Secrets We Cannot Keep
First It Was My Turn to Disclose a Health Condition—Then It Was My Mother’s
by John Francis Leonard

I tested positive in the spring of 2003. My partner Randy and I had recently moved to L.A., where he had been head-hunted for an executive position at a top hospital. It was a new beginning for a still-new relationship and I don’t think either of us had been prepared for it, or the changes that were to come our way. Randy had been tested prior to our move, and was devastated by his own diagnosis. He insisted that I see his long-time personal physician, also an infectious disease specialist, for my own test. Randy was torn up at the idea he had infected me, but I would never have held him responsible. I had made my own decisions and had taken risks prior to having met him. We also had had sex with others, both together and separately where self-care had taken a back seat to pleasure. When our doctor, Rick, gave me the life changing news, I was nonplussed, he remarked on it and I replied that the news was hardly shocking. How could it be? I had made choices and could hardly be surprised. Randy insisted on a test to determine roughly when I had been infected and I was relieved to find that the window given preceded our relationship. I didn’t want to add to his pain; he wasn’t taking his status with the fatalism I often defaulted to.

I wasn’t prepared for all the changes being positive would bring, but I took them as they came. I was lucky that the drugs that would allow me to live had then been available for some years. The most immediate quandary I had was whether or not to share the news with my mother. She and I have always been close——it has something to do with the fact that she had me at nineteen and my father had been a much older, married man. That’s not so uncommon nowadays, but in 1969 for a girl of an Irish-Catholic working-class background it was still verboten, sexual revolution or not. Also making us close was the much denied reality of how very alike we both are in many ways, despite our protestations. These shared attributes make us close, but we have led very different lives, and, as much as we are close, there is frequent friction between us. So I struggled with whether I should share my diagnosis with her for months. The only reason I finally decided to disclose was the fact that I had finally begun the treatment that would allow me to live a normal life span, if not a normal life.

I didn’t travel back to the East Coast to deliver the news, as, so often, I was too busy with Randy and my career. I decided to give her the news over the phone. Much like myself, she didn’t seem shocked; it must have been news she’d long feared. Foremost for her was my reassurances that I’d be fine——I wasn’t going to die anytime soon. My numbers were climbing and I was almost undetectable at that point. My mother has a longstanding role as the devil’s advocate to my beliefs or knowledge, but in this matter she deferred to me and my physician. Also a comfort to her was the fact that I was privy to the best treatment with the most knowledgeable experts in the field. She didn’t question; she accepted and supported.

Now it’s seventeen years later. I’ve been living back in my hometown for ten years now. Time has flown by and I turned fifty last year. My mother’s a wonder; she just turned seventy and barely looks fifty herself. She recently survived breast cancer and I’ve had to accept the idea of her mortality as I had to accept my own at thirty-three. There have been some profound changes in her these past few years. Always a bit forgetful, even in her youth, she has begun to be more and more absent-minded; that was always her way, but she has grown steadily worse. She’s constantly losing things like her keys or her phone. Always one to repeat herself to drive home a point, she now simply forgets what she has told you already and repeats herself constantly. Last year, my brother and stepfather asked me to convince her to talk to her doctor about these issues. She eventually did, but told us that they had run tests and it was just “typical aging.” I wasn’t convinced. Things were getting worse steadily and slowly. One Sunday, I dropped by her place to pick up a check she had written me. She wrote out the check and I left to stop by my brother’s. When I got home, I had three calls from her. I called, and she asked me when I was going to stop by for the check. I was convinced that it was time to take another step and see a specialist. This was not normal.

In the winter and fall, when my parents don’t go to spend weekends at their lake house, we go out to breakfast most Sundays. We were at breakfast about a month ago, and we had ordered our meals. The waitress stopped back at our table and mom asked her when she was going to take our order. We assured her that we had already and my dad excused himself to use the restroom. It was time to bring it up. I asked her if she thought it was time to see a specialist about these memory issues. After a brief pause, she informed me that she had months ago and they ran tests and did scans. My heart was in my mouth as I held her hand across the table. She finally shared what she had only shared with her husband. She was in the beginning stages of dementia. Like my own diagnosis years ago, I was hardly shocked, but I was much more saddened. It was hard not to cry, but I knew my tears would only pain her. We talked about my brother and telling him, but she insisted on waiting until she had had the next set of tests. I briefly argued that she had to tell him, we all had to be prepared, as a family, for what was to come. My mother is as stubborn as I am and so I had to abjure. It was her choice. My brother brought it up not days later; mom had unknowingly let something slip with him. She never could keep a secret, so my brother knew anyway. He was worried that I didn’t know.

All of our lives are a journey; they all come to an end. As hard as it is, I have to accept that my mom has entered the last phase of her journey. Not only that, but the journey won’t be afloat on still waters. She will fade, and there will come a time in these coming years when she won’t recognize the faces of those who love her the most. It’ll hurt, a lot, and as a family, we must give her all the love and patience that is her due. My plans of moving away again must be put aside. I want to spend as much time with her as I can. She’s done so much for me, it’s her due. Tears will come to my eyes, they are now, but I won’t let her see. It will only make her feel bad, my mom is a totally selfless person and I won’t burden her. I’ll treasure each moment I have with her. Who knows how many more there are. As always, her unconditional love, as well as my faith, will see me through.


John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for fifteen years. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he is a literary critic for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.