As far as I know, it started with a splinter. Although I don’t remember how I even got the damned piece of wood stuck in my finger in the first place, I do remember it hurting like hell. It was my mother, my grandmother, and her, all surrounding me as I cried, trying to figure out how to get it out.
First, my mother tried. I wouldn’t let her touch it. Next, it was my grandmother, Gram, and she had no luck either. Finally, TiTi Sam grabbed my hand, and I stopped crying long enough to let her tweeze the little menace from my finger. It was obvious at that point that I had an affinity for the woman after whom I am named.
Sandra Marie Baptiste was born on October 28, 1946. I have no interviews to share with you that I have gotten from family members on how she grew up. I have no context for you about what her life was like prior to me entering this world in 1990. Hell, I don’t even have much to share beyond my own selfish memories of her. But what I do have to share is so important to who I am as a person that it is imperative that it gets shared regardless.
Sandra was affectionately referred to as Sam by all who knew her, and more specifically, TiTi Sam by myself, my sister, and my cousins. TiTi is what we call aunts in our family; I myself am known simply as TiTi by my niece and nephew. As I got older, I tried referring to her as Aunty Sam, but it never felt the same.
The splinter incident is my first real memory of how much I loved Sam. I couldn’t tell you exactly how old I was when the cursed thing was lodged beneath my skin, but I couldn’t have been older than three. After that, if TiTi Sam was around, you could bet that little me was somewhere close behind.
For several periods during my childhood, Sam lived with my mom, my sister, and me. I could not be happier when she was around. She let me stay up late with her and watch old TV shows like “I Love Lucy” and “The Brady Bunch.” She also had a love for horror and Sci-Fi movies, and I would stick around to watch them with her, although I was absolutely terrified every time. The only reason I stuck around to watch was because I just wanted to snuggle with TiTi Sam. The result of these late night TV binges? A girl who has more than an appreciation for the innocence of television prior to the 1980s and a severe phobia of clowns, due to Sam letting me watch the movie “It” when I was four.
When I was around 9 or 10, Sam moved out of our place and into an apartment building across town, where her daughter and niece lived as well. I was sad when she left, because I was selfish and considered myself her shadow. Over time, I loved her little apartment, which smelled like Bath and Body Works Cotton Blossom and was just the right size. My sister and I got to visit her often, and I have a lot of fond memories of sleeping over and watching more TV Land than I did even when I was younger. It was also here that I learned of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. So many emotional memories are tied to that little apartment that every time I drive past it now I smile just a bit. I also imagine her cursing someone out from her window, which makes me laugh to myself.
Contrary to my naive little heart, TiTi Sam was not without flaws. While I knew she smoked cigarettes, I was not aware of the troubles Sam had faced earlier in her life concerning substance abuse. There was a brief time when she lived in a half-way house. I was too young at the time to understand the purpose of the house; I was just under the impression that she didn’t have enough money to live on her own. It wasn’t until my mid-teens that I understood how hard her life had really been.
One day, when I was about 18, my mother and I went to visit Sam at her place. By this time, I knew that she was constantly sick. It was during a conversation that she had with my mother about her medications that I learned just how sick she was. “They didn’t give me the right one. There is another one for HIV,” Sam said. It took me a minute to register what this statement meant, and when it clicked, my heart sank to my feet.
As a kid, I learned about HIV and AIDS in school, but it always felt so distant. I was scared when I heard my aunt say those three letters. The stigma that I had always had toward even the notion of HIV and AIDS began to erode the more I realized how my aunt was still the sarcastic, loving, wise-ass she had always been, even when I knew her status.
Fast forward to the year I turned 20. The spring and summer of 2010 started off great. I had gone to my first Celtics game, I was working my first professional job as an intern at Harvard University, which I loved and it seemed that everything was going swimmingly. My cousin had a Memorial Day cookout at her place that a lot of my family attended, including TiTi Sam. It was a good time. It was also the last time I saw Sam outside of a hospital bed.
It was early June that my mother came into my bedroom to tell me that my aunt was rushed to the hospital with bleeding in her brain. The moment that she stepped into my room, I knew – and as soon as she said Sam’s name, the tears began. My mother told me not to cry, that my aunt had had a hard life. I didn’t sleep that night and had to prepare myself the next day to see Sam in the place I’ve always dreaded.
When I got to the hospital, my uncle told me that Sam could go at any moment. I don’t remember anything else but walking into the room after that. I saw my funny aunt lying there with tubes, seemingly broken down. I somehow managed to pull it together long enough to talk to TiTi Sam for as long as she was comfortable.
“Hi, baby,” she said. I smiled and greeted her back. I didn’t know what to talk about, so I just brought up how my niece was getting so big and becoming a cheerleader. She told me to tell her hello.
“I will,” I said, “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
The next time I saw her, she couldn’t talk. Her condition deteriorated. The nurses told us that although the HIV never turned into AIDS, the virus left her body incredibly vulnerable to infection, and that is what led to the bleeding.
Sandra Marie Baptiste died on June 22, 2010. She left behind four children, twelve grandkids, and thirteen great-grandkids at the time of her death. She also left behind siblings, nieces, nephews, friends, and me – the girl who is terrified of clowns.
It’s important to me to share this story because so many people think this disease is worlds away. I can’t tell you how many times I have fake smiled when someone made a joke about HIV. My status may be negative, but I have been touched by positivity much the same that cancer rips our families apart. My love for TiTi Sam has taught me compassion for people who suffer across the world from this virus, because I know how much it hurts.
This World AIDS Day, please keep those who continue to fight in mind and remember that anyone can be touched by its darkness. But most importantly, remember that we can also be the generation that brings about the light.
Here’s to an AIDS-free generation.