Marty’s Rings, Mother’s Shame + Truvada, 2021
watercolor, gouache, colored pencil, acrylic and oil on mounted paper in custom frame
In 2005, when she was diagnosed with and began treatments for thyroid cancer, my mother gifted me a pewter ring adorned with a sizable, rectangular-cut, rutilated stone. One corner of the clear stone was chipped in the wavy sort of way that cast glass sometimes breaks, which made me curious about its materiality. Still, I coveted it immediately. She told me this was one of three rings, given to her and my two aunts by my uncle, Marty. It was the second thing my mother gave me that carried his memory, preceded only by the gift of my middle name, Martin. The third gift she shared was the shame and stigma of Marty’s death by HIV/AIDS.
Because she was receiving radiation treatments for her cancer, she was not permitted to be within a few feet of my siblings and I, so we sat on the carpeted floor of the hardly-furnished, fluorescent-lit basement as she surveyed the chains and rings and earrings in her wooden jewelry chest. While I remained transfixed by the ring in my hands, she explained to me how homophobia created a chasm within her family, but HIV took Marty away, and these words became embedded in the ring. I wonder now if it was due to her own reckoning with mortality, or if she recognized queerness in me and was bestowing a warning. This message would be repeated in the spring of 2012, when I came out to my mother. Though, whether she spoke the words again or not, the memory of that warning would flood every time I held the ring; an heirloom-gift wrapped in cellophane-shame.
When I enrolled in the fine arts program at the University of Colorado-Boulder, it was the first time I had health insurance since I was seventeen, and my mother’s dependent. In the week before my first classes began, I made an appointment with the sexual health clinic on campus to discuss preventative medications. I do not take Truvada – the pre-exposure prophylaxis drug – because I, personally, am afraid I may die of AIDS across state lines from my mother. I take Truvada because I am afraid of contracting HIV and having to explain to my mother that I have. I take Truvada because I am afraid of burdening her with immense, unshakable, but unnecessary worry because, unlike her brother’s tragic experience, HIV is no longer a death-sentence as it was in the later 20th century. And so, every night before bed, I swallow the large blue pill, even though my husband and I are primarily monogamous and I am primarily disgusted by ejaculation.
My aunt, Julie, lost her four-year battle against lung cancer in the fall of 2015, after it had spread to her bones and brain. She passed just two days after my grandfather, Ken. Though the family was experiencing immense grief, I feel that it briefly bonded us in a strange way. We had gone from being strewn about the Midwest, to seeing each other regularly throughout that warm September. There was a memorial service held for Julie at the Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison in the week following Ken’s funeral service in Medford, Wisconsin. Afterwards, we were invited to her small, white duplex to claim any belongings before boxes would be brought for donation. Strangely, and almost immediately – amidst the clutter of bills, files, and boxes of knick-knacks on her laminate kitchen counter – I found the ring matching the one gifted to my mother. I palmed it, pocketed it, and now have two sister-rings.