About: Dennis Paul Thaw & Honey Thaw
Dennis Paul Thaw was born on May 31, 1956, the third child and first son to Honey and Jerry. He had two older sisters, Fran and Ellen, and a younger brother, David. We were always a close, loving family although not without the typical struggles of a large family. Sibling rivalry, household management and financial stress were often issues. Dennis certainly contributed his own part to the dynamics with toddler tantrums, childhood fights, parental conflicts and school struggles. But he also loved singing, dancing, ice skating and performing. Unfortunately, these activities often isolated him from other children, especially other boys.
At 14, he came out to our parents, not an easy feat at that age or in that time. Although both of them often wondered during Dennis’ early years if he was gay, they still reacted with anger, self blame and fear. Honey expressed those fears during a recorded tape session that Dennis had asked each of our family members to create for him. “The fear… the worst part of the whole thing was the fear of somebody hurting him… physically or emotionally. Our greatest fears were for his safety.” Despite those initial reactions, both our parents came to terms with Dennis’ sexuality, embracing him with love and support, becoming his caregivers and advocates throughout his short life. Ironically, their fears were realized when AIDS became the enemy.
In April 1986, our parents received a phone call from one of Dennis’ friends saying that he was in a hospital. He was living in New York City while the rest of our family was in North Carolina. He was diagnosed with meningitis and in a coma. We all flew to NY and spent the next 4 days walking hospital floors in frightened disbelief that our son and brother was so horribly ill. And, of course, we feared an eventual diagnosis of AIDS. To our dismay, that came a month later when Dennis was again hospitalized, this time in North Carolina, for PCP (pneumocystis pneumonia). This diagnosis confirmed our worst fears. His prognosis was daunting. Our mom said “I really do try to have hope but it still sticks in my mind when that doctor said 18 months to 2 years… that’s a very hard thing to live with, knowing your child is going to die and the fear of how he will die.”
After he recovered from PCP enough to travel, Dennis returned to New York. During this time, a friend who was Oprah Winfrey’s hair stylist, arranged for Dennis and Jerry to be guests on one of her shows that focused on gay men and their fathers. Oprah called on Honey in the audience to speak as well. It was a remarkable, proud moment for all of us when our family spoke openly and honestly about their relationships and about AIDS. At that time, Dennis continued working at his current job with Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Having pursued earlier careers that included exciting travel experiences to Russia for an import firm, a job with an upscale wallpaper company, and a position as a flight attendant with an airline, it was ironic that his path led to a job at GMHC, an organization whose purpose is to provide support and sanctuary to people just like himself. When he became too sick to work and spent more time in the hospital, Honey traveled to NY to be with him. She lovingly nurtured him, took care of his physical and emotional needs, cooked and cleaned for him tirelessly. Dennis dubbed her his “Clorox Queen”! Through the heartache of loving a child with a devastating illness and being that child, they became an inimitable team.
The following spring, Dennis returned home to North Carolina to die. He lived with Honey and Jerry in Gastonia. Through another friend, Dennis established a contact within a local television station. He proposed that they create a documentary film about him, his life and his family to give that human face to AIDS. My Name is Dennis, filmed by WBTV in Charlotte, NC gave Dennis and Honey a vehicle for doing just that. The film crew followed their daily activities, their doctor visits and our family visits in order to give viewers a window into this unwanted world. Dennis wanted to leave a legacy that might prevent even one person from making choices that could lead to AIDS. The film took place during the last six months of his life.
AIDS consumed not only Dennis’ last breath, but it also consumed our family’s whole life for those 18 months. We felt useless and helpless watching him waste away in pain as well as witnessing our parents’ anguish over losing one of their children. Also, AIDS caused us to fear people. We were afraid that the people we, or our children, associated with would shun us because of our contact with a person with the disease. We often lied about his illness, usually saying that he had cancer. But towards the end of his life, we realized we were doing Dennis a disservice by not being honest. It became imperative to share what he was going through or it diluted any meaning to his foreseeable death.
Dennis died on September 24, 1987, eighteen months after his diagnosis. He died on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, just as the shofar (the ritual ram’s horn) was being sounded to usher in the new year and a new beginning. It was a bittersweet moment, marking the end of life for our beloved Dennis and remembering life with him. After his death, Honey and Jerry continued to strive for Dennis’ goal to educate the public. They became involved in AIDS education groups, speaking about their experience with Dennis to college and high school groups as well as support groups. They established The Dennis Fund along with Metrolina AIDS of Charlotte to financially aid others who were living and dying with AIDS. Together, they suffered the tragic loss of a son they adored but perpetuated his memory by continuing his mission with love.
Dennis and his mom, Honey, are memorialized in the Grove because of our dear family friend, Ken. While Ken never knew Dennis, he met and bonded with Honey after his nephew Chris married her grandson Mike, Dennis’ nephew. In many ways, Ken represented what Dennis might have become had he not died of AIDS in 1987 at the age of 31. Throughout his battle with AIDS Dennis focused on giving meaning to his impending death. He engaged in a campaign to educate as many people, particularly young people, about the disease. He wanted to give AIDS a human face. Through Ken’s generosity, Dennis’ legacy has been extended by helping to provide a place of solace for those who have lost loved ones to this disease.