From the first days of the AIDS epidemic, people living with HIV have looked to one another for care and support. Today, people living with HIV are living long enough to face other, sometimes greater, health challenges. This is Bryan C. Jones’ fifth bout with cancer—throat cancer this time—so when he started chemotherapy and radiation treatment, he reached out to another longtime HIV survivor and activist. Davina Conner flew from her home in Las Vegas to be with Jones, accompanying him to the hospital for his daily treatment.
As I sit on the plane for the four-hour flight to Cleveland, Ohio, there are many thoughts racing through my mind about my good friend Bryan C. Jones. Wondering if he is having a tough time with the chemotherapy and radiation treatment, and if it has started to affect him. I can’t wait to land so that I can give him a great big hug, to let him know that I’m here for him. I call him Jethro and he calls me Ella. Don’t ask me how that happened, it just did.
He started chemo and radiation a little over a week ago, and I knew I had to be there to support him. He doesn’t know that I cry for him almost every time we hang up the phone because I love my friend very much and want him to be O.K. Sometimes I ask the Creator why He gave me such a big heart to love people so strongly, especially the ones I am close to. I know I shouldn’t question it, but I have always to hear an answer.
Jethro and I can laugh and stay on the phone for hours at a time, but we also share many thoughts and feelings about love, relationships, advocacy and life. When you have someone close to you going through something that may damage them, you worry about them. I try to be optimistic, but thoughts of him being in pain, or even passing away come across my mind. But I quickly push that kind of negative energy away even if it’s hard to do. Why am I thinking this way, why have I allowed expectations of the worst to sink into me? I know that with faith all things are possible. I have always known that all things are possible when you have faith, but I have been struggling with this since he told me what was happening.
I can’t wait to land so that I can give him a great big hug, to let him know that I’m here for him.
I grew up with four sisters, but always wished I had a brother. As my twin sister and I grew older, we were always closer to the men in our lives whether it was a cousin, a friend from school, or an uncle. Because we were so close to our father, there was something inside me where I just got along better with men as great friends than with women. That’s the closeness I feel with Jethro.
I have experienced a lot of deaths in my family over the years, especially since the beginning of COVID. The thought of losing someone this close to me again kills me inside. Although he says he’s doing okay, I know it can be mentally difficult for him. Bryan is a warrior inside and out, and a lot of times I wish people understood him the way that I do. He has the biggest heart and would take his shirt off his back to give to someone else if he had to. I know we connect well because we are the same when it comes to caring for others and knowing what that means to people.
What do you say to someone who says, I have cancer? What do you say to someone who is having radiation on their neck and stomach every day for weeks at a time, and watch as he just pushes through it? I know that he appreciates me being here with him because I was sitting in the living room, and he called my name as he walked by. I say what’s up, Bryan? He says, thank you. What for? I ask, and then he says for being here and coming all the way from Las Vegas; I just love you for that, Ella. When he said that to me it filled my heart with joy because he knows that a friend who loves him is here to support him.
At times I wonder what support looks like for me as I age with HIV, and it does scare me. Especially since I know that when living with HIV, we are susceptible to other illnesses. This is a thought that runs through my mind more often than it should: I do not want to die alone. It makes me wonder if there are other people who feel the same way. My friend has been living with HIV for over 35 years and he told me that he never thought that he would be living this long with HIV, and on top of having cancer five times. He said that people don’t realize how sick he really is, and that it could be worse. I feel that everyone who lives with HIV deals with other health issues to worry about than HIV. Especially people who are aging with HIV. Just dealing mentally with what could come is difficult enough, and without support it’s even harder for people who feel alone.
Our thoughts and emotions about life and the uncertainty of what’s ahead can be frightening. All I know is that being in the presence of people who need us is what matters, and we celebrate life with them now and not when it is too late. But we also must remember to take care of ourselves as well. Let go of grudges, and love people for who they are and not for who you think they should be. I think what I am trying to say is that Bryan (my Jethro) is who he is, and I love him for that. Although he may say things that I do not agree with sometimes, I know that what he does is out of love. He is passionate about the HIV community just like a lot of us are. He is my friend, my shoulder to lean on, my partner in advocacy and my brother. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I wish I could have stayed longer than two weeks. I didn’t want to leave him. The plane ride home, I had such mixed emotions, but I knew he was well cared for. His partner Derek is such an amazing man. He shows up for Bryan in all ways that he can. Having that kind of love and partnership with someone is absolutely beautiful. I joke and say I don’t see how Derek does it, but I know that it’s because of the compassion he shares with Bryan. If others could love more, and care more for people this world would be such a beautiful brighter place to be in.
Read I’m still standing, Bryan Jones’ own words, here.