Back in the early 90’s I was in a writer’s group in California. We started out meeting at each other’s houses and around the time of the incident I’m about to share, we had settled on bi-weekly meetings at Leslie’s large house in Bell Canyon. Even though it was a 30-minute ride from my house in the suburban San Fernando Valley, I liked the drive to her house, which took me past the empty Chatsworth Reservoir and the stony ridges that were immortalized in countless black and white Westerns in the mid-20th Century. It was nice to be reminded there were still semi-rural expanses in the second largest city in the country and the drive gave me time to think about the young adult novel I was attempting to craft. Until this point, I had been lucky to have twenty of my novels published, both under my own name and as a ghostwriter for several successful series. I felt my luck was running out, though, as my recent proposals had been greeted with indifference or outright rejection. I was hoping for some encouragement from the group.
It was still light when I drove up the winding road to Leslie’s house and several cars were already parked along the hill across the street. I was always glad to see the group. There were about six of us, all women, married with young or teenage children. All except one. Katy. She was an attractive tall blonde, around twenty, taking courses at the local community college and not quite sure what to do with her life. She did love to write, often crafting short stories about fantasy figures, sometimes coming to the group with a poem. I wish I could remember the specifics of her work but my memory is dim on these details. I do remember that everything she wrote came with an extra dose of enthusiasm, her impossibly long arms flailing wildly to help illustrate the action of her words.
But tonight was not to be one of those nights. In fact, the bulk of the meeting was focused on some deeply concerning news. Leslie, who was friend of Katy’s mom, told us that Katy was in the hospital. We’d known for a while that she’d been dealing with some sort of stomach issue—possibly colitis--and as far as Leslie knew, this medical stay was related to that. Leslie was assured that Katy was expected to be released in a few days and be as good as new after that.
I didn’t know how soon after that Katy got out of the hospital. A couple of days after the meeting, I was on a plane to New York, to spend a month at our recently built vacation house with my two kids. Outside of the writer’s group I didn’t have any contact with any of these women, but upon my return to California I got an email from Pat, the woman I felt closest to in the group, telling me that the next meeting was going to take place at Katy’s house.
I didn’t think anything unusual about this. All of us had hosted meetings at our houses before and perhaps Leslie wanted or needed a break. Nevertheless, I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to see when I was led into the house by Katy’s mother.
Katy was lying on a sofa in their den under a home-knit afghan. She was noticeably thinner, as if someone had attached a pump to her side and drained half her weight and energy from her. Katy’s face was also masked by glasses with some of the thickest lenses I’d ever seen. I had no idea if she’d worn contacts all this time, but something told me these weren’t her regular glasses. She seemed to have trouble seeing anything and as the night wore on without her saying even one word, there seemed to be no doubt that something was seriously wrong.
But what? Nobody had told me anything about Katy’s condition and after the meeting was over, it was clear why. Nobody else knew about this and were all as shocked as I was. Pat told me that Katy ended up in the hospital for two weeks, but even Leslie couldn’t get a read out on what was wrong with her. Katy’s mother was tight lipped about it, only telling Leslie that there had been a slight setback but the prognosis was good for Katy. She told Leslie that the medicine Katy was taking had affected her eyesight and they were all hoping it would improve in time. Being a devout Catholic, she also urged Leslie to pray for Katy and asked her to convey that message to the rest of us.
Our prayers didn’t seem to be working. At the following meeting, we learned that Katy was now nearly totally blind. She had hopes for rejoining our group but needed to take a break while she recovered. She hoped we all understood.
I never saw Katy again. About a month later I got the call from Leslie that Katy had died. She gave me the details about her funeral and added that Katy’s mother had just told her that Katy had wanted us at her house because even though she knew at that point that she was dying and barely had the energy to pick up a pen, she wanted to feel like a writer for one last time.
“Why didn’t she tell us she was dying?” I wondered.
“I don’t know,” Leslie said. After a brief speculation about being in denial we agreed to go to the funeral as a group, to pay our last respects to our youngest member.
It was in death that Katy’s parents finally admitted what they couldn’t bear to say while Katy was alive. Katy had had AIDS. She’d contracted it at some unknown earlier point from one of the several blood transfusions she’d had in connection with her digestive issues. At the time, there was no viable treatment for AIDS, and when the diagnosis was finally made, there was nothing left to do than give her palliative care for the time she had remaining.
I felt not only sad but angry when I heard this. I was a much different person back then, very very quiet and not prone to expressing myself very well in public. I wanted the opportunity to tell Katy that I appreciated her and let her know she wasn’t alone or didn’t need to feel like she was. I wanted to let her know that AIDS was a cruel disease not a reflection of her character. I might have encouraged her to write about her feelings and of her dealings with this illness, as a legacy she could leave for others. I felt cheated that I didn’t get the chance to do this.
I was mostly mad at her conservative parents, who had gone out of their way to keep Katy’s prognosis a secret from everyone, even a close friend like Leslie. Because to let on that Katy was dying, they’d have to explain why, and I had the feeling that to them AIDS was still a dirty word and an illness they felt brought shame to their family. They must have felt that the pretense of pretending that all would be well had spared Katy from the derision they felt she was sure to get when it was known what was about to kill her. I wanted to yell at them that, instead, they robbed Katy of her dignity and ability to have closure with those that loved her and cared about her. They also perpetuated the idea that having a disease that was first diagnosed within a population they so obviously distained was somehow a black mark on their daughter. I hated their closed-mindedness and wished there was something I could do to change it.
I didn’t do any of this, out of my own fears. I’m ashamed to admit I stayed quiet because it was easier to do so and I deeply regret my inaction to this day.
At the time Newsweek magazine had a back of the book column called My Turn, which featured essays from the public on a wide-ranging set of topics. For weeks after that, I kept telling myself that I’d submit Katy’s story to them, as a way of keeping her memory alive and hoping to do something about the stigma that surrounded AIDS. I never did this, either. I was too inside my head, too insecure of my ability to express what was in my heart and too afraid Katy’s parents would figure out I was talking about them--even if I used fake names--and too cowardly to stand up and defend myself if I needed to do so.
I never forgot about Katy and this little piece is my way of honoring her memory more than two and a half decades after her death. I often wonder if she would have continued her writing and what that would have looked like. Had she lived she’d be old enough to be reading her fantasy stories to her own children and I could imagine her acting out those scenes for them, prancing around the room like the elves and fairies of her imagination. At least, that’s the way I hoped it would have been.
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