Seeing the color red in a new way

  • by Mathew Rodriguez
  • Tuesday November 25, 2014
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Mathew Rodriguez
Mathew Rodriguez

The last time I saw my father, before he passed away from an opportunistic infection in his liver, I went to go visit him at Rivington House, a hospice care facility on New York City's Lower East Side. We were only a few blocks away from where he had grown up " the Governor Alfred E. Smith Houses, or "The Smith" as my mom and he would call them. My father, a man who was living with diabetes, cirrhosis, hepatitis C, and an AIDS diagnosis, had finally begun the slow march toward death and had moved back to NYC after years in Cleveland, close to members of his immediate family.

The color red reminds me of the very last request of my father " a man who knew he was dying, who had grown incontinent " for an orange soda and some Mike and Ike candy. My sister, older by seven years, refused to give her father the junk food. His response was, "What about diet orange soda?" As I left the building, he put a dollar into the vending machine in Rivington House's foyer " peanut M&Ms.

Had I known my father was going to die " a really silly thing to say, given that the nurses had alerted us to his incontinence and, you know, everyone dying eventually " I probably would've given him the candy, no hesitation. I would've let him enjoy himself and eat a few kernels of finely processed non-food. And wash it back with a soda that was named for color and flavor, not fruit and vitamins. This year, for World AIDS Day (December 1), is launching a social media campaign and contest called #RedRemindsMe that asks people to submit photos of something red and to explain why that red image reminds them of HIV. Personally, I'm submitting a picture of a heart made out of red Mike & Ikes, because it reminds me of the last request of my ill father, and that in the future, it's okay to let people find comfort in any way possible, even if I don't understand it.

The color red is a primary color, which means it's one of the colors on which our understanding of color is built. Everything we see is mediated by the color. When we see a color, our body discerns how much red is in that color, if any red at all. As a young gay man of color whose dad died from an AIDS-related illness, my life is very much like that when it comes to HIV. In my job, I talk about HIV; in my family, the illness has taken away my father. I have many friends and lovers who are living with HIV. It's what scares me, what thrills me, what gets me out of bed " it's how I afford to buy everything I eat. It's as much a part of me as are my glasses, my shoes, my handwriting.

In the years since his death, my life has changed immensely. Besides the fact that I carry my father's genes with me everywhere I go, we also now have Type 2 diabetes in common. I was diagnosed just one week shy of the two-year anniversary of his death. I don't eat Mike & Ike, but if anyone got between me and my Reese's, I'd probably throw a child-sized tantrum. I'm now a full-time journalist who writes about HIV every day. I've joined ACT UP. I've spoken about HIV nationally and internationally. I never knew this would be my life, that I'd be able to do a job that was so fueled by love, that would connect me with my father every day " even after he had passed away.

Of course, not everyone's connection to HIV may not be as omnipresent as mine. Everyone has their own path and their own relationship to it. That's something that we celebrate at We know that everyone's history with HIV is different, but we also know that difference of experience " and the sharing of that difference " is what creates life's riches. Diversity of experience, and sharing that diversity, is how we find meaning in life. It's how we create relationship with one another. It's a way to bridge the inevitable gaps that exist between humans " and yes, differences can build bridges.

What does red remind you of? It's a deceptively simple question that may ask you to dig down a little deeper than the average social media campaign.

Perhaps you'll uncover a lost picture of a loved one. Maybe you'll see an old letter written in red pen in a whole new way. Maybe you'll uncover something new about yourself " not only in your own entry, but in someone else's. You really never know. But the distance between what you know now and what you'll soon know is a short one " only a camera click away.

Mathew Rodriguez is the community editor at His writing has been featured in Slate, the Advocate, the Huffington Post, the International Business Times, and more.


To take part in the #RedRemindsMe campaign, visit visit and post a photo by December 12.