She is Joan Yorba-Gray, formerly known as victim ....
It is October 1988 and Joan sits in the reception room of the San Bernardino County health department, watching the clock in its lazy crawl as she waits for her name to be called. She looks around the room and sees persons who are nothing like her. She wants to cry out, “I don’t deserve to be here,” but she only stares at the institutional-bland wall.
Finally, a clerk comes out and calls her name. Then, Joan hears the words that confirm her dread and make her think: I’m a dead woman.
The words spoken are: “The counselor will see you now.”
Counselor. Why? She knows why. It is to console her while an anvil drops on her life. The counselor’s job is to answer Joan’s questions as gently as possible after telling her that she is HIV-positive. The advice rings hollow as a black shroud drapes over every dream and hope Joan has.
Twenty minutes later, without seeing a doctor, Joan walks out of the building, numb to everything but misery. She is filled with a terror that puts ice in her stomach. But she also feels an emotion totally foreign to her nature — hate. Hatred for the man who gave her a death sentence. Her husband.
Today, Joan, now 61, sits at the kitchen table in her Bay Park home in mid-San Diego and looks back on that day as though reliving a prison sentence. The emotion is mostly drained now, and what remains is a matter-of-fact bad memory. Tears no longer flow at a retelling.
“In February 1988, my husband, Ray, was hospitalized for an unknown cause. They ran all kinds of tests. Finally, the doctor came in and told us he had full-blown AIDS. My husband confessed that he had been unfaithful, and I later learned he was bisexual and confessed to one experience.”
Which meant he probably had 20.
“Probably 40. … All that dropped on me in one day. The most horrible day of my life. I figured I probably would have HIV. An atom bomb had gone off in our family.”
Joan managed to control her hatred. She did not object to Ray living in the house for the next 18 months while he slowly died, getting more infirm with time, until she had to nurse him for the final weeks.
“I knew my two small kids were going to lose their father to AIDS. I didn’t want them to have to lose him twice. I thought if we got separated, they’d lose their dad from not being home with them, and then later on when he died, they’d lose him again. I just couldn’t see putting them through all that.”
As you saw him dying, what were your feelings?
“That’s going to be me. I was terrified, knowing I had the same disease.”
She didn’t even have the consolation of an apology, not a heartfelt one. Joan said he made an attempt, but it wasn’t real, at least it had no staying power because he then turned away from the family. She says he didn’t act loving toward her or the children, and didn’t even act remorseful.
“My brother-in-law had brain cancer when his kids were little and he spent a lot of time making videos for them, and telling them how much he loved them. He made a video for when they graduated from high school, and for when they got married.
“I wanted Ray to do that for our kids, but he had no interest in doing that or spending time with them. He just wanted to be left alone.”
She had to go about her mushrooming responsibilities as parent and caretaker, as well as her full-time job as a social worker. All that time, her own diagnosis was a toothache throbbing in her soul.
“In those days, when you heard AIDS, you heard dying, and that’s what I heard. I was terrified. I had trouble sleeping. How long was I going to live? How sick was I going to get? I worried about my kids. How long would I be there to take care of them? Would I be able to raise them? I felt hatred — the only time in my life I felt real hatred. I thought of the old days when women in India were required to die with their husbands.”
Suttee, you mean.
“If that’s what it’s called.”
When you took a sandwich in to him, did you slam it down?
“I was nice to him.”
In a tight-lipped way?
“Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I did what I had to do. I really lost my love for him.”
Did you want him to hurry up and die?
“Not exactly that. I just wanted it over.”
Joan’s husband, Ray, died in August 1989. His disease lived on in her, and Joan hoped she could live with it.
The calendar does a video dissolve to 10 years later — April 1998. Joan has remarried and she and her second husband, Galen, are in Lubbock, Texas, where he is getting his Ph.D. at Texas Tech. The fear of HIV turning into AIDS never leaves her mind, but it loses intensity. Even fear needs a rest at times.
That’s when it struck.
“I became very sick. I was in the hospital for five weeks. I was diagnosed with life-threatening pancreatitis. Then I developed blood poisoning, which was also life-threatening. I also had a cardiac arrest and my heart stopped for about four minutes. I truly believe it’s a miracle that I’m alive today. They finally told me I had AIDS because my immune system was virtually wiped out.”
Having AIDS in rural Texas 16 years ago? Don’t enter a popularity contest.
Galen never left her side, never let go of her hand. If he were at school, he left his spirit beside her bed.
Joan defied expectations and quietly slipped past the open door of death.
Her marriage to Galen was a minor miracle in itself when it happened four years earlier, in 1994. Galen had dropped to a knee with a ring, even though he knew of her sickness.
“When we got married, my husband said if we have two years or if we have 20 years, he’ll be thankful for what we have. In June this year we celebrated our 20th anniversary. So it’s been 20 years and counting. Galen has been an amazing, amazing husband.”
They had been church friends back in San Bernardino with a slowly thickening relationship, but not quite yet a romance. Joan, then 41, hadn’t told anyone of her condition for fear of her children being stigmatized. However, her 7-year-old daughter happened to blurt out in Sunday school that her father had died of AIDS. Shortly thereafter, the phone rang and Galen was on the line asking if it were true. She had to say yes. The implications drifted in the air between them like settling dust.
Galen then realized he loved her, but went through a Gethsemane over her disease. When the soul-searching ended, he did his research, they had counseling and he finally told her that his love was stronger than his fear of the virus. He even added “Yorba-” to his own name.
“We’ve had a normal marriage. We have a sexual relationship. We use protection and he’s still HIV-negative. He gets tested at least once a year.”
They moved to San Diego nine years ago when Galen got a job teaching Spanish at Point Loma Nazarene University.
Joan takes her drug cocktail every day and her health is good and steady, but she knows that AIDS is an opportunist, flitting from rock to rock, always keeping her in sight.
Joan has finally forgiven Ray for what he did. Their two children, now in their 30s, have also come to accept what happened. The daughter is more charitable toward her father’s memory than the son, Joan says.
Through the years of her affliction, Joan never wavered in her Christian faith and has developed a ministry that has turned her ordeal into something positive. She has become what we might call a missionary to AIDS sufferers. Her vehicle is a group called He Intends Victory.
Joan travels to other countries and other continents to share her experience and extend Christian reassurances to those who are HIV-positive or have AIDS. She’s learned that if you have to have AIDS, don’t have it outside the U.S. or Europe. The treatment is poor, the prejudice is great and the suffering is even more acute.
She has written a book about her experience, “In His Shadow,” that is available under her name on Amazon.
Referring to her 1998 health crisis, Joan says, “It was a miracle that God kept me alive. I felt like God brought me back for a reason and that was to talk to people about what he had done and encourage people with HIV that there’s hope.”
Do you believe God gave you this disease for a reason?
“Yes … well, no. I don’t feel God gave it to me. I feel my husband at the time gave it to me, but I feel like God allowed it so that I could learn and grow. We stay immature when everything goes our way and our lives are easy. That’s the truth.”
Joan will always have AIDS, but she also has a case of acute character. It stays healthy without drugs. And she will be the first to tell you, she has one great keeper of a husband.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is [email protected]