Joshua Ramey-Renk never got to know his father very well. At age 20, Joshua lost his dad, Orion Renk, to complications from AIDS.
“My mom and dad split up when I was born, in 1970, so I never really knew him,” Joshua recalls. “He came around a couple of times a year, but I never really knew him. But in my middle teens, he began to come around more to do father things, like teach me how to drive.”
Joshua explained that like himself, his father also lost his dad at a young age. It thrust Joshua’s grandmother, previously a homemaker, into the workforce.
“My dad told me, ‘My family doesn’t understand kids, and it’s not your fault,” Joshua said. “But I’m looking forward to watching you grow up and getting to know you.”
Five years later, Orion Renk was dead, but not before helping several Santa Cruz, Calif., area schools set up ham radio stations and serving as a member of the Witness-for-Peace-sponsored Peace Brigade to Nicaragua in 1984.
Joshua, 44, participated as a roadie this year in the AIDS LifeCycle, the 7-day bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles that raises money and awareness in the fight against HIV and AIDS. Like every year since 2008, he rode in his dad’s memory.
What a difference 20 years makes. Salvatore Iannello, a rider this year on AIDS LifeCycle, is a dad himself. The 53-year-old Salvatore is living with HIV. Not only does he fully intend to be around for his daughters for many more years to come, he says living with HIV in a sense actually inspired him to be a better father.
In 2007, Salvatore was in the throes of crystal meth addiction, sitting in a Miami jail cell for dealing the drug. He already had lost two wives to divorce, and was about to lose his three daughters, too. He had been diagnosed with HIV in 2000, acquired most likely while high on crystal meth. Eighteen months later, Iannello finally decided it was time to get sober.
He has been sober ever since.
Hope and Inspiration Inside the "Love Bubble"
Joshua and Salvatore are among 2,400 riders and 600 roadies who make the annual LifeCycle fundraiser possible. This year, ALC raised a record-breaking $16.3 million.
Not only does the ride raise money, but it also raises eyebrows. Stories like those shared by Joshua and Salvatore offer glimpses into what HIV is all about and how it impacts lives. Sometimes, as in the case of Joshua, they are stories of sadness or despair. Other times, in the case of Salvatore, the stories end up being ones of hope and inspiration.
Joshua Ramey-Renk (far right)
But all who participate in ALC agree that life inside “The Love Bubble” – the nickname for the massive camps that spring up each night on the journey from San Francisco to Los Angeles – inspires hope and healing for those participants.
Like Salvatore, Joshua’s dad had been married twice. While studying in France in 1990 – the same year Salvatore actually lost his own brother to AIDS complications – Joshua received a call from his father’s second wife.
“She said, ‘Joshua, I’m not putting pressure on you to do anything, it’s your relationship with your dad and this up to you. But you need to know he is dying of AIDS,” Joshua said, fighting back tears. “I’m not saying what you should do, but for whatever reason, he elected not to tell you, and you deserve to know.”
In a telephone booth in France, in the days of dollar a minute international telephone calls, Joshua had that final conversation with his dad, who was living in small town in Idaho. “This was in early December, and you could tell he was heavily medicated,” Joshua sobbed. “He went into a coma and then died on Christmas Day. But I was able to talk to him and tell him I loved him.”
It had been a year since he last saw his father. Joshua said nobody knows for sure how his dad contracted HIV, but added that family conjecture suggests his dad may have been bisexual, and possibly into drugs.
Finally, Quality Dad-Daughter Time
Today, Salvatore enjoys spending time with his daughters, now 19, 21, and 28. He has forgiven himself for not always being the best father while he was strung out on meth.
He admitted sometimes he would be up all night and come home just as one of his daughters was getting ready for school. He would tell her he had just returned from the gym. “My living amends to them is being in their lives, doing well for them, doing right by them. The past is the past and there is nothing I can do about it.”
Salvatore has reclaimed a successful career in the fashion industry that he enjoyed before the meth addiction. He has been sober seven years, but recalls he sank to some low depths after finding out he was HIV-positive nine years ago. He had to flee Los Angeles to evade police, moving to New York, where he ended up essentially homeless. He fled police again to Miami, where he finally was arrested for dealing drugs.
He said he was cut a break by the judge and never ended up having to serve any time.
Salvatore also said he finds ongoing support related to his sobriety and health from the Los Angeles LGBT Center, one of the benefactors of AIDS LifeCycle along with San Francisco AIDS Foundation. “I want to let people know what I went through, and for them not to go what I went through.”
DAVID HEITZ is a freelance journalist who writes primarily about HIV.