In December 2012, one day before the seventeenth anniversary of my father’s death, I opened an email from a solicitor at Nova Scotia’s Department of Justice. “Hi, Melanie. We’ve now calculated the amount and funding for this school year will be $17,551.60.”
A smile crept across my face. The sum was higher than I’d anticipated, and the money would cover tuition for the MFA in creative writing I was about to begin. I’ll get to write my book. The thought filtered into my head, and a tangle of conflicted emotions pressed back against my momentary enthusiasm. How could I celebrate what was, quite literally, blood money?
Between 1980 and 1985, an estimated 30,000 Canadians were infected with hepatitis C, when contaminated blood was knowingly distributed nationwide. At least 2,000 more were infected with HIV. The lives of those individuals and their families were capsized by what the high-profile Krever Inquiry eventually revealed to have been a wholly preventable tragedy.
Among the victims was my father, a renowned general and thoracic surgeon practising in the Maritimes. Eight months after a quadruple bypass, during which he received a blood transfusion, he learned he was HIV positive. It was 1985, and the public’s perception of HIV/AIDS was shaped by fear, prejudice, and homophobia. Afraid of the stigma and wanting to protect his family, Dad decided his illness would be a secret we’d all have to keep.
For the ten years before his death in 1995, Dad lived with the horrifying expectation that, like most AIDS patients he knew or knew about, he could die at any time, in any number of terrible ways. I confronted that same horrifying reality as I watched from the sidelines with the heartbreaking anticipation of future grief. I witnessed how the disease diminished Dad: It put an abrupt end to his surgical career when he was just forty-two. It wreaked havoc on his psyche. It stole his power. The man who could fill a room with his confidence disappeared.
After the scandal became public, a debate raged among politicians and health officials about whether victims of medically transferred HIV should be compensated financially. Ottawa granted one-time “humanitarian assistance” of $120,000 on the condition that no one would sue. Provincial governments were expected to offer additional annual indemnities to residents who’d received contaminated blood. For three years, they refused. Then in 1993, Nova Scotia became the first province to provide such a package, following the tireless lobbying efforts of Randy Conners, a hemophiliac infected with HIV, and his wife, Janet, who’d contracted the virus from him. About two dozen people, among them my father, were awarded support, including payments to cover higher-education costs for all dependent children and surviving spouses.
I was finishing my bachelor’s at the time and ended up using only two terms of the entitlement. Much later, when I decided to go back to graduate school, I contacted the lawyer who’d handled the application for my family’s claim. I inquired about a statute of limitations. It took months for her to dig through files stored at a warehouse to discover that I was still eligible for three years of full-time education.
Just before I had started my final year of university, I sat with Dad on the back patio of my parents’ home, perched on the edge of a wooded ravine overlooking the Halifax Harbour. We soaked up the late summer sun as I described the creative writing class I’d taken that spring.
“You’re writing stories in your head all the time, aren’t you, Mel?” Dad asked, his face tilted to one side. “Yes,” I admitted. “I thought so,” he said, leaning back with a satisfied smile. “Maybe one day you’ll write a book.”
Dad imagined me a novelist, I think. He couldn’t know then that the catastrophe of his infection, the events that unfolded in its wake, the coiling, squeezing grief after his death, and my efforts to understand it all would be the story I’d tell. And he couldn’t know that the government’s offer of funds to make amends for what he’d lost would, decades later, give me the skills and the voice to tell it.
I can’t resolve how I feel about that money. My father is still gone. My life will always be folded around the gap that opened with his absence. Nothing can compensate for that. Yet, in the act of crafting this story, I’ve learned to speak what was once unspeakable. For that, I am grateful.