Come, follow me: A walk with the grateful dead

From the 7-10-1994 Daily Sparks, Nev., Tribune

Come, follow me, to a dark and shame-filled place deep inside all of us. Come, follow me, to the edge of that chasm between fear and understanding. Walk with me and peer over the precipice of that fetid, bottomless crevasse from which springs all the demonic fears which have afflicted us since our short span began.

Traveling to the other side is our life's work and spawns the conflicts which bedevil us. Some can clearly see the promised land. For so many others, the demons cloud their vision and the conflicts worsen their anxieties. Such is our journey, the better from which to learn.

Every so often, we are granted a little help along the way. The latest opportunity is presented by the current controversy over locating a group home for AIDS victims on Ponderosa Drive, an island of Washoe County in northwest Sparks. The good people in the neighborhood have done us all a big favor: they have held up a mirror to the bulging valley by the mucky Truckee. Do we like what we see?

Longtime residents of the area say their opposition is not about AIDS.

Who's kidding whom? These days, to identify fear and prejudice, you must translate the code words. (To learn the latest from the lurking lexicon, watch a few episodes of Rush Limbaugh, Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. David Duke is also a master.)

In opposing the group home, Washoe County Planning Commissioner Alan Rock expressed fears of too much traffic.

"Obviously, you people have a lot of friends. They're all going to come visit," he said.

You people. The same words Ross Perot used to describe blacks, another long-disfavored class. Alan Rock has learned to speak in tongues. He asserts that he has no conflict of interest, even though his parents live on Ponderosa Drive. Methinks thou doth protest too much.

The proposed home can accommodate all of six people. Rev. Glenda Cross Dvorak says the greater area needs five or six more such facilities. AIDS cases are increasing as the disease broadens its base with the general population. We can either deal with the plague or ignore it at our peril. We can shun the disfavored as lepers, or do something noble for the least of our brethren, as a famous philosopher once said.

Come, follow me now, on a journey I took in 1988 to the town's first attempt at such a corporal work of mercy.

Washoe County's Leper Colony

From the 8-19-1988 Daily Sparks, Nev., Tribune

It could have been any garden party in any Nevada backyard. Nicely dressed folks. Little kids frolicking. Lots of home-cooked food. Lush greenery embellished with flower shop flowers, even one standup spray. Folks just mostly socializing until the aging gentleman wearing the tie stood up with a Bible in his hand.

Some sat down, like me. Others stood. The kids got quiet. As the man with the Bible spoke, someone handed me a helium-filled balloon. Several hundred of them were gradually offered up to the tufted clouds in the bright blue sky over Sparks. If I ever have a funeral, I'd like to have balloons, too.

The old gentleman delivered the standard consolations about death and rebirth, the same vanilla dished up to every grieving family. His final remarks were directed toward the mother of the deceased, seated right in front of him. By no means the youngest, she was easily the most striking woman there.

"Mom" has the looks of a Hollywood leading lady one picture past her prime. Add four or five years to Linda Evans and you'll have a good idea. One of Mom's relatives told my wife "if you think she looks great now, you should have seen her before she found out about him last year."

What had Mom found out? That her tall, handsome son had AIDS. A year of watching death and washing bloody bedsheets had made its mark on that cover-girl face.

What he died of probably did less damage to her than how and where. His last days were spent in the the Truckee Meadows' newly established AIDS leper colony. Mom had taken me there a few days before.

"You can handle it, Andy. You're a big, strong guy."

I was nowhere near that sure.

His room at the leper colony wasn't bad by Beirut standards. Hot and muggy, the spare white-ish walls seemed to sweat along with you. Posters substituted for wallpaper. Most of them I can only describe as pseudo-Maxfield Parrish fantasy scenes: Two spirits floating hand-in-hand over a beautiful wooded scene. A ghost hovering over a mystical night-time lake.

The roomscape was littered with an illogical array of the past and present. A gumball machine. Unicorn dolls. Fred Flintstone's pet dinosaur, Dino. Superboy's dog, Krypto. Tweety and Sylvester. A new package of diapers and a box of surgical gloves lay on a table under a small window only half-covered by a torn green garbage bag.

I thought AIDS victims were supposed to look like the walking skeleton prisoners of Auschwitz, but this Mom's son looked more like Jesus Christ on the cross. Tall and gaunt. Matted hair and beard. Eyes neither open nor closed. I wouldn't have guessed if I hadn't been told.

"He's gotten so childlike lately, like he used to be when he was a little boy," Mom sort of sing-songed at me in low, pinched tones. Mom has never had a facelift and shows nary a wrinkle. But I witnessed a remarkable change as she put on surgical gloves and knelt at the mattresses on the bare floor.

The closer she got to her son, the older she became. The strikingly beautiful face got wrinkled and drawn. He growled something to her. She whispered into his ear and looked up at me, standing there, feeling as out of place as if I had walked in on a young mother breast-feeding her baby.

"He wants to go to Taco Bell," she sing-songed again, as if referring to a cute little five-year old, not this six footer who once weighed over 200 pounds. Not this bleary hulk who lay curled in her arms like a fragile, dying bird.

The leper colony does not have all the comforts of home. Mom was advised by a nurse just to take sheets and clothes to a public laundromat. She refused.

"My son was a victim of AZT as well as AIDS," she told me. "That so-called wonder drug devastated him. It destroyed his bowels and kidneys, causing hemorrhaging and total loss of bowel and bladder control."

She did his laundry at her house, running items through several times and using six gallons of bleach a month. She threw a lot of stuff out.

"We went through 14 blankets in the past year and I couldn't buy enough sheets."

As we drove away, I asked why she didn't bring him home to die. She started to cry.

She had held it all together so well in the room with him. Now, at a stoplight, with the powder from the surgical gloves still streaked on her hands, her steely resolve collapsed.

"He chose to be there. He said it was too hard on me to be with him all the time. I couldn't lift him anymore," she said in a sob that mixed frustration with desperation.

He was also being hounded by bill collectors and they knew her address. He simply didn't have the strength to fight for his life and fight off dun calls.

Mom told me that the horrible financial pressure had really turned him around for the worse. And so he became the initial tenant of the saddest address in town.

Nevada's first AIDS leper colony serves a function born of necessity. These good people need a place to go to die without fear. The leper colony is an average house in an average neighborhood, but it's also located inside of you. Inside your darkest fear. A place of hopelessness, helplessness and despair. A place you never want to go. It's scary and you should indeed be scared. Scared enough to do something about it.

"We need land for a clinic, a place where they can go. They need so many things, secretarial help, legal aid, help with applications for Social Security and Medicare. And they need these facilities under one roof," Mom said as we drove.

Ten hours later, her handsome kid died.


The above column was honored with a second-place award from the Nevada Press Association at its 1989 gathering in Carson City. | Current U-News | Front Page Story Archives
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Copyright © 1988, 1994, 2004, 2008, 2010 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 35-year Nevadan, a member Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of and Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune since 1988.

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