Today is World’s AIDS Day, which was established in 1988 to lend support to people who are living with HIV and to commemorate those who have died. The 2021 theme, “Ending the HIV Epidemic: Equitable Access, Everyone’s Voice,” underscores the fact that many marginalized people in the United States and around the world continue not to receive essential HIV services. That means people continue to be infected and die even though there are medications now available so they can live. That is truly unconscionable.
My two brothers, John and Jim Leatherwood, are two of the people for whom these life-saving medications came too late. John died in 1990 and Jim in 1995, at a time when an AIDS diagnosis meant certain death. John was 46 when he died, Jim, 49. The sadness that comes from the loss of two family members dying in the prime of their lives from a virus resonates today with too many families, who are also experiencing similar losses of loved ones. Unfortunately, there was no vaccine for my brothers to provide protection. Thank God today we have the COVID-19 vaccines.
My brothers’ diagnoses came just before major medical breakthroughs that have allowed many people with HIV to live long and productive lives. I am so grateful for medical research which has provided hope for many who would otherwise have found themselves facing a terminal diagnosis. Of course, I regret that my brothers missed this opportunity. If there had been quicker recognition of the severity and highly contagious nature of HIV, then they most likely would still be here.
My oldest brother, John, had a Master’s degree in Italian and spoke four languages fluently. He lived in Italy for ten years and ran a language school there. I worked at his school and at another affiliated with The British School for the year I lived in Italy right after graduating from college. John loved opera, played the piano and organ beautifully, was well-read and conversant on a wide range of topics. He also had a wicked sense of humor and loved his family with fierce loyalty. His best friend was his brother Jim.
Jim, 21 months younger than John, was an adventurer, lover of the ocean and sailing, and also a licensed pilot. He served six years in the Navy as a physician and reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel while working with the Marine Corps. After leaving the military, Jim practiced medicine in West Hollywood, CA, and was well-known as a safe haven for gay men who needed treatment. He was a laser surgeon and also owned a laser surgery center. Jim took care of John when he was dying. Ray, the girls, and I returned the favor and took care of Jim during his last year and a half with AIDS.
I miss my brothers very much. They were completely different and yet very much the same. They brought much to this world and I feel their absence on a deep level. I hope and prayer that World AIDS Day continues to bring much-needed attention to HIV/AIDS. Our world can benefit from life-changing medical research, but we have to ensure that all people have access to these miraculous drugs. Otherwise, other families will mourn their loved ones as our family continues to mourn the loss of these two beloved brothers from AIDS.