My mother’s best friend has HIV. She’s been living with it for as long as I can remember. But, she looks and acts nothing like the image and temperament commonly associated with someone afflicted with a life-long sickness. In fact, she’s boisterous and free-spirited with a penchant for flashing her breasts, which she recently had surgically augmented, at any gathering she attends.
She’s a former gang member and widow who contracted the disease from her children’s deceased father, an intravenous heroin user. Her history is one of violence and abuse. I’ve been privy to tales of her orchestrating vicious beatings to her children from my sister’s perspective(she’s their aunt). It’s all for entertainments sake and her daughters reminisce and laugh at one another for being foolish enough to piss her off in the first place, detailing particular whacks and howls to brighten the image. Brooms, bread loaves, slippers, belts. You name it, she could weaponize it – Jason Bourne style – according to them. She humiliated and berated the kids in public, little provocation necessary. Even in more present times she remains a firecracker. Whenever I have visited her home, which is quite rare, she’s offered way too much information into her personal life, usually alarming sex stories that always left me more confused than amused. Should she engage in casual sex in her condition? At her age? Is it dangerous?
Nevertheless, horror stories and gross sexual escapades notwithstanding, the single most prevalent image I hold of her still, is that of a unifying matriarch, a mother-figure who ceaselessly kept her family together above everything else. Holidays, as my family barely remembers to text one another, she’s in photographs with all her children – currently grown and raising their own families – celebrating, toasting to life and good company. Her daughters have multiple offspring and even her grandchildren have children. Yet, they’re all interlocked, lives purposely designed to intersect, each an active participant in all the other’s affairs, supportive and caring. They revolve around her like the planets orbit the Sun, a symbiotic relationship, giving her purpose and enriching their own lives in the process. It’s beautiful.
And it’s in moments like these – observing her family’s parsimony through Instagram pictures and Facebook statuses – that I recognize what matters most when quantifying a person’s overall character: their relationship with their loved one’s. For all her flaws and bewildering behavior, she unequivocally succeeded at raising her family into a nourishing and complementary community. So many different personalities, all successful to a significant degree in their respective careers, never losing touch, never forgetting the unbreakable bond that weaves itself through the lineage, present when it counts. This New Year’s Eve marked the umpteenth time my family – parents, siblings, and cousins – were scattered about like ashes in a flowing breeze while my mother’s best friend spent time with everyone who mattered foremost in her life. The joy on their faces was apparent as their arms wrapped over one another’s shoulders posing for the camera and in more candid moments of conversation and tomfoolery, another warm gathering for another delightful memory.
A sharp pain suddenly snapped into place. The cold truth and its frosted clutches were gripping at me, telling me my family was no longer any competition. If we wished to compete, we would have a lot of work to do. I wonder if they’re up for the task.