Theresa Hagan knew something was wrong. Her son Aaron usually phoned from prison every week, but lately, she hadn’t received any calls. Exasperated, Hagan finally called the prison and asked the voice on the other end of the line, “Where’s my son?”
“Lady, I’m not supposed to tell you, but he’s in Kings County Hospital. He’s got full-blown AIDS,” the man replied.
Hagan was a single mother raising three children in the projects of Manhattan’s Lower East Side when AIDS swept through the city. During the ‘80s and early ‘90s, AIDS was wiping out entire neighborhoods. Among its victims was Hagan’s son Aaron, an intravenous drug user who stole from his mother and sister to support his habit.
AUDIO Epidemic of Drug Use
“There was no facilities, there was nothing available,” Hagan said. “He couldn’t get into a methadone program because it required that you prove you had been on drugs for five years.”
The only time Hagan heard from her son was when he was in jail, because then he was clean. But when the calls stopped, her instincts told her it was trouble. Aaron had collapsed in prison and was diagnosed with AIDS. When she discovered he was sick and had been transferred to a Brooklyn hospital, she visited him as soon as she could.
Hagan could tell who had AIDS in the ward, because their meals were left on a bedside table and staff avoided touching them.
When her son became symptomatic, Hagan contacted the Commissioner of Health at Riker’s Island and asked if they could help him, but they didn’t. At that point, there was little they could do.
Aaron died in 2001. He was 24-years-old. When Hagan went to view his body, she was taken to a room and shown a photo of his face. His body was covered by a white sheet.
“Everything he owned, including a little cross I had given him — they burned it,” she said.
During those first frightening years of AIDS, families never admitted that their loved ones died of the disease, but would instead call it a heart attack.
Six years later, Hagan’s daughter Patricia also succumbed to AIDS after being infected by her husband. She stayed with Hagan once she could no longer care for herself.
“She was losing her memory. One day, I went to ask her what did she want from Chinese and I went back into the living room — and that quickly she was out the door,” Hagan recalled. “She landed up in her house. We put flyers all around and I got a call from the fire department saying he had picked her up and had taken her to the hospital.”
Patricia was intubated and her mother called the priest.
“Here was another death to AIDS,” Hagan said. “Even in the hospital they have no sympathy for them. They don’t really want to be bothered with them.”
At first, Hagan had a hard time dealing with the loss of her son. She suffered from depression and alcoholism.
“He died in a prison ward of a hospital,” she said of her son. “I was not there, I was not able to comfort him. All those things not only impacted on him, but also impacted on the whole family.”
But eventually, Hagan decided she wanted to use her experience to help those still living with the disease. She got sober and has since marched on Washington, DC with ACT UP New York. She is also on the board of Housing Works, which provides support for people living with HIV/AIDS.
Part of her recovery was choosing how she wanted to remember her son. Hagan told her doctor that dealing with Aaron’s death was made all the more difficult because there was nothing left of him.
“It’s tragic to say that he spent 24 years on this earth and I have nothing of him,” she said. “And nobody has a good memory of him because he was always stealing, drugging.”
The healing process was also rough for her younger daughter, a social worker who could never quite forgive Aaron for his drug abuse and stealing. For her, sewing her brother’s quilt panel was a way to lay the bad memories to rest.
Hagan saw her son’s panel for the first time this year at a display in the SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn.
“It brought me solace when I saw the quilt,” she said. “Just for [my daughter] to be able to make the letters and make the date, that was awesome.”
AUDIO Seeing the quilt for the first time
Though she’s glad her son has a panel on the AIDS quilt, Hagan is saddened by what it represents. When she saw the display in Washington, DC, she described it as both awesome and terrible.
AUDIO No More Quilts