Beginning with this print edition and continuing through the year, qnotes is proud to present Trevion and Norena Gutierrez’ column series. Together, mother and son recount their shared experiences in learning of Trevion’s HIV status and navigating life in the wake of the news. Now, Trevion and Norena each open up about their reactions and emotions as they individually and collectively live out a new reality. Trevion, 17 at the time of his diagnosis, is now 18. His story is emblematic of the experiences of young gay, bisexual or other men who have sex with men. Recent data collected over the past several years shows a significantly and rapidly rising HIV transmission rate for young men, especially youth of color. Trevion and Norena are excited to share their experiences in this new column series, published every other issue with special editions coinciding this year with Charlotte Pride and our annual World AIDS Day print edition. Follow along with the column series online at goqnotes.com/youngpoz/. As you begin the series, be sure also to hop back online on Monday, April 27 to read our feature interview with Trevion and Norena.
Trevion: “Say What?”
I was a little confused and pissed off when the doctors took my mom to tell her about the status of my health. Although I know she has my best interests at heart and loves me, I was the one who had been bleeding out of his eyes, throwing up and soiling himself. I think I was a little freaked out about it, too. I had assumed that it was a really bad case of the flu. Why wouldn’t they just inform us together if that were the case?
Thinking back on that day, a part of me knew it was going to be bad. I knew the statistics of being young, black and gay. African-Americans have some of the highest HIV infection rates in the country. I knew I had been promiscuous previously, no matter how many layers of protection I wore (don’t ask). So I wasn’t surprised when the nurse took me to a little room with at least nine other people, including my mom.
I looked over at her, and noticed that her face was red and her eyelids were puffy. She had been crying. She had never seen me this sick. I smiled at her and gave my cheeriest, “Hi, mom.” I was lying with false cheer. There was no cheer in me at that moment. I was weak, tired and nauseous. But no one was going to find out, because I am pretty good at hiding it, or so I thought. I have this thing about needing to make people think I’m okay, when really I’m not okay at all. Finally, I wanted to get it over with. I hate hospitals. So germy, so scary, so ominous. What is wrong with me? Why am I so sick? That’s all I wanted to know.
“What’s up?” I asked the doctors. I was attempting to lighten the oh-so-serious mood in the room. It had no effect on those men and women. They could probably tell I was just as nervous as my mom. And I could tell by their fake smiles that I might want to run soon — and far away. Then, the doctor spoke. “Trevion, please sit down,” he said as I hugged my mom. That’s when I remember things falling into slow motion. I knew “it” was going to be bad. He continued, “As you know, we’ve done some blood work recently, and your test for HIV has come back positive.” BAM. Just like that, my life was slammed into perspective. And there was no escaping it.
I took a deep breath and stood up. “Can I, uh, take a moment?” I asked in the silence that was suddenly so loud. I didn’t wait for them to answer and left the room without a word. My thoughts became a blur: “Say what? HIV? Holy shit!!” And then I was back to earth, and thinking of what to say. How do I sound not too distressed, but how to also not sound emotionally detached from the situation? And, oh God, my mother. What does she think of me now? I must seem like a whore to all these doctors, a total whore!
I knew where I got it. Wait, where did I get HIV from? Who gave it to me? When? Two thousand thoughts all flying into my head at the same time — and yet, in the chaos, I also knew that it wasn’t my fault. It’s a virus. Situations are difficult. And explaining them can be harder. How do I deal with this as it is now? I re-entered the room and sat down, taking Mom’s hands. “Are you okay?” I asked, still knowing that the true answer was “No.” She avoided my question, making sure I was okay. We are both in shock. She tells me she’s there for me “no matter what.” And I guess at that time, it’s what we both needed.
I know I participated in the conversation for the next several minutes, but I can’t tell you anything that was said. It’s not whether or not you’re okay, but it’s how you deal with not being okay in that moment. I was there, HIV-positive no matter what.
Norena: Your son is HIV+”
I knew it was serious when the doctor said, “We need you to leave work and meet with us at 2 p.m.” I walked into what felt like a broom closet with a lot of stuff in it at the Levine Children’s Hospital where my beautiful 17-year-old son had been very ill for over a week. It was worse than walking into the principal’s office, which I had done many times on behalf of this kid. There were no less than nine doctors and medical professionals there. Some in white coats, some not. I felt the surge of energy go to my head and then to the pit of my stomach as I sat down.
“Thank you for coming on such short notice,” the doctor started. “As you know, we have tested for HIV and your son is HIV-positive.” He took a long pause. I held my breath and then exhaled quietly. I could feel myself go into shock — right then, right there. It was the “I can’t think, what did he just say, oh my God, what? What’s happening, did you say HIV Positive?” crazy moment in my head. The chief physician of infectious diseases was clearly trained in giving such news to patients and parents alike. He then said, “It’s okay if you don’t hear anything else, we will have lots of time to talk.” More pause. More silence.
I took a moment to look at the faces in the room. I had just been introduced to them customarily, but I couldn’t remember anyone’s name now. I knew this was “one of those moments” and so I got present in my body and I looked, really looked at the people who were gathered. They met my gaze in a deep loving and ever so kind way. The silence was okay with them. There was a slight smile, a look away. It was all they could do to comfort me.
I knew instinctively that these were the medical professionals who were going to save my son’s life. They were going to help me learn, cope, and be the best mother to my child. They were going to help me get through it, somehow. And I didn’t even know what “it” was. I just knew “it” was HIV.
A tear started to sneak out of my eye. I was holding it back, hard. Because I knew what followed next were more tears. I wanted to seem to the medical staff that I was a strong single Latina mom and I got here by myself adopting my now HIV-positive son and his baby brother 16 years ago. The tear dropped on my shirt and then the tears started rolling down my cheeks and there was no stopping. I knew I wasn’t going to lose it in front of everyone. I had a child who was deathly ill at the end of the ninth floor and I didn’t know what I was going to do next.
I bravely said, “When I signed the adoption papers, I signed up for ‘the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.’ We have had so much Good, and we had some Bad and we will get through this with your help.” There was then a discussion about his viral load and the CD4. I nodded my head like I knew what they were talking about, but it was just some new vocabulary; I had no idea what they were talking about. I remember something about eight million. There was a pause.
“When should we tell your son?” the doctor asked. “How do you think he will take the news?” Really? You want me to guess how my child will react? I graciously said, “I have no idea.” That was the answer for both. The shock wave came back. HIV. HIV. HIV. Positive. I thought to myself, I have no idea what HIV is these days. All I remember is being in San Francisco circa 1989 and going to the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit after he died of AIDS and that if you got HIV, you died. And, you should always wear a condom.
I joined the conversation in the room. I felt my son needed to hear why he was so sick. When is the best time to tell him? I thought it should be sooner than later. With my approval, the doctors said they could start treatment and in about a week, my son would be significantly better and he could be told then. I said, “No, I can’t make it that long. When I look at my child, he knows me and he will know that something is up.” More conversation between the therapist and the doctors ensued, all a blur to me.
“Let’s bring him in and go ahead with sharing the information.” The tears were still falling and my nose was now messy, drippy, yick. I asked for a tissue. There were no tissues in the whole damn room. (This would turn out to be a theme for the next 40 days in the hospital!) Really? The head nurse of the children’s unit retrieved some and I asked to go splash some water on my face before Trevion walked in for the news. I went into the hall not feeling my body and then feeling like I was going to collapse. I reached for the bars on the wall. I held on for dear life. I took some deep breaths. My mind racing, “Oh God, be with me. Angels be with me. Ohhh… My dear sweet child… Pull it together Mommy…you were chosen to be his mother for this moment right now.” I somehow made it to the bathroom and was able to splash cold water on my face. My eyes were red, but not too bad. As soon as he looked at me, he would know something was up. He knows me so well, this beautiful child.
When I rejoined everyone in the broom closet, Trevion was already there. I walked in and sat next to him and he said, “Hi Mom!” He knew something was up, there was too many people in the room. The chief of infectious diseases started in again. “Trevion, you know we did an HIV test and you are HIV-positive.” Just like that. Trevion gulped, looked down, and I could see my child go into shock. Just like when I adopted him at 18 months. One day he was with his 15-year-old birth mom in Texas and the next day he was with me flying to Idaho. He was in shock for months, I just didn’t know the look, but I knew it now.
Silence. “Wow,” Trevion whispered as he looked down and then at the doctor who had just given him the news. They locked eyes. And then he leaned over and took my hand and said quietly, “Are you okay?” He looked into those red teary-eyes of mine and with everything I had, I was saying, “I love you so much, son,” and I said, “Yes, mijo [Spanish for ‘my son’], I am here no matter what.” : :
COMING MONDAY: Be sure to come back on Monday, April 27 for our feature interview with Trevion and Norena. Get to know them and their family better as their column series begins.