Betty Greene Salwak

David: A Story of Hope, Faith and Love

Filed By Betty Greene Salwak | July 30, 2009 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Christian beliefs, HIV/AIDS, hospice care for LGBT people, religious faith, Religious Right

My brother David was six years older than I. He moved out with our dad when I was nine and I saw him only sporadically thereafter. When we were grown, he stayed away from the family, David.jpgcoming only every few years for short and tense visits.

It remained that way until late summer of 1995. David called me from Atlanta to tell me he was dealing with lymphoma, but everything seemed to be going all right. Lymphoma? How could everything be all right? I fled to the bookstore and sat on the carpet in the aisle, reading everything I could find on the subject.

A few weeks later he called to say he was feeling better. Then he confessed something he'd apparently known since 1984.

"Oh, by the way, I'm HIV positive."

I spent the next few days in a fog, trying to grasp what was happening. I shared what news I had with my family. It was only a few weeks after that we received a call that David was in a hospital, suffering from dementia. Some decisions were needed, and someone should be there.


Every member of our family flew in to Atlanta the week of Thanksgiving, from Alaska, Missouri, Indiana and Florida. We were met by a woman who had been caring for David, the mother of his lover who had died the year before. Sarah briefed us on his medical history, and we all gathered at the hospital to see him.

My sister and I went to his room. Oh, David. He was curled up asleep, looking pale and emaciated and losing his hair. He looked nothing like the robust man I had last seen several years earlier.

The doctor told us about MRI "shadows" on the brain that were indicative of late stage AIDS. David was transferred to a local AIDS hospice, where he was given loving care by every staff member. Our family had to return to our homes but not before David saw all of us together. He knew we had come to be with him.

I learned later that set our family apart from most AIDS patients' families, who rarely visited at all back then. I was so worried that David would feel alone that I flew down to see him every three weeks for the next six months. Our mother and sister were able to come for regular visits too. Through all of this, Sarah and her husband Will treated David like he was their son, monitoring his daily care, working with insurance, and taking him to doctor appointments.


While in Atlanta I would stay in David's apartment and his friends would come to see me. They told me more about my brother than I had known in the lifetime before. He was so afraid of being rejected by his family for being gay that he lived as though it was true. He had never come out to us, but we pretty much knew from high school on. It was the elephant in the room during all those tense visits at home.

One friend, Tom, told me that David was especially afraid of me.

"But why?"

"Because you're a Christian."

Oh. Oh, no.

I had come late to my faith and had finally gained peace. It gave me the means and emotional strength to connect with the world. But the hatefulness being spread by a vocal minority had separated me from my brother, who worried I agreed. Tom and I talked more about the destruction being wrought by the Religious Right. It was heartbreaking.


During my visits to Haven House, David wasn't always lucid. Sometimes he didn't know who I was. And he wanted to pretend that he was coming home soon, so that prevented us from talking about important things. But once, well into his stay, David gave me the opening I needed. I jumped.

"David, we've always known you were gay. We don't care who you love. We love you."

I wish you could have seen him at that moment. He completely changed before my eyes. His body became fluid and melted into relaxation. He smiled, and his smile reached his eyes. From then on he was open, loving, at ease. I had never seen this man before in my life. He and I had five more visits before he died just short of his 49th birthday.

Tom, David's good friend who was so generous with his honesty, died broke and alone in the hospital emergency room three months later. His family had abandoned him, having believed the rhetoric from the Religious Right.

We cannot let this continue. We must stand up and tell the truth: that God loves everyone, unchanged, exactly as they are. For when all else falls away, love is what we have left.

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What a moving and important story. And how I wish that every American out there who needs to read it would be checking into this page right now.

Very moving story. Thanks for posting it here.

My sympathies on the loss of your brother, and the fear that pervaded and clouded the relationship in the family for years. I can epathise, deeply....

Patricia, Rob, Maura, thank you for your very kind words.


Your brother was an early hero, like so many before him and after. David's story sounds so much like the stories of Bill and Marty and Don and "Z" and so many others who were our friends and lovers. Now we have Protease Inhibitors, NRTIs, NNRTs, Integrase Inhibitors, Fuseon Inhibitors, CCR5 Coreceptors or Inhibitors, Reverse Transcriptase and so on that allow us to lead "normal" lives. I am glad you and your family reached out to David and the fact that David's partner's mother, Sarah, was also there for him speaks volumes. David must have been a wonderful person. Isn't it a shame we sometimes don't know realize what we have until it's gone. Blessings to you and your family. The HIV/AIDS pandemic is still with us. You may want to become involved with a Ryan White Planning Council or an Aids Service Organization (ASO). There are so many who need your help and compassion. Do it for David. Do it for yourself.

Kim, I volunteer weekly at the Damien Center, our city's leading HIV/AIDS support organization. Their support group was crucial in helping me understand what to expect during my visits with David, and now I am paying a debt of gratitude long overdue. They remain a wonderful group of staff and volunteers, working very hard to care for their clients and to educate the public.


That's great. David was lucky to have you. The Damien Center has done a lot of excellent work over the years.

this is a very moving story. Thank you for sharing.

Betty -

Thanks so much for this moving, important story.

I want to thank you in particular for your "Oh, Oh, no" response to hearing how David's fear of your Christianity impacted his life and his heart.

This is the cruelest irony, don't you think? That people would use Jesus Christ to justify hate? So many of us have had the faith shaken out of us - first, seeing how so-called religious people, including our own families, rejected the idea that sexual orientation is itself God-given. And then secondly, when we saw how the institutions of religion - the religious right and the Pope - said AIDS was "God's punishment." We all internalized that - and then watched our government and President Ronald Reagan used religion as an excuse for not ordering government action in a public health crisis.

Imagine if Christians and people of faith had helped instead of hindered when there were only a few people with AIDS in the early 1980s?

But there are good people like yourself who act on your faith - the real precepts of faith - ie that God has no grandchildren so it is our spiritual duty to love one another.

I have gone on too long. But I wanted to thank you for "getting it" and perhaps through your understanding, helping to mend the horrible breach between people of faith and LGBT and people with HIV/AIDS who feel abandoned by religion.

Thank you for sharing your story.

Thank you, Karen. My anger festered a long time before I realized I could actually do something about it. In speaking up, I am finding that I am not alone at all in my understanding of the nature of God's love. We simply must be louder.

betty, i cried as i read this. thanks so much for sharing! i'm so happy for you that you got to know more about your brother -- and i'm sure it transformed his last few months and his life.

and such an important reminder that we still need to be doing the work to support our friends and family with HIV/AIDS. the crisis of the 80s and early 90s might have subsided a bit, but much of the same work still needs to be carried on.

There is still a huge gap in education about HIV, Jay. I'm astonished at the numbers of new infections. HIV may not be the early death sentence that it used to be, but it will absolutely change your quality of life and shorten it.

I know it is useless to wonder what might have been if David had known earlier about our acceptance. But still...

My love goes out to you, your brother and your family. If you ever come to Atlanta, we have to get together, with Pastor Paul Turner. Your brother is in my prayers.

It would be good to build some good memories of Atlanta, Monica. Thanks.

Travis Ballie | July 31, 2009 8:23 AM

My mom, shortly after I came out to her, was convinced that I would get AIDS. During really bad fights, she would always mention that my lifestyle would lead me down that path. I was angry as a kid, but then I learned about all the dear friends she lost in the 1980s from AIDS (you see, she's a hairstylist). Her emotional scars from that traumatic period will always be pesent in our relationship. More present for me are the loss of so many people in my community that could have served as mentors, guides and friends in the turbulent moments of my coming out. Their absence is very present in my life. I cherish when their lives are honored, remembered and documented in writings, movies, plays and blog posts.

JoeMyGod wrote an eloquent elegy to the men of the 80s in a post about a retro disco event "Remember The Party:"

Buried in all that joy, all that dancing, all that singing along, was the subliminal undercurrent of a requiem dance, a faint funereal drumbeat keeping a second, haunted rhythm. You wouldn't notice it as a casual observer, but a keen eye could see it there occasionally, fleetingly, in the song transitions. That's when a dancer would momentarily zone out, face gone slack, eyes averted. His feet would be moving at 130 bpm, but his mind was spinning much faster, as a particular song slammed him back to 1983 or some other magical, youthful, lusty year when he once danced to that song with a beautiful young man, now long gone. But after a moment, the dancer's partner would knowingly touch him on the arm, he'd blink, nod, and return to the now, feet moving more forcefully, jumping a little bit higher. Like a New Orleans jazz funeral, this is how gay men of my generation grieve, how we venerate The Lost. We do it by dancing. And it's a beautiful, moving, celebratory thing, free of cloying sentimentality. I wouldn't trade it, or the memory of last Sunday, for anything in the world.

Rick Sours | July 31, 2009 10:39 AM


Thank you for sharing this very personal and deeply moving story of your brother David with us.

In this plague, the brave among us step forward, some to die and others, like you, Betty, to help and hold both the living and the dead.

I feel melancholy; emotions of both sadness and joy and longing. Thank you.

Donn Murray | July 31, 2009 1:48 PM

Dear Betty: Thank you so much for your touching and familiar story. But for the grace of God that could have been my story too. I was raised in the church, father was the pastor, I played the organ and led the choir and always felt different from the rest. I tried dating and came close to marriage several times just to fit in. After the Navy (Chaplain's Assistant & Organist) I knew for sure that I was gay. I basically ignored my family to avoid disapproval. Years flew by and the only one in my family that remained close was my sister. Thank God for loving sisters. My late brother Jerry, three years younger, and I were in the Navy, same ship, together. We never talked about the "gay thing". Jerry was also a Christian and I had strayed from the church. Fast forward, Jerry died two years ago, but our last years were close and loving. He loved my gay friends and always treated me with respect. Shouldn't the church have been the first to respond at the begining of the AIDS crisis? Isn't God all about love?

Donn, I am constantly dismayed at what people mistake for God's love. An acquaintance of mine, upon hearing of my brother's illness, proceeded to inform me at length that he would not have been sick if he had given up his "sinful lifestyle." It was God's retribution. I was dumbstruck. She clearly considered these words of comfort.

I didn't know what to say then. I do now. I would have returned her bitterness full force, and I would have lost the chance to show her a different way to see it. Perhaps it's best that time has passed, to give me the words that might plant a seed.

i remember my mom telling a priest that he had to leave my brother's apartment immediately when he told her that my brother would have to "repent his lifestyle before he died or he would never enter the Kingdom of Heaven."

thank you, as always, for your eloquent words.

Thats so sweet - to share this story
thank you- its very moving.....
yes i also believe that only one thing stays
the love we give
and the love we allow ourselves to recieve
isnt it strange that people who do not allow love to penetrate their armour are the ones who are...fanatic and hate?

Thank-you so much for sharing your story. All the stories like this are an important part of our history, and we muct archive these memories, get oral histories, and make sure that the new young kids know what happened not too long ago.
Remember :Silence = death. I also think that To Forget = Death.

When I was reeling with the news of David's illness, I told all of my friends. No one knew what to say. I was met with silence.

My church's pastoral staff knows that I am willing to talk to anyone who is affected by AIDS. I know that there are people in the congregation who are. Yet no one wants to talk about it. That is why the Damien Center's support group was so important to me.

Betty: I have to ask. Where did your father fit into all this. If David lived with him, was he accepting of David and his friends?

Donn, all I know for certain is that our dad knew. He made a passing reference to "boyfriends" once that sounded sad. But no one in our family talked about it, ever. So I truly don't know about David's relationship with our dad, who died when I was a teenager.

I have a story about our father that I will post sometime in the future.