When our (former) ONAP intern, Daniel, told me what prompted his interest in HIV/AIDS work, I was quite moved and wanted you all to hear his story, too. This young man is driven by similar factors that motivated thousands of us many years ago: a personal connection, inspiration derived from witnessing extraordinary bravery, and a desire to affect change.
–Douglas Brooks, Former Director, White House Office of National AIDS Policy
A Call to Compassion and a Legacy of Service: The Impact of My Uncles
As an intern in the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, I have had the honor of working on an issue that has particular meaning for me. I am the nephew of the late John Paul Fernald III (May 11, 1958 – November 4, 2003) and the late Michael Andrew Kettmann (August 24, 1960 – September 7, 2005).
When I was 8 years old, I saw my uncle John in a wheel chair. It shocked me to see him look so frail and so weak. I knew he wasn’t very old and he hadn’t broken his foot or leg, so why was he in a wheelchair? A few weeks later, my uncle John passed away. It was my first funeral and it was the first time I saw adults in my family cry. I worried so much about my mom and dad because they seemed so devastatingly sad. Uncle John, my mother’s brother’s partner, was one of my dad’s best friends.
When I was 10 years old, my uncle Mike passed away. It was my second funeral. I had never seen so many people wear sunglasses inside a building before, nor had I ever (before or since) seen my mom cry so hard or so much. Uncle Mike was my mom’s older brother. I remember noticing how packed the church was during the funeral. I looked into the eyes of Uncle Mike’s old classmates, coworkers and friends. It made me cry. I wished, and still wish, I had the many years with my uncle that many of them had.
Looking back, I hadn’t really known what happened to my uncles. I only knew that I wouldn’t be able to see two of my favorite people ever again. I’d never again be able to ride in the back of their gray pick-up truck or hear Uncle John play the piano while Uncle Mike stood alongside and sang the words to the tune with an irrepressible smile on his face. Granted, I never saw Uncle Mike sing or smile much after Uncle John passed. The two of them shared a love that was one for the storybooks, and when we lost Uncle John, my uncle Mike lost his second half.
Being so young at the time, I was confused as to how they passed, but I feared my questions would evoke the awful sadness that had previously ensued. I decided I’d just preserve the fond memories I shared with them and wait for a sunnier day to ask about their deaths.
Years after his death, Uncle John popped in to my head. I decided to look up his obituary in the hopes of learning something more about him. And that I did. I learned that Uncle John lost his long, courageous battle to AIDS on November 4, 2003. I also learned that he was an incredible AIDS advocate. He helped the Catholic Church make tremendous leaps in its response to the epidemic, helping draft the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter on AIDS, “AIDS: Called to Compassion and Responsibility.” He was also an activist in San Francisco and was honored for his dedication to service on June 20, 1996 with “John Fernald Day,” proclaimed by San Francisco’s mayor, Willie Brown. My uncle Mike also lived with, and died from complications due to AIDS and was an extraordinary activist himself. He was committed to counseling unwed mothers and troubled and runaway teens. Both of my uncles were incredible human beings.
President Obama said in his final State of the Union address, “Right now, we’re on track to end the scourge of HIV/AIDS. That’s within our grasp.” We’ve come a long way, and I am proud to know that my uncles both had a part in that. They would have been thrilled to see the advances we’ve made, such as the development and uptake of PrEP and the release of the updated National HIV/AIDS Strategy last July. The fact that they weren’t able to see how far we’ve progressed pulls at my heart, but I feel so fortunate that I’ve been able to continue the fight for them.
Uncle Mike and Uncle John both lived their lives in constant service to others, and now I feel as if I have had the honor of serving them. Throughout my time with ONAP, I have kept them on my mind and in my heart, and as I have walked through these halls, I have always felt them with me. Now, as I walk through these doors and out the gate for what may well be the last time, I hope to help keep conversations open about HIV/AIDS; to educate others and to continue to destigmatize the disease. I also hope that we all continue to remember and talk about those who have passed and who are currently affected with HIV/AIDS, for they should be the source of our fire to bring an end to the disease.
In memory of John Fernald III, Mike Kettmann, and the many others who have lost their lives to AIDS, and for the countless others who have worked tirelessly to end the epidemic.