Ruth Coker Burks was a young mother in her 20s when the AIDS epidemic hit her home state of Arkansas in the early 1980s. She took it upon herself to care for AIDS patients who were abandoned by their families, and even by medical professionals, who feared the disease.
Coker Burks, now 55, has no medical training, but she estimates that she has cared for nearly 1,000 people over the past three decades, including her friend Paul Wineland’s partner.
She became involved after visiting a friend at a Little Rock hospital where one of the state’s early AIDS patients was dying. “The nurses were drawing straws to see who would go in and check on him,” Coker Burks tells Wineland at StoryCorps in Hot Springs, Ark.
“And so I snuck into his room. And he wanted his mama. And so I marched myself out to the nurses’ station and I said, ‘Can we call his mother?’ And they go, ‘Honey, his mama’s not coming. He’s been here six weeks. Nobody’s coming.’
“And so I went back in and he looked up at me and he said, ‘Oh, Mama, I knew you’d come.’ I stayed with him for 13 hours while he took his last breath. I called his mother and I told her that he had died and she said, ‘I’m not burying him.’ So I had him cremated and I brought him home.”
Earlier today, this Storycorps installment made me burst into sobs. I was reminded of some Seattle friends who died of AIDS; I knew a few people whose family had abandoned them to their fate and left them to rely on the kindness of strangers. I know people who volunteered at AIDS hospices years ago in the Chicago area, too. They had also sat with the dying, because the families would not be there for them, in all senses.
The sobs came when Coker Burks said “Oh Mama, I knew you’d come.”
I was overcome with grief for an unknown mother’s son, and had to log out of my work phone line for a few seconds so I wouldn’t be caught crying on the line if a call came in.
I sobbed for the son who wanted his mama, and for the mama who would not come, and for the kind woman who stood in for so many mothers and fathers who would not, or could not, be there for their sons and daughters, dying of AIDS.
Those were dark days, but thank God for Ruth Coker Burks. It reallly did get better because of people like her.