began to self-medicate, drink heavily, and smoke crack cocaine—anything to avoid reality. Not wanting to burden her daughter, friends, or other family, she ran away, eventually becoming homeless and she tossed away all her HIV medications. They were making her sick anyway.
As she lay on the sidewalk one day, lightning struck. She asked herself, What are you doing?! The lost soul reclaimed her life. She educated herself about the disease and the drug regimen. LaWanda slowly healed.
The Michigan native began to focus on educating other fifty-plus year-olds, especially women of color. She now volunteers as a public speaker and a peer educator at several organizations. LaWanda is currently involved in a campaign called Even Me, which was depicted in a 2012 documentary by the same name by Megan Ebor. The campaign addresses HIV in elders. LaWanda is bent on bringing this film into Black churches as a tool to educate people about the disease.
LaWanda recognizes that it took a village of people to flush the “shit out of [her] head.” She highly touts James Miller as the one who truly enlightened her about the disease and how to cope with it. More on James later.
Despite being homeless for eight years, today at sixty-four, she is enrolled in community college, involved in a decade-long relationship, and committed to public outreach. She’s extremely close to her daughter and granddaughter, who is twenty-two years old. Ms. Gresham is full of vitality, muscle, and good will, and the only thing she’s addicted to is her favorite film, Tombstone.
Dann Dulin: Could you please elaborate more on James Miller, the man who made an inspiring impact on you?
LaWanda Gresham: He was my peer educator. He spoke my language and took time to teach me that this shit could not defeat me. I learned to fight and not let HIV take over my life. James taught me how to take my drugs and he pointed out exactly what they did inside my body to ward off this virus. He has passed on, but I won’t ever forget him and how much he cared.
When did you first hear the word “AIDS”?
In the seventies, I moved to Los Angeles from Grand Rapids and heard bits and pieces of conversations about GRID [gay-related immune deficiency]. Several years later it was discussed on television and folks everywhere were dying. I equated AIDS with death.
At what point did you turn your life around?
In 2008, I finally realized death wasn’t happening. I was still here. Taking a good look in the mirror, I didn’t recognize myself. The woman staring back at me was not me. Finally, I asked for help. I found support. All I had to do was take the first step…and truly want it.
What led up to your revelation?
My eyes were opened when I attended a woman’s summit, hosted by the Los Angeles HIV/AIDS Women’s Task force. Over 100 women of various ethnic backgrounds who were diagnosed or infected at different stages in their lives attended. Some were born positive, others were infected in their teens, and some women were diagnosed in their senior years. I could see that I wasn’t alone.
The different conversations I had with women who were born positive really made me think and question my fears! I mean, sitting next to me is a child who doesn’t even know what it’s like to not have HIV. It really shook me up. This is when my strength and courage emerged.
What do you do to keep healthy?
I take my HIV meds in a timely manner, eat balanced meals, and exercise. Working out is very important to keep my bones, mind, body, and spirit in shape.
What motivates you now to keep moving forward?
It comes from “standing in the gap” between those who are living with HIV and those who are not. I attend two HIV women’s support groups, and also, have love from my entire family. That really helps.
HIV and elders….
This is a new area. It needs to be addressed emphatically! Open dialogue is essential with males and females who are fifty-plus.
What do you say to those in the Black community about HIV?
Unfortunately, older adults and women of color are left out of the education loop. Myths and social stigma still hold us back. It can be uncomfortable discussing sex with your grandparents or those over fifty…but we must persevere.
This disease is not biased. Everyone is at risk. My constant byline is…Get Educated and Talk About Sex!
For more information about photographer Louis Kengi Carr, visit: DoSomethingSaturday.org.
Dann Dulin is a Senior Editor for A&U.