sylvia zingeser

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


Scared of That. Living While Dying of AIDS

“A society is only as successful as it takes care of its weakest members.”
  -Irving Hulteen

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.”


Poems from Scared of That, Living While Dying of AIDS


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.

snap trap

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.

a gala event for sandy kovtun

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.

i sat on tears

When you were infected

    no one knew

          of HIV,.

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.

The HIV,

    the tears

         are not your fault.

I sat so hard on those tears, now

    all I can muster is a shallow pool

         of salt.

molecular journeys

We've always been

We are

We always will be


We are molecules

Bound together

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 are

We always will be


More Poetry


A Memory Moment

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

By shotgun.

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. 

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