Victoria Loustalot’s childhood fell into an abyss when her father told her mother that he was gay and infected with HIV.
Now, at 28, the New York City-based freelance writer has published a painfully candid memoir about her relationship with her late father and its emotional fallout, “This Is How You Say Goodbye” (St. Martin, $24.99, 240 pages).
The book project was a catharsis for her, a shelter from a troubled journey. “(In writing it) I learned the only way to heal from loss is love, and the only way to love is by being open and not hiding from the things that are difficult,” said Loustalot (pronounced “loo-sta-low”).
When she was 4 and living with her mother in east Sacramento, her dad, Louis Loustalot, abruptly informed Elizabeth, his wife of 14 years, that he was gay and had recently tested positive for HIV. The timing of the life-altering announcement could not have been more ironic: It was Mother’s Day, 1989.
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“He had been (closeted) all his life, but his hand was forced because he needed to tell my mother (the news) from a health perspective,” said Loustalot. “In 1989, AIDS was a death sentence.”
Elizabeth Loustalot tested negative for HIV and, surprisingly, remained with her husband. They legally separated a year later, but never divorced. “Her response was pretty incredible,” Victoria Loustalot said. “She was thinking of her wedding vows – ‘In sickness and in health.’ Even when he was bedridden later, my mother was there for him.”
Louis Loustalot had rearranged his life when his daughter was 6 months old. He left Sacramento for a higher-paying job in San Jose, commuting to work from his condominium in Santa Cruz, and returning to the Sacramento house on weekends.
“(After his announcement) my dad was not interested in separating from my mother,” Loustalot said. “He still got to live his single life (with a boyfriend) during the week and come home on weekends. At that point, he was not ready to come out to (other family members). Finally my mother said to him, ‘You need to talk to your parents.’”
Victoria Loustalot has no memory of “an official sit-down where my father told me, ‘I’m gay,’” she said. “It was almost as if my parents took the approach, ‘We don’t want to make a big deal out of it.’ It was just there, and I slowly pieced things together as I got older – a detail here, a detail there. If I had questions, they were more than happy to answer them, but I could feel the tension and sense that something was amiss.”
When Victoria Loustalot was 8, her father excitedly proposed that the two of them go on a yearlong trip around the world. “We were sitting at lunch, and I thought it sounded really cool,” she recalled. “We (focused) on three places – Paris, Stockholm and Cambodia. Then reality set in. There was my school and the expense (of travel), and his health was precarious.”
Elizabeth Loustalot was shocked when she heard about the planned adventure and immediately shut it down. But later, as part of writing “This Is How You Say Goodbye,” Victoria Loustalot would travel to those destinations in search of her father’s past and as an homage to him.
Why those three places? Louis Loustalot attended college in Stockholm in the early 1970s “and had a fondness for it and wanted to share it with me,” Victoria Loustalot said. “Paris was my contribution (to the itinerary). He asked where I wanted to go, and Paris sounded very magical.”
As for Cambodia, “as an architect I think he was intrigued by ancient civilizations and what they had built with primitive tools. Also, I think he was searching for a sense of spirituality he thought must exist in the temples there.”
What could possibly have been going through his mind for him to propose such a scheme?
“Part of it was doing something with his child while there was still time,” Victoria Loustalot said. “When he contracted HIV, he knew he was not going to live to watch me grow up. The specter of his death always overshadowed everything and had a huge impact on our relationship over the next seven years we had together. He treated me like an adult and tried to cram a lifetime into those few years.”
Time passed and Louis Loustalot continued to waste away. Some weeks were better than others. After he became too ill to work, in 1992, he sold the condo in Santa Cruz and bought a house four blocks from where his wife and daughter lived. Elizabeth Loustalot worked full time at her state job but acted as part-time caretaker to her husband when she could.
Finally, Louis Loustalot had to enter hospice care. “He was angry, depressed and half out of his mind at that point,” Victoria Loustalot said. “What he feared most was powerlessness.”
One Sunday afternoon, he swallowed an overdose of prescription sleeping pills. A caregiver discovered him and called 911. He died later that night in a hospital, on March 24, 1996. He was 44. In four days, his daughter would turn 11.
“His death was a relief in many ways,” Loustalot said. “It was very meaningful for him to be independent, but he was bedridden and in pain, dependent on nurses and lying next to a bedside table littered with AIDs cocktails. His life was no longer his own. (Dying) freed him from that.
“There was also relief for my mother and me,” she continued. “Every day of our lives and every decision we made was centered around his dying, and there was nothing we could do. I was a little kid, and there was never a moment in the day when I wasn’t conscious of that.”
Years passed. Loustalot graduated from Country Day School in Sacramento, moved to New York City, graduated from Columbia University and was starting a career as a freelance writer. Now and then, she would re-read “a collection of essays I had written about my dad” for a high school thesis project. They’re the genesis of “This Is How You Say Goodbye.”
“Once I got over being awash in those memories, I started thinking that my father was sick and unhappy pretty much the whole time I knew him, and I wondered how that influenced the things he said to me and the things we did,” she said. “I was jealous of all the people who had known him when he was healthy and presumably happy, and I wanted to get to know him in that way. I wanted to share our stories and hear the stories from his friends and family who had known him.”
In 2009, Victoria Loustalot began pursuing interviews (“cold calls”) with people from her father’s past. She also visited Cambodia that same year, and Sweden and France in 2011, to honor the fantasy world tour he had proposed and, in Sweden, get a better sense of who he had been. After that, she spent another two years writing the memoir, which moves between past and present and is told in frank, detailed narrative marked by irony, heartache and some humor.
Dropping in on her father’s personal history “brought me a lot of peace,” she said. “It was wonderful to discover that not only had he loved, but he had been loved and had not always been a lone wolf.”
As for Elizabeth Loustalot’s reaction to her daughter’s book, “My mother said she felt a mixture of pride and bewilderment, and maybe the beginning of healing. It’s nerve-racking to have your child write about you, but she raised me to believe in my voice and the importance of sharing our stories.”
Now that Victoria Loustalot has publicly told the most meaningful story of her life and has found some closure, does she ever wonder what final words she would have for her father if she could speak to him one last time?
She paused for a full minute, tears forming in her eyes, and then said quietly, “I would tell him, ‘You were loved and accepted just as you were.’ I don’t know if he knew that when he died.”