Sometimes, Noel Arce has trouble remembering his dads.
Not his biological parents — he never met them: His birth mother gave him up as an infant, and he never knew who his birth father was.
But in 1988, he and his brother, Joey, were taken in by Louis Arce and Steven Koceja, a gay couple from Manhattan. Louis was a social worker, and Joey, 2, and Noel, about 10 months old, were in the foster care system.
The boys had been surrendered at New York City’s Metropolitan Hospital. “Our mother and dad were heroin addicts, and they couldn’t really care for us,” Noel said.
During the week, the brothers and Angel, an HIV-positive 3-year-old, lived with Louis and Steven in their Manhattan apartment, and on weekends, they went to the couple’s house in the scenic town of Rosendale, New York, about two hours north.
“It felt very normal, my childhood,” Noel said. “Like the world operated with moms and dads, and two dads and two moms.”
Noel was always free to be himself growing up — to play with Barbie dolls and dress up in frilly costumes. His dads loved to make home movies; in one, Joey and Angel are playing with Tonka trucks and Noel is picking flowers.
“I was very feminine. I’d always participate in girly things, and my dads embraced that in me,” he said. “That really helped me in my development as a child,”
As he got older, Noel realized that was a unique experience.
“I hear people’s stories of coming out and being rejected, being thrown out. That experience for most gay men is a very hard one,” he said. “I’m very blessed to not have had that.”
The time they had together was special, but it was all too brief. Joey and Noel’s adoptions were finalized in 1993. On June 18, 1994, Steven, 32, died of AIDS-related complications. Five days later, Louis, 47, succumbed to the disease.
Noel was just 7 at the time.
Now 33, he says some of the memories of his time with Louis and Steven are fuzzy. He compares them to a train leaving the station, getting smaller and smaller as it pulls away.
Some moments, though, are crystal clear.
“When I look at some of the photos I have, I can remember the day the picture was taken,” he said. “When I see the bedroom, I can remember being there, I remember certain smells — what was cooking that day. And I remember all the Barbies I had.”
One memory in particular stands out: Noel had just turned 6, and, as usual, the family was making a video. “It was like a horror movie, but, you know, silly,” he said. “I dressed up as a witch, and my brother was, like, a devil. And my dad was videoing it, and we were all having so much fun.”
As an adult, he says, he’s better at holding onto the memories. “But I don’t remember the end. I don’t remember them being sick. I don’t remember visiting them in the hospital.”
When Louis and Steven knew their time was running out, they recorded special videos for the boys.
“There’s a video of them talking to us — explaining how much they loved us,” Noel said. “And there’s videos Louis made for each of us individually. In the video for me, he says, ‘Noel, I know you’re gay.’ And he gives me his thoughts and advice about facing life. I’m so lucky to have that.”
He watched that video for the first time a year after his dads died and, unsurprisingly, didn’t really understand it. About two years ago, he watched it again.
“It was the first time I had an emotional reaction — where I cried,” he said of watching the video.
After Louis and Steven died, Louis’ brother Robert and his wife, Tina, took in the three boys.
When Louis and Steven started to get sick, they had asked Robert and Tina to become the boys’ guardians and started transitioning care.
“Sometimes we’d come over for longer visits,” Tina said. “Other times it would just be the kids and us. We talked to them about what was going to happen, but how do you prepare a child for that?”
She and Louis had known each other since they were kids themselves. “He always, always wanted children,” she said. But, he was an HIV-positive man at a time when treatment options were minimal to nonexistent.
“I said to him, ‘Why would you do this to these kids — taking them in, knowing you have a death sentence, that you’ll disappear on them?” And he said, “Who would know better than me what they’ll face?”
Bringing the boys into the family “changed our whole dynamic forever,” she said. “I was done raising kids by that point, and then there I am, taking these” children in.
But she got much out of the experience, too, she’s quick to add, “maybe even more than the kids.”
“I became involved in AIDS care. I traveled. I met people I never thought I would. I fought for them,” she said. “The man upstairs knew what he was doing bringing us together. It was amazing how my life turned around. If it…
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