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FIRST PERSON

Speaking Up After Too Many Silent Nights

December 19, 1996|FRANK O. SOTOMAYOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Frank O. Sotomayor is an assistant metro editor of the Times

"Ernesto, Hermano, 'Neto,' We Will Never Forget You."

It was a simple message that I wrote in chalk on the pavement of Pasadena City Hall Plaza. Thousands of others who had lost loved ones to AIDS did the same earlier this month at the conclusion of the Posada candlelight walk.

Four years have elapsed since the death of my brother, Ernesto, from AIDS. But writing down that message and lighting a candle in his memory were the first instances in which I had allowed my personal feelings of sorrow to be released in a semipublic way.

As I was writing the message, a Times photographer happened to come along and, not recognizing me at first, took a photo of me and my wife, Meri.

Did you lose a friend or relative to AIDS? the photographer asked later.

"Yes," I said, "my brother."

I had never told even my closest friends that my brother had died of the complications of AIDS--that Ernest, my wonderful older brother, was homosexual.

Why not?

I am not sure, but I felt uncomfortable that I would be revealing some family secret. I wondered, too, what Neto (a nickname derived from Ernesto) would have wanted.

Maybe I was just clueless and gutless, rendered silent by society's foolish taboos about speaking candidly about homosexuality, about AIDS and about death itself.

So, instead, I told friends that Ernest died of cancer.

*

We held a beautiful service for Neto at St. Teresa's Catholic Church in San Francisco, not far from the Potrero Hill home he had rebuilt, foot by foot, with his own hands and determination.

Later, we held another memorial service in Tucson, where we had grown up and where my beloved mother still lived.

I wrote a tribute to Ernie, which we distributed to family members, recalling him as a caring man who served his country in the U.S. Navy and who served as a U.S. Postal Service executive--including a stint as postmaster of Millbrae, Calif.

Ernie was the type of older brother everyone should have. In 1964, he bought a new Chevrolet Nova Super Sport for me, then a college sophomore from the West Tucson barrio. It was quite a step up from my 1949 Chevy clunker.

Nowhere in my tribute to Ernie did I say that he died of complications of AIDS. That omission was a mistake, I now see.

After the services, my family lurched ahead to the crises--small and major--of life.

Soon, my mother was hospitalized. A little more than five months after Ernie's death, Mama passed away. My wife says she died of a broken heart, which is pretty accurate. Although she was seriously handicapped by arthritis, Mom had held on as long as Ernie lived. But losing Ernie at a relatively young 56--and losing him to the scourges of AIDS--was too much for Mom. She had been born and raised in a traditional Mexican family that kept far too many secrets.

Mom was devastated when Ernie told her that he had AIDS. She accepted it courageously, but there was no way she could fully understand it. Mom, who was born in 1910 in Arizona, before it was even a state, better understood smallpox than AIDS.

We buried Mom and Ernie's ashes together at a cemetery in northwest Tucson, not far from the spot where my mother was born and where my father, who died in 1981, had once farmed.

I thought about writing something then, but I was not ready. And as weeks, months and even years went by, much of my grief was suppressed. Suppressed to a large degree by the discomfort that I thought would come in openly discussing Ernie's death.

In my mind, I had no trouble with the fact that Neto was homosexual. But until now, we did not share that information outside the family.

In the last weeks, that has begun to change.

My wife suggested that we attend a support group session on bereavement, and that allowed me to start to share my experiences with others. I learned that, like me, many people do not fully work out their grief and are not able to fully accept someone's death--or the circumstances of death.

*

I am beginning to find some closure now on Ernie's death. I remember the suffering of his last year, but I remember most the quiet dignity that he maintained--despite the pain--in his final weeks. He had lived his life as best he could. He had accomplished much; he had also made mistakes. In the end, however, Ernesto had found a way to make peace with God and was at peace with himself.

When we participated in the Dec. 7 candlelight walk in Pasadena, organized by the AIDS Service Center, I realized that I had been too passive in the face of the AIDS tragedy. Nationwide, more than 343,000 men, women and children have died of AIDS complications. That is equal to the combined populations of Pasadena, Santa Monica, Norwalk and Manhattan Beach. Worldwide, the AIDS death toll is a staggering 6 million people.

I feel humbled by the impressive work of those who have been working for years to provide care for people with HIV and AIDS. I feel that it is now time to do my small part, at first by just acknowledging my brother's death. Perhaps by reading this piece, others will be encouraged to deal with similar situations--and to know that AIDS is not something to hide but something we have to fight together.

For instance, it is time for all of us to do a better job of educating a new generation about AIDS. Despite all the efforts to date, teenagers in the United States are contracting the AIDS virus at an average of more than one an hour; one of four people newly infected are younger than 22.

For me, the healing process over losing Ernie will still take some time. But when I printed that message in white chalk on the Pasadena Plaza pavement, it was a way of seeking peace and letting Neto rest in his eternal peace.

He was a special person and, indeed, we will never forget him.

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