I Couldn’t Save My Dad From AIDS, So I Saved Myself Instead | KUOW News and Information

I Couldn’t Save My Dad From AIDS, So I Saved Myself Instead

Feb 13, 2015

When I was 16 years old I came home from school one day and found my dad crawling around on the kitchen floor in a big pool of blood.

He was down on all fours with a dishrag, trying to mop it up, but there was a lot of blood and it was a small dishrag so things weren’t going very well. When I walked in from the back hallway and saw what he was doing, it wasn’t immediately obvious where the blood had come from.

I stopped in the doorway and stood there for a minute, hoping he’d notice me and offer some kind of explanation. But he just kept scrubbing away.

“Dad,” I said, after a pause. “Hey, Dad.”

He finally looked up at me and smiled placidly.

“I fell,” he said.

Now that he was looking right at me, I could see that some of his hair was caked into a sticky mess on one side of his head.

A little knot of tension let go in the back of my skull. Once I knew the blood was his, I knew what to do: I went to the phone in my bedroom and called a cab. I thought about calling an ambulance, but I wasn’t sure Medicaid would cover it and the last thing we needed was another bill we couldn’t pay.

When I came back out a minute later, Dad had gone back to scrubbing at the blood. Same patch of floor, same dishrag.

He hadn’t even rinsed it.

“Dad,” I said.

He didn’t respond.

“Hey!” I said. “Dad!”

He looked up at me slowly, like he was seeing me for the first time. This was how it was with him now. Everything happened at one- quarter speed, and half of it ended badly. Watching him use a step stool or a kitchen knife was enough to give me nervous fits.

“Come on,” I said. “We need to go downstairs and wait for the cab.”

The author in 1980 with his dog Thunder at their home on Aloha Street in Seattle.
Credit Courtesy of Jason Schmidt

He tried to stand up, but I could see right away that it wasn’t going to happen. The linoleum floor was slippery from all the blood, and Dad was profoundly stoned on painkillers. He went up, he came down. Went up, came down. I watched him flop around for a minute longer than I probably should have, then I stepped in and hoisted him onto his feet. I was worried about the stairs, but he didn’t weigh anything. I carried him down in my arms, like a baby.

When we got outside, we sat down on the front steps and waited for the cab. The building we lived in was an old house that had been subdivided into apartments, so it had a proper porch and a small front yard.

We waited longer than I expected to. Longer than I wanted to. Holding still this long had been hard for me lately. If something bad or scary didn’t happen every few minutes, I started to worry that someone somewhere was saving it up for me.

“My son’ll be home from school soon,” my dad said. I looked over at him. He was staring out at the street. I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right until he followed it up with, “He’s doing really well in school.”

When I understood what was happening I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.

I thought, not for the first time, how satisfying it would be to kill my father. How easy. To just fucking kill him. I went back and forth with myself about whether it was a good idea. There was the whole getting caught thing, but, really, that wasn’t a significant problem. He overdosed on his pain meds all the time. Once or twice a month, I had to sit next to his bed, timing the intervals between his breaths on my cheap digital watch. If he didn’t take one at least every two minutes, I was supposed to call 911. But that would be the time to do it.

If I just held a pillow or a damp cloth over his face one of those nights, I doubted anyone would ask questions. My real hesitation was that I might regret it. Probably not right away, but eventually. If I lived a really long time. And I never wanted to regret anything to do with my dad. When he died – which would happen soon, with or without my help – it was important to me that I’d have the moral authority to despise his memory for the rest of my natural life.

When the cab arrived, I got Dad up and helped him into the back seat.

“Swedish Hospital emergency room, please,” I said to the driver. When we got there, I eased Dad onto the curb and leaned in to pay the cabdriver. “There’s some blood on your seats,” I said, tipping him with my last $5.

“You have to clean it with bleach water. Wear gloves.” He looked at me like he had no idea what I was talking about.

“Gloves?” I said, making totally incomprehensible gestures, like jazz hands. “You have to wear gloves. His blood’s poison. You understand poison? You have to wear gloves.”

The cabdriver gave me a look and nodded. I handed him the money and he drove away. Then I got my dad up again and helped him along through the automatic doors, into the emergency room. It was a slow day at the hospital or something. When they saw me come through the doors they all came running: a couple of nurses and an orderly with a gurney.

“What happened?” one of the nurses asked.

“He fell and hit his head,” I said. “But be careful with him. He’s got AIDS.”

They all skidded to a stop. One of them put on a pair of elbow- length gloves and helped me get Dad onto the gurney. The others left and came back in blue plastic moon suits with huge Plexiglas face shields.

“I feel sick,” Dad said, as the hospital people surrounded him on the gurney.

“We’ve got him,” one of the space-suited nurses said to me.

I stood back while they wheeled him into an exam room. One of the orderlies barely managed to get a bedpan in front of him before he sat up and vomited into it. It was a wet, focused explosion, like he was breathing fire.

Every so often one of them would ask me a question: What was he on? Did he have any allergies? How long ago did this happen?

I don’t know how long I stood there before I looked down and noticed I was covered with his blood.

Jason Schmidt, left, and his dad in 1988 at their Summit Avenue apartment in Seattle. This may be the last photograph taken of the two.
Credit Courtesy of Jason Schmidt

'No Law Protects Gay Men'

Bellingham had a reputation as a pretty liberal town, but the judges at the debate tournament that day were more of the same snooty white, polyester- clad church ladies I’d come to expect at these things.

In my second round, the first person to speak was a standard-issue exurban Young Republican: a compact white girl in a red gingham dress, blue cardigan, red bow in her hair. Thick glasses in round frames that made her eyes look slightly crossed, and black patent leather Mary Janes.

She looked at the paper that told us what the subjects were, then kept her head down for a few minutes while she planned her angle of attack.

“You see them in the city,” the girl said. “You see them on TV. Some days it seems like we see them everywhere. Men. Walking down the streets. Holding hands. Kissing.”

My head snapped up.

“Everyone knows by now that there’s an epidemic overtaking these men. God’s punishment, some say. Or maybe it’s just a disease. Either way, the question for the rest of us is simple: What should we do? Should we spend taxpayer money to search for a cure for this plague?

“I say no. I say that the wages of sin are paid by the sinners. This isn’t our problem. Let them reap what they’ve sown.”

She kept talking for another three and a half minutes, but I didn’t hear much of the rest of it. I was caught up in a sensation I’d never experienced before. I’d read about it, I’d even seen it in movies, but I didn’t know it happened in real life. I saw red. My ears filled with the sound of an ocean. I nearly blacked out.

I crushed my pen in my hand and dropped the fragments on the floor next to me. It wasn’t that I’d never heard this sort of thing before; I’d seen it on TV bunches of times. I’d seen it on The 700 Club with Pat Robertson.

I’d heard Jesse Helms say it on the floor of Congress. It had been written in op-ed columns and on magazine covers and on posters. Talk radio hosts had said it. Eddie Murphy made AIDS jokes, and everyone at my school loved Eddie Murphy. But all those people were, fundamentally, performers.

The author, Jason Schmidt, senior year at Garfield High School. Two-hundred dollar jacket, $9 haircut.
Credit Courtesy of Jason Schmidt

Now here was this girl, saying it in a room full of people. And nobody was getting up and storming out. The judge wasn’t gasping in horror and shaking her head while she scribbled reproachful notes on the girl’s scorecard. This was just happening.

I could hear my dad’s voice in my head. “People could come to our house, burn it down with us in it, and nobody would try to stop them or punish them for it. No law protects gay men.”

'You Need To Make A Plan'

In the three years since he’d been diagnosed, AIDS support organizations had been growing up steadily around the city. As they got bigger, they started helping him out – and, by extension, helping me.

That’s when Frank started coming to our apartment. He was a nice old man in his late 60s. He had short white hair, and he usually dressed in slacks and polo shirts.

He came about once a week, did the dishes, swept, vacuumed, and sometimes cleaned out the refrigerator. It bothered me having someone cleaning my house. It was embarrassing, because it was necessary.

After a couple of weeks, Frank and I got to talking. We talked about all kinds of things, but he mostly seemed interested in what I was going to do after high school.

The conversation happened in bits and pieces over time. I didn’t like talking about it.

I had no idea what I was going to do after high school. I didn’t even know how I was going to live. Partly, it was that I didn’t believe I was going to. Partly it was just that I didn’t understand the mechanisms involved. My dad had always paid the bills. He never had me help him with it or showed me how it was done.

I wouldn’t even turn 17 till a few months after I graduated. That left a year where I’d be a nonperson, with no place to go and nothing to do. In theory I was supposed to live with my dad’s oldest brother, my uncle John, if my dad died before I was 18.

That was the deal Dad and John had worked out after he was diagnosed. But I knew I wasn’t going to do that. There was no point. If I went there, it was only a matter of time before I screwed it up so badly that I’d have to leave.

“Jason,” Frank said one day while he was sweeping, “would you mind if I . . . offer an opinion?”

“Go ahead,” I said.

He stopped and leaned on the kitchen counter. “You’re sure? It’s a bit strong. I wouldn’t want to make you angry.”

I sighed. “Go ahead.”

“Well, all right. If you don’t change course – if you don’t have something waiting for you, even if it’s just something to occupy you until you turn 18, you’re not going to make it. You need to make a plan for next year.”

I tried to think about what he was saying, instead of just flying off the handle.

“I don’t have a lot of options,” I said. “I can’t afford college. And I’m pretty sure I’ve missed all the application deadlines.”

“Well,” he said, “that’s true. But suppose it weren’t? Which college would you want to go to?”

“Evergreen?” I said, naming a four-year college in Olympia, 80 or so miles away.

“Why Evergreen?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I hear it’s kind of a hippie school.”

“I see,” he said.

The next week, when Frank came to clean, he had an application for admission to The Evergreen State College, and a Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

“Listen,” he said, when he showed it to me. “I know this is an inconvenience. But I’d consider it a personal favor if you’d fill these out.”

“Frank,” I said, “there’s no way I can get in. The application deadline already passed. Even if I got in, I couldn’t afford it.

"Look, it says right here that the priority filing date for financial aid was last month.”

“I know,” he said. “And you’re probably right. Let’s call it a contingency plan. Please fill it out. Just to humor me.”

I sighed.

“You know what I did before I retired?” he asked. “Principal.

“I had a lot of students over the years. Some of them work in colleges. You fill it out and send it in. Let me see what I can do.”

Jason Schmidt and his dad around 1976 in Eugene, Oregon.
Credit Courtesy of Jason Schmidt

Falling Apart

My dad died in January of 1990, less than a month before what would have been his 40th birthday, and a few months after I turned 17.

I told most of my classmates at Evergreen that my dad had died of tuberculosis. It was the lie he and I had settled on when he first got sick. And not just because of homophobia. A 1985 Los Angeles Times poll had said that a majority of Americans favored forcing AIDS patients into quarantine camps.

Then a U.S. congressman named Dannemeyer had actually suggested doing it. In the pre-Internet age, Xerox copies of newspaper articles about that kind of thing were passed around the AIDS community like banned books.

It all seemed crazy, but World War II hadn’t been that long ago and nobody wanted to find themselves sitting in a bunk house in central California, surrounded by guard towers and barbed wire, thinking, “Wow. They actually did it.”

Staying in the closet about my own family background kept me at a boil for months, and then years, but I had other problems. It was true that my old life had ended when my dad died, but I carried fragments of it around inside me afterward, like pieces of shrapnel I’d picked up in some unpopular covert war, and they ate at me in ways that surprised me.

I started to shake apart. It was little things at first. I’d always had trouble sleeping, but at Evergreen it just spiraled. By the end of my first year, I was going days at a time without rest. And when I finally did sleep, it was rarely for more than four or five hours at a time.

By the end of my second year, I was behind on my rent, unemployed, and I was only passing about half my classes. I figured I was doing myself more harm than good staying in school, so I dropped out and went back to Seattle.

Gospel Of Frank

Frank and I had lost touch while I was at Evergreen. Or it might have been more accurate to say he’d let me go. Not because he wanted to, but because it had been our arrangement; there were no strings attached to the help he gave me.

So he sent me a few letters telling me I was welcome at his house for Thanksgiving, or for Christmas, if I happened to be in town, but that I shouldn’t feel obligated. And when I didn’t respond, he let that be that. I appreciated his forbearance.

In a certain light, Frank was as straight as they came. He was an old white guy, a retired professional, married, with a grown son. But his career path, as an educator, had been in public service. And when he retired, instead of going on cruises or traveling in Europe, he’d volunteered to clean houses for a group of people that the rest of the country wanted to banish to quarantine camps.

He hadn’t done any of it because Jesus told him to. He’d done it because it was right. Or maybe because someone had done it for him once. He would have been a good example in any case. But then he helped me, when nobody else could or would. And when I took his help, I promised to follow his example.

When I was 3, my grandma had told me that all I needed to do in order to be saved was to invite Jesus into my heart. Later, I understood that the ritual she was talking about was really just a metaphor for internalizing a value set or an idea. But Frank W. Ross – there was a guy I could commit to.

Once my path was clear, I just started to put one foot in front of the other. I enrolled in a community college. I set my sights on a four-year college.

I didn’t just turn into a happy person overnight, and I never went straight. I was still angry. I still had days and nights when I imagined some unnamable doom hanging over me. But when the fear came close to paralyzing me, or I thought about taking a step closer to the cliff edges that seemed to surround me on every side, there was always my promise to Frank to pull me back.

I couldn’t save a life from prison. I couldn’t save a life if I was dead. I started putting one foot in front of the other. It really was that easy. It was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do in my life.

Jason Schmidt was born in Eugene, Oregon, in 1972 and was raised up and down the I-5 corridor — but mostly on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. This essay is from his memoir, "A List of Things That Didn’t Kill Me," published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a Macmillan imprint. He holds a BA in creative writing and a law degree, both from the University of Washington. He lives in Seattle with his family and is working on his second book. 

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The Seattle Story Project: First-person reflections published at KUOW.org. These are essays, stories told on stage, photos and zines. To submit a story - or note one you've seen that deserves more notice - contact Isolde Raftery at iraftery@kuow.org or 206-616-2035.