He told me that I could tell his story.
And I told him that I didn’t know how.
His history isn’t all that different than many of the other 1:10 people who are infected with HIV on this Island.
Father went to work on ships, got HIV from one of their port nights on the coast,brought it back to wife, wife infected baby boy during delivery, mother and father died a few years later, baby boy left in care of grandmother, grandmother tried hard to raise a child who has been sick more than healthy since the day that he was born, grandmother, grandfather, and youngest brother die in the same year leaving now teenage boy alone and afraid, other remaining family members turn their backs hoping that no one will call their names to step up and help because they are so afraid of the disease.
In a place that boasts the second highest concentrated HIV rate in this side of the world, his history isn’t that much different. The characters, the setting, even the plot, are pretty much predictable.
But he wasn’t his history, he wasn’t the product of his father’s bad decisions; he wasn’t the + after the word HIV; he wasn’t the stigma of an over sexualized black male in Roatan.
He was the young boy who had to quit school in 4th grade because of bullying about being sick all the time. Who had to look down at the ground when the teachers told his classmates you can get it from a hug.
He was the young boy who loved to climb trees, catch iguana, sell fruits and vegetables in the market with his Grandfather.
He was the young man who would do anything for anyone, but distanced his heart from everyone for fear of rejection.
He was the young man who wanted to learn how to read, whose one goal in life was to be able to get married and have a family.
The young man who became such an intricate part of my family, a brother to my daughter, a son to me.
I memorized his breathing pattern along with his ARV schedule, knew when he wanted someone to lie next to him, and when he wanted to be alone, when he wanted someone to quietly listen and when he wanted to sit in silence. I knew when he was scared, sad, or angry, though his expression never changed.
I knew the sound of the beat of his heart, because it became mine.
I knew the moment he lost the will to live was the moment he lost his sight, although he told everyone else with a smile on his face that it was better this way, that he could focus more on God.
I knew the moment the fight was over, when the hope of getting stronger was no longer a reality.
I knew the words to say, the verses to read, the caresses to gently give.
And I knew that I would fulfill my promise that he could die in my arms.
Now that he is gone, I sit here and think on all that I don’t know. Where it even began, where it all even began… I remember the HIV Charla that WYM conducted at the primary school in Flowers Bay a few years back; the one where the kids bombarded the Question and Answer session with stories of their teachers telling them to be careful because you can get it from a toilet seat, a handshake, a shared glass…a hug.
I remember one of our many trips to the hospital for tests and watching one of our neighbors die in front of us, his eyes scared and pleading into ours. I remember how his mother told everyone he died of worms, when everyone knew he died of AIDS but no one wanted to say it. I often wondered if that’s why he was so afraid when he died, because no one had ever really talked to him about why he was dying in the first place.
I think of all of the times people around us have whispered the words “the sickness” instead of calling it by its name.
I remember when my son said for the first time outloud, “I have AIDS”. It was 2011, and it took him over 20 minutes to get the words to come out of his mouth. We both cried like babies afterwards, him for having to choke down the words for so long, me from having to watch him.
I think of the family members and community members and “Christians” who turned their faces in the other direction because of fear, when all that was needed was a little love and compassion. One of those fatally “dangerous” hugs the teachers tell the kids about.
And I wonder…where does his history start? Does it start with that fateful night when his father made a terrible decision? Or does his history lie in our hands? Our inability to see the urgency in educating the ignorant, accepting the “flawed”, working to banish the stigma?
It is so easy to blame his father who chose to be unfaithful to his wife, his mother who chose to give birth vaginally and breast feed her child after she was already aware of her HIV status, his grandmother who never said the words outloud but kept them inside like a dirty secret, him for drinking his problems away and increasing the rate of destruction, for skipping doses of anti-retrovirals because they made him so sick he would vomit until the only thing left coming up was his own stomach lining.
It is easy to blame everyone else.
But blame has never saved a life. Never.
We need to support the programs who are working hard to educate the public, and most importantly the youth, whose hands hold the future of this terrible disease. We need to open our mouths and tell their stories, our ears so we can hear them. They are out there, they are all over the internet, on our tvs, in our newspapers. We need to educate ourselves, to understand that these are not foreign stories of foreign people from foreign lands, these are our brothers and sisters. We need to pray hard, and yes, we need to sacrifice a dinner out every once in a while to send some hard earned cash in the direction of those working in the trenches.
When you look at the big picture, it is daunting, hopeless even. I am not asking you to do that. I am asking you to scale it down and look at it through the eyes of a WYM Sex Ed and HIV Prevention Class.
On January 12th, 2013, WYM had a graduation ceremony for its newest graduates: 15 teenage young ladies and gentlemen. Small number right? Wrong. These 15 youth are our army, they will make healthy decisions sexually, and also educate all of their friends. They can never go back to the destruction of ignorance, they will power forward and spread knowledge in places that missionaries, do-gooders, and even HIV Educators like myself can’t even reach. If we want to fight this disease, it must be through them. If we can prevent their generation from spreading it, then it will die. If we can slow the rate of transmission down, then stories like Harrison’s won’t have to be told.
As I write this, I read through a diary excerpt of the night he told me I could share his story.
“Tonight I lie next to him after giving him a sponge bath and tenderly rubbing his body which has become nothing but skin, bones, and old scars from memories of past illnesses tearing through like hurricanes. He is sleeping for now, but soon will wake up in one of his coughing fits, throwing up the only thing he managed to eat today. Soon he will wake up and his body will shake with the fury of an active volcano from what his body perceives to be an extremely cold environment.
His spirit has seemed to have separated itself from his tattered shell of a body, but it presents itself in a smile when my four year old tells him she wishes Jesus could make him feel safe. It shines through when he talks about his beloved Grandmother, and it’s the brightest when someone looks him in the eyes and tells him they love him.
I want to scream sometimes, “You can’t get AIDS from words! Tell him you love him! It is all he needs to keep fighting!”
I want to scream out of the unfairness of it all when he is too ashamed to leave the house for fear of what people will say. With every pound he loses, a friend goes with it. A friend who isn’t sure what is happening, and if they need to be afraid.
I want to blame someone, but there is no one to blame.
Sometimes life isn’t fair.
I tell him God only challenges those He knows can take it, but the words feel bitter and sour as soon as they leave my mouth. God didn’t do this, we did.
I tell him that in Heaven people won’t see his body, but will see his heart; his beautiful, pure, under-experienced heart… “
He told me that I could tell his story and I did.
Now it is your turn….