On World AIDS Day, remembering my brother Harry

BY DENNIS LEVY | My brother Harry died on Sept. 3, 1999, at age 53. Cancer of the liver was the official cause of death. I believe it was the toxic effects of a heroin addiction, AIDS and hepatitis C that finally destroyed his liver.

The cancer sapped his strength, his fire, but never the determination to survive. He struggled to get up from his sickbed right until the end. Finally, he fell into a coma for the last few days of his life.

This year’s celebration of the New York City AIDS Memorial was special. Harry is one of the 100,000-plus men, women and children who have died from AIDS in this city. But this is not a story of Harry’s last days. This is a tribute to Harry’s triumph over drug use and AIDS. It’s one man’s story of living life on life’s terms.

Dennis Levy.

Dennis Levy.

There were 10 of us kids in my family. Harry was the second oldest. Next came me, then Dot, Rick and so on, with a couple of years between. Harry, Rick and I were close. When Harry was 17, he started hanging out in the streets of Cincinnati, Ohio, and experimenting with alcohol and drugs. Heroin was his drug of choice.

Harry became a white-collar criminal, specializing in stolen checks and credit cards to support his heroin habit. In 1977, he moved to New York City because it was “the drug capital,” he said. He spent years in a drug-crazed blur with hundreds of nameless women. There were many horror stories and Harry spent time in prison.

He was diagnosed with H.I.V. in 1987. Doctors put Harry on A.Z.T., but he said the meds interfered with his drug high, so he stopped using A.Z.T. In 1983 Harry came down with a disease the doctors couldn’t recognize. He was hospitalized. The physician in charge said, “Mr. Levy, if you believe in God, it’s time for you to pray to him.”

My grandmother, a pastor, prayed with Harry day after day and miraculously he got better and eventually made a full recovery.

“I wake up in the morning and just feel like, ‘God, I’m glad to be alive,’” he said.

Harry became a member of Narcotics Anonymous and a regular at N.A. meetings in the Bronx. In 1997, Harry became a self-taught H.I.V. treatment educator, with firsthand experience taking many of the new AIDS medicines. He co-founded the Black and Latino AIDS Coalition, Inc. with me and we began speaking to people living with H.I.V. around New York City.

I can testify that Harry was my strongest supporter. He stood with me regardless of the issue. We argued endlessly if we didn’t agree, and many times we would stop speaking to each other for weeks. But we always got back together. Best friends as well as brothers.

I remember Harry bought a 1985 beige Cadillac in 1997 with the money he saved from not using drugs. Harry loved that car. It was always clean and shining. He was always transporting people with AIDS. He never hesitated to give someone a ride to see his or her doctor or run a errand.

Some people credited Harry with helping them stay off drugs. Others recalled Harry’s compassion and sympathetic ear when they were confronted with a crisis. A lady with tears in her eyes remembered how Harry always listened to her no matter what time of day or night she called. Another said Harry helped her to build confidence in herself.

“He taught me how to drive a car,” she said. “Nobody ever believed enough in me to teach me anything except Harry!”

One day in 1998, someone stole Harry’s Cadillac. I don’t think he ever recovered from the loss. He passed away in 1999.

Another brother of mine in Cincinnati, who couldn’t make Harry’s funeral in New York, said he had a dream a couple of days before Harry’s death. He said he was riding down a highway on a bike, and suddenly he saw a car approaching from the other side of the highway. As the car got closer, he recognized a beige Cadillac, and as it sped past him, he swore it was Harry at the wheel. Harry turned with a smile on his face and waved at him. As fast as my brother could turn around, Harry and his Cadillac were gone!

Well, it might have been a dream my brother remembers, but I like to believe it was Harry saying goodbye.

Goodbye, Harry. I miss you!

Levy is an activist on AIDS and marijuana legalization and was the Green Party candidate in last April’s special election for the 65th Assembly District

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