Sylvia Zingeser is a writer and a poet whose son, Aaron/Arnie, died of AIDS in 1992. She has written and self-published a book of stories and poems about his last days, Scared of That, Living While Dying of AIDS. She has been the keynote presenter at Portland Pride.
Sylvia has worked her entire life as a medical technologist, still working on-call as of January 2020. As someone whose family has experienced suicide and mental illness, and as someone who was married to a police officer, Sylvia volunteers for NAMI Multnomah (National Alliance on Mental Illness), and also serves on the Training Advisory Council to the Portland Police Bureau. She is a member of PFLAG, an environmentalist, and an avid dancer, especially of contra dancing, Balkan, Israeli, International, and Russian character dancing.
Sylvia believes in the common good of the people, regardless of beliefs, ethnicity, or sexuality. She lives with her husband and fellow contra dancer, Will Summerlight, in Portland, Oregon.
Email Sylvia firstname.lastname@example.org
“A society is only as successful as it takes care of its weakest members.”
In 1986 my eldest son, Aaron, was diagnosed with ARC (AIDS-Related Complex). He didn’t have the classic AIDS symptoms, even though his AIDS test was positive. That’s when I realized he probably would not survive. How could he? Gay men were dying by the dozens in 1986.
I had been worried about him as early as 1979. At times, he looked frail, his hair was straggly. He didn’t look right to me, like some kind of cancer or some other awful disease or syndrome was lurking in his body.
After his ARC diagnosis, Aaron started sharing with me his life, we had a lot to talk about. He pulled no punches about how this was going to affect him, me, his brother, our entire family. I didn’t want to lose those conversations, so I enrolled in writing classes at Portland Community College--Sylvania Campus, Portland, Oregon, to learn how to capture those conversations.
After several years of writing and editing/publishing classes, I self-published Scared of That, Living While Dying of AIDS.
There are a lot more conversations to write about. Aaron was funny, full of life, and often handled his illness with dark humor. His therapist, Jody Reiss, of Jewish and Family Services in San Francisco, said in his obituary, “He looked straight into the abyss.”
Aaron planned his funeral, including where he wanted to be buried.
He had a complicated life by being born gay. As one psychologist said, “He was conceived gay.”
I quit counting the times I pass through the exit door
that faces east of a clinic's nurses' station
at Mt. Zion Hospital.
Each time I cross its threshold on my way
to the AIDS clinic, anxiety fills my chest travels
to my throat across my shoulders and down
into my arms.
What verdict will I receive today?
Will my blood tests show deterioration?
Will the x-rays show suspicious looking spots?
Will I have to fight with the pharmacy for my
pain medications because someone behind
the window thinks I'm just a druggie using AIDS
as an excuse?
Will I have to track the social worker down
because something wasn't right with my paperwork?
And I wonder what other patients think as they watch
from their chairs the steady stream of young men
and occasional young woman who walk through
the door marked exit on their way to the AIDS clinic.
My son and I were trapped for four months,
prisoners behind bars,
in his Rex Arms apartment.
AIDS snapped the trap
tight over Aaron's legs
so he couldn't walk.
While he lay in a hospital bed
the virus curled
his strong bones.
His butterfly shoulders
which swam so hard, wilted
like a cut rose without water.
For six months
he rarely flinched
as he stared at his death.
His last day of life, the trap snapped open,
he woke up, and
conducted his final exit.
Recognized for outstanding volunteer service
March 25, 1995, Westin St. Francis, San Francisco
I didn't make it to Aaron's grave
before I left for San Francisco
to say good-bye again.
I wanted to tell him
that Sandy's being honored
at a dinner and dance.
I knew he loved to talk about her looks,
how beautiful she is all dressed up.
Just like he did when she dropped by his apartment
on her way to a wedding.
He'd tell her, "Let me look at you."
And then he'd smile.
"Turn around. Gorgeous! Gorgeous!
Now let me see your jewelry.
Nice, Nice. Tell Merle to buy you more.
Yes, yes, we're going to Paris.
Put you on the runway.
We'll knock 'em dead,
make lots of money."
All this he'd say in one breath
and then he'd laugh.
When you were infected
no one knew
I didn't want to injure
you any more because
you couldn't reverse the HIV.
You worried about the pain
you threw my way,
so I sat on my tears.
I was afraid
that once they started
they'd never stop.
are not your fault.
I sat so hard on those tears, now
all I can muster is a shallow pool
We've always been
We always will be
We are molecules
By the dance of life
We may not understand
All that we are
But we definitely are
Even after our death
Trees reach into the ground
And pull us back to life
Urns in niches wait
For dispersal of their living sand
When the walls collapse
We've always been
We always will be
One of the many reasons I walk for NAMI:
Sucking Up My Tears
About my mother taking me to the dentist
At age three, and seven years old
In Rocky Ford and La Junta, Colorado.
How people didn’t believe in dentists
Until they got old and their teeth were falling out.
My mother was ahead of her time.
She believed in preventive care…
Like doctor check-ups
And dental care for kids.
You got a few teeth
You need to see a dentist.
Not only did she battle with small town-
Farm country folk cultural norms,
She battled with a mental illness.
I diagnosed her after reading
about manic-depressive illness
in my sophomore high school psychology class
1957 Mulvane, Kansas
I’m sucking up tears as I write this.
If those tears start
They may not stop.
My mother committed suicide
I was eight years old.
She gave me a note
To take to a neighbor.
Told me to give the lady the note.
I remember her talking as if on stage,
I, the audience.
I think she was screaming words
No doubt my memory
Is serving me right.