LOUISE CHAMPAGNIA/STAFF MAGAZINE When he wasn’t fighting for a cure, Peter Ennis was running around with a girlfriend.
Peter Ennis came out to his cousin during the height of the AIDS crisis, in the late 1980s. The 45-year-old had just spent a day caring for his AIDS-affected uncle when he called him up and told him: “I’m HIV positive, and I am going to make it, that’s for sure.”
In 1986, his father had contracted the virus and died two years later. As a kid, Mr. Ennis and his friends listened to their parents talk about how dangerous and mysterious the virus was. “There was also talk about how you could easily contract it without knowing it,” he said. “What went through my mind was, ‘Well, this disease has a good cure and a bad cure — hopefully, it’s the good cure.’”
At college, Mr. Ennis experimented with cocaine, tried LSD and was in one of those rare cases where drinking with his friends was turning into not drinking at all. “The hell with it,” he said. “I’m going to be a single guy, so I need to have sex.” At home, he reconnected with a boy he met in high school, a boy he had always cared about, though never seen in the years since high school. The boy was losing the will to live. They had unprotected sex and Mr. Ennis was soon diagnosed with AIDS. Soon, his girlfriend left him, and his relationship with his parents was distant.
“My health started deteriorating, and I was struggling, and my grandmother passed away, and my father passed away,” he said. “It was like I was in the middle of an emotional roller coaster.”
Mr. Ennis was tired of not giving himself the right amount of privacy, so he started to compile photos of his intimate encounters online.
“I was always trying to make friends, and find some way to communicate with people I wanted to talk to,” he said. But, increasingly, he was battling all his friends as well. “I would look into the eyes of friends, and I would see their eyes just hardened,” he said. “The worst time for me was when my parents would find out.”
At Christmas 2013, Mr. Ennis’ grandmother was told that she had liver cancer, and her doctor said that most of it had been fought off, but he was still planning to bring her in for surgery in February.
His girlfriend at the time, Nicole, 36, stood by him. She said she prayed that it was cancer, not AIDS.
“When I knew that she had been shot, it was like the world shook,” Mr. Ennis said. “My lung was necrotic, I looked like a corpse. It was not a good feeling.”
Then, a few months later, Mr. Ennis got the news he was dying: Cancer had spread to his lungs, liver and brain. He had almost lost the ability to feel his extremities. His two kidneys had been removed.
“He wanted to be someone he could trust,” Nicole said. “He needed someone who was trustworthy and who he could tell the truth to.”
Her whole world had changed. “That was one of my greatest tragedies, and one of his greatest triumphs,” she said. “He was so full of life and so full of energy, but his spirit was so strong. He was just so accepting.”
“I lost all the confidence I had in myself,” said Mr. Ennis, who had wrestled with his sexuality for decades, and felt lonelier than he ever had. “I realized that I was probably going to die, that I didn’t have a future. I am tired of being sad and tired of living.”
So he got on with what he could do. Over the next few months, he started to study psychology. “I started to know the issues that go behind the issue of suicide,” he said. “I did an extensive research, and it gave me strength.” He began to talk more openly with his family.
As he started to reconstruct his life — waking up and getting ready for the day, concentrating on his job at Schlotzsky’s and helping his family — his niece came in with a