The first anniversarya time to remember and reflect. I had celebrated many anniversaries over the years, but this one was different. Without a guidebook to point the way, I did not know how to commemorate the first anniversary of my daughter's death. I could not bear to be alone and did not want her husband to be alone either. My husband could not join me due to a pressing business commitment.
For Howard, a deeply religious man, the eleventh of Tammuz on the Hebrew calendar would forever be our day of remembrance of our daughter, Dee Dee. On that day, this year and every year, Howard and I would be together.
But for Dee Dee's husband, Al, and for all of the other loved ones in her life, June 28 would be the anniversary of her passing.
Al greeted me at the Denver airport with a lingering hug and eyes that betrayed his still-raw pain. Then we chatted as we always did on the drive to their home near downtown. Along the way, he told me about a new woman in his life. Al's new love felt like a betrayal even though I knew my daughter wanted him to go on living after she was gone. I was relieved to learn that his lady friend had plans to be out of town for the weekend.
As we parked in front of their little Victorian house, I recalled how proud my daughter had been the day they had purchased it just a few years ago. On the surface it appeared the same as it did before. Yet everything had changed.
Inside the door, Patch, the Jack Russell terrier I adored, greeted me warmly. Al carried my suitcase upstairs and left me alone to give me some time for my thoughts and feelings to settle. It was in this house that so much joy had been shared. And it was here that I had said goodbye to my daughter, my baby girl.
After unpacking I joined Al in the living room to play the photomontage video of Dee Dee's life that I had produced back home in Dallas. A videographer-friend had helped me sequence photographs of her, beginning with her childhood and continuing until her infection with HIV. I narrated the tribute, reading the story of Dee Dee's life as she had told it whenever she did an AIDS presentation. We added more photographs of her after she was infected with HIV and I read her diary entry, the one she wrote one week following her AIDS diagnosis. Then the screen faded to black and flashed her birth dateSeptember 19, 1968and the date of her deathJune 28, 1996.
Twenty-seven years old.
The video ended with a clip of Dee Dee singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow at the first National Mothers March against AIDS in Washington, D.C, May '95. A ten-minute video captured her lifea life gone-too-soon.
Even though Al and I had lived the story, the documentary left us both spellbound. A silence hung in the air for several moments after static had filled the screen. It was a powerful storya cautionary tale for all, and a glorious measure of one woman's life.
At exactly 9 p.m. on Saturday, June 28, Al and I lit a candle. We sat in what was once Dee Dee's room and allowed our own quiet memories of her to mingle with our tears. Then we went into the backyard and released one rosy-pink balloon into the night sky.
As we watched it drift away, the phone rang. Friends and family called and kept calling all night long. So many people touched by one petite, courageous woman. It was what we, the survivors, needed to know most of allshe lived on in the hearts and loving memories of others.
The following Tuesday, Al and I tucked Dee Dee's video into a canvas tote bag. We drove to Boulder for an AIDS 101 presentation, that he had volunteered us both to give in a home for at-risk teenaged girls. The talk was sponsored by the Boulder Colorado AIDS Project. The night I had arrived in Denver Al had mentioned the BCAP presentation and I had many misgivings. I knew I wanted to tell Dee Dee's story and had always felt comfortable with public speaking in other venues. But this time it was different. I was not sure I was ready.
The night before as I lay in bed, Dee Dee came to me for the first time since her death. I saw her effervescent smile and felt the pressure of an unseen hand on my shoulder. "Relax, Mom," she said. "You'll do fine."
Al paused on the steps outside the modest but tidy Boulder group-home to share a smoke with a couple of the teens. Shortly thereafter, one by one the girls sauntered into the sparsely furnished living room as each one completed her evening chores.
I had no illusion about our audience. These were street-wise girlssome gang members, some truants and runaways. Some had arrest records. For a few the next step could be prison. And I was sure that all of them were intimately familiar with sex and drugs.
"Where's the cute guy?" one of the girls whispered loudly to her friend and then nodded her head toward me. "What's she doing here? We usually get a gay-guy to do this AIDS stuff."
This was perhaps their first clue that tonight's presentation would be unlike any they had heard before. I closed my eyes for a minute and could see and hear my daughter as she sounded the first time I attended one of her presentations. I recalled the almost imperceptible gasp that had escaped from the audience when she made her opening statement. Simply and in a forthright manner she would say, "Hi. I'm Dee Dee Fields-McKittrick. I'm 25 years old. I'm married. And, I'm a woman living with AIDS." Like a lightbulb crashing on a ceramic tile floor, Dee Dee shattered every stereotype anyone might have had about AIDS.
I asked myself, "What could I, the mother of a daughter who died from AIDS, possibly say that would have that kind of impact?"
Then I thought about my world only six years ago when my daughter had graduated college full of hope. I recalled her as she had grown into an inspiring young womana student of musical theater in New York City and then a working actress touring the countryliving her dream and falling in love.
And finally, in the face of nine street-hardened girls with their lives balanced so precariously on the edge, I remembered how easily and quickly our world in one moment had changed forever. I knew exactly what I had to say.
A STRANGE NEW WORLD
April 16, 1993 (One week following Dee Dee's diagnosis she wrote)
How does someone of 24 begin to face the reality of AIDS and continue on? My life changed for me a week ago and now I have to meet the challenge or just give up. I am so scared but I know that in time, these feelings can and will turn to the courage I need to fight this illness.
So you listen to me VIRUS! I have lots of things left to do here. I am not ready to accept this death sentence. I want to live. I obviously have something to say and to do so that others someday won't have to fight you. I want you to hear me very clearly. I will and can stay healthy for as long as I need to. Thank you God for answered prayers. I am very thankful for the loved ones in my life, for their care and support.
This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine and shine and shine!