HONORING FAMILY AND FINDING COMMUNITY
The Impact of HIV
HIV has the power to spread at a devastating rate.
It festers in the body, eating away at the immune system of the infected. The stigma associated with the virus can destroy the host’s sense of self. It passes from person to person like a ghost, haunting new individuals until they pass away. But it has the power to spread harm long after death as well. In its wake, HIV and AIDS leave people without their loved ones. Without their partners. Without their family. “It was hard for us,” Joe Iacocca recalled about the six years after his older brother, Ricki, tested positive for HIV. “We watched him slowly fade away.”
The Loss of Loved Ones
On a cold December in San Francisco, Joe sat at his brother’s side as Ricki took his final breath. Behind them stood Ricki’s partner, Dan, a young man who would pass away from AIDS just months later. On the other side of the crowded room sat their brother, Vinny and their mom, Patricia, who responded how any mother would. “I’d never heard my mother wail like that,” Joe recalled.
A mother of five, Patricia raised the Iacocca children largely on her own. “She was such a strong woman,” Joe said with confidence. “She worked so many different jobs for us.” When their mother was hard at work, Ricki was often the one who looked after his youngest sibling. He took Joe on adventures as he worked his paper route in Worcester, MA. He gave Joe advice about style. He taught Joe the importance of staying away from the needles that were increasing in popularity around them.
When Ricki tested positive for HIV, the family responded with various levels of support. Some struggled to accept the fact that one of their family members was not straight. But Patricia stood by her son. “She always stood up for us,” Joe explained. “She was a good mother to have if you were gay in the ‘80s… if that makes sense.”
Patricia and Joe left San Francisco that December with a hole in their hearts. A piece of family was ripped from their lives. Another chunk was taken from Joe’s heart when his mother passed away. “Joey…” she pulled her son’s head towards her and kissed him under the now too familiar glow of hospital lights.
Joe continued to live with that chasm of lost family for years. It’s difficult to find positive ways to express grief when the rest of the world appears united in hatred against the community a loved one belonged to.
Almost twenty years after Ricki’s death, Joe watched a PBS documentary that referenced something called the National AIDS Memorial. The organization had a mission to ensure that the lives of people who died from AIDS are not forgotten, and to protect future communities from fear, silence, discrimination, and stigma. Joe remembered his mother’s commitment to her children. What would she do?
Finding Support in the Face of Devastating Loss
Joe discreetly brought the ashes of family members to the Grove in Golden Gate Park, thinking it illegal to spread them there. But finding a space for Ricki and his mother to feel safe and at home was worth the risk of punishment. While there, Joe was spotted by National AIDS Memorial CEO John Cunningham, who was there for a volunteer workday. “I could tell he was there for someone special to him,” Cunningham recalled. “It’s a common sight at the Memorial.” Instead of stopping Joe from spreading Ricki’s ashes, Cunningham invited him to join the volunteers in their circle, to share a few words about his brother. A rare sight, the community listened with empathy and care as Ricki’s life and battle with AIDS were shared. They mourned Joe’s loss of family together.
Community has the potential to spread at a powerful rate.
Its care permeates throughout the body, filling holes that the host didn’t realize were there. It can restore a sense of self to those who thought theirs was gone forever. It spreads from person to person like a beach ball at a festival, joining new members in an interconnected web of purpose. “It’s more than just a memorial,” Joe, who is now a regular face at volunteer workdays in the Grove, explained. “It’s a community that supports each other and fights against bullying and prejudice.”
The National AIDS Memorial Grove
The Grove remains a key part of Joe’s life. And the lives of his loved ones. “I love going to the Memorial, I get to talk to my brother,” he said, “my granddaughter will know who Ricki was, and that’s incredible.” The community remains a massive part of Joe's life as well. “Everyone says it’s like a family and I feel that,” he laughed, “I really feel that.”
Join our community and see for yourself what it means at an upcoming volunteer workday. Help us ensure that the lives of those who died from AIDS are remembered and protect future communities from the harm of fear, silence, discrimination, and stigma by making a donation today.