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HIV In The Mountain State: Robert Becomes A Caretaker After His Partner's Death

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Kyle Vass
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Robert, in Hardy County, became the caretaker for friends after his partner passed away from AIDS.

Robert Singleton moved to Hardy County, West Virginia in search of peace and clean air. An internationally recognized painter, Robert decided to build a home and studio on a piece of property that overlooked the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In 1987, Robert and his partner, Steven Russell, decided it was time to move in together.

“We had talked about AIDS, or HIV. And he said that he had been tested and was negative. And, I said I had also and as long as we were faithful to each other, we had nothing to be concerned about, because we were both negative.”

One day, before Steven was supposed to go to work, Robert found him sitting in a chair on their back porch.

“I was sitting here and he was beet red. I said, ‘Steven, you don't look well.’ I put my hand on his forehead and he was burning up and he said, ‘Robert, I haven't been honest with you. I've been really sick.’”

When Robert took his temperature, Steven had a fever of 105. He told Robert he had been steadily losing weight.

“We didn't use the word AIDS. It was a know -- a very fearful knowing. And I said well, ‘Will you trust me? I need to do some things.’ And he said, “Yes, please do what you have to do.’”

Robert called the national AIDS hotline. Within a couple of hours, a nurse at a local hospital called back. She said both Robert and Steven needed to come in as soon as possible.

“The doctor came in to examine him. They drew some blood and did some testing. And then, I don't know, 30 minutes later they came back and he said, “Steven, I hate to tell you this. But you have full-blown AIDS.’”

“I was sitting right next to him and he was on a gurney. And he just rolled over and looked at me and he said, “Robert, I'm really sorry if I've done something to you.” I said, “Don't worry about it, Steven. We'll take it a day at a time. We need to focus on you.”

Robert’s test results came back negative. But, he and Stephen both knew what Stephen’s positive diagnosis meant.

“He lived for two years to that day. From the day he was diagnosed to the day he died was exactly two years.”

Robert, now 83, still lives and paints in the same house as he did when Steven was alive. While sitting on the same back porch where his life changed forever, Robert points over to a hill on his property.

“Steve and I used to hang out there, it was a nice place in the summer. We'd take a cold beer and sit under the trees. Anyway, just before he died, he said would I please put his ashes up there on the hill under the trees?”

While Robert never contracted the disease himself, it radically changed the trajectory of his life. Seven of his lifelong friends would die of complications related to AIDS.

“There was a Thanksgiving in, maybe, 1984? We gathered here for a big Thanksgiving dinner. Every one of them, every single one of those people, and their partners died of AIDS. All except me. They all got AIDS and died.”

In Robert’s memoir, titled “Until I Become Light”, he includes a poem about that night. The final verse reads, “Of AIDS, they all suffered. Died. Martyrs of love incarnate. Martyred all, save one.”

As Robert watched his friends go one by one, he decided to lean into the role of caretaker. Anyone dying of AIDS would have his unwavering support. His friends weren’t just dying a painful death. They were dying of a disease that kept everyone else far away from them.

“They were terrified of this plague. The ‘Gay Plague’ is what they referred to it as. And I, for some unknown reason, I was not terrified. I felt these were people I really cared about a great deal. And, for whatever reason, I was not fearful.”

Not long after Steven’s passing, his close friend Butch reached out.

“I knew by this time that he was ill. He called me and said “Robert, there's only one place I want to be and one person I want to be with.”

Butch asked to have his ashes placed on the same hill where Robert had put Steven’s. Each of the people Robert would accompany to the end of their life would make the same request.

Robert talks about the people he’s lost with nostalgia. But there’s also a sense of peace. He knows at their most desperate hour, he was able to provide the people closest to him with companionship and a promise.

“They're all up there. They all wanted to go there. They made me promise them once they had passed that I would put them up on the hill.”

Robert rarely visits the top of the hill anymore. His lung condition makes long walks in the summer heat strenuous. Instead he says he’s content to watch the hickory leaves in the spring--a reminder each year that his friends are, in a way, still living. And at the core of his joy is the knowledge that some day he will join them -- when he becomes light.


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