Fall 1991 – By Roland Pena
I am a person living with AIDS who has volunteered at Chicago House, at the old mansion in Uptown situated on Malden Street. It was 1987 and I volunteered as a buddy, a companion for their persons with AIDS (PWA’s). I was just starting out with my illness. Just a rookie in what was to become a battle.
Since I was already HIV positive at the time, although I cannot recall my reasons for volunteering, I could easily assume without any chance at backlash, that I did it because of one simple reason: I wanted and needed to help before things started to get worse for myself. Before I’d be the one needing the help.
As it turned out, things did not go well with me as a volunteer and I would up stopping the work in about three months.
Now, two and a half years into my diagnosis, my mind has changed again as far as Chicago House is concerned. No, I was not going to be a volunteer. I would become a resident. Destiny always has a peculiar way of showing her hand.
Due to a number of mishaps back home – you know, my cats were not using their litter box properly, they were swallowing foreign objects, chewing my Art and Antique magazines and not apologizing (blame, blame, blame), I decided to move for all our sakes. My insurance through COBRA had also run out and with that went the nursing staff.
I tried a couple of other housing providers in Chicago. One did not work out due to my suicide attempt. After putting two and two together and finally coming up with four, I decided to give Chicago House “the” try. After all, I had never actually lived there and one must not try to be too judgmental.
I was interviewed by Susan Alterman at the main office. I admitted my suicide attempt because I had to – my story had appeared in the Windy City Times that week. I received Susan’s call confirming my acceptance about two days later.
I was excited at the prospect of moving but at the same time apprehensive at the knowledge that I would have to deal with so much continual death. But I decided that death had always been a part of my life (so much so that I used to revel at funerals as a child in Cuba, actually hoping and praying for the next) and I entered Chicago House with a positive attitude, once again hoping to make a difference.
I was given a tour by one of the residence managers, Mary MacDonald. I met Steve, one of the Bob’s. Richard, Ken and Joe, just a few of the guys at the house. (Some of the names have been changed to protect the guilty.)
At this point in this article, I feel I have to veer away from the topic of Chicago House as an organization and speak about Chicago House as a home, about its residents, past and present, and the rest of the people who make up the house and make it work.
As I see it, Chicago House is not an institution. It is a home, a microcosm of life and a celebration of that life. Ultimately, each life has its struggles and its pains. It has downfalls and misgivings. We at Chicago House – all of use – live these things because we are living life and we are fighting to keep on living. We surmount the obstacles such as having to deal with ah Hickman tube attached to ones’ chest. Or having to sleep in a bathtub because the diarrhea won’t stop. Or walking with a cane or crutches because you’ve lost your equilibrium.
Instead we gain more pride for our humanity because we learn how the outcast feels. Also pride in our sexuality grows. At this point in my life, I do not care what anyone thinks about me anymore. Now if I want to wear a dress to the Baton Show Lounge, I’ll wear one. (No, I still don’t wear one for a walk down Broadway!)
The struggles we who have AIDS – or any other debilitating and terminal illness – are faced with at times are such that they do seem insurmountable.
Prior to my coming to Chicago House, I wondered whether these guys that die do so with dignity. Through the four deaths that I have experienced thus far, I have to conclude that yes, they all die with dignity. They all lived through their own personal hell and never lost the spiritual strength. It is for that reason that we all remain grateful for Chicago House.