It has been exactly 20 years since my mother died of HIV/AIDS. I was eighteen years old when died, she was thirty six. At thirty seven now, I can’t stop thinking about how young my mother was when she lost her life to HIV/AIDS. In 2002, when my mother died, the HIV/AIDS pandemic was at its peak in South Africa, so was the stigmatization of the disease. It was seen as a disease that was killing hoes, prostitutes and gay men. There was an embarrassment that followed those whose family members died to the point that they would omit HIV/AIDS when talking about the cause of death for their loved ones. We did the same thing when my mother died. I thought that she had pneumonia, and she died of lung failure. Which was true, but what I learned was that HIV/AIDS had completely destroyed her immune system and she couldn’t fight any disease.
My grandmother told me about her battle with HIV a year after she (my mother) died. She sat me down next to me, held my hands and whispered, “your mother had HIV”. I had this feeling in the pit of my stomach that she had just died…again. Her dying of HIV felt like a betrayal that I couldn’t comprehend. My mother, the born again Christian woman, whose smile filled up a room and whose laugh sounded like a song, had died of a disease that only kills hoes, prostitutes and gay men. I folded my body on my grandmother’s lap and let out a cry I didn’t let out when I had heard she died a year before. I was angry. Angry at a God who allowed her to die – leaving behind four motherless children, angry at the man who couldn’t love and protect her and angry that I was a statistic. A child left motherless due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. My anger couldn’t be truly felt because I was a born Christian, and feeling anything outside love, and peace felt like a sin.
As the years passed, more family members, friends and neighbors either died from or contracted the disease. I came face-to-face with the cruelty of HIV when one of my cousins died. We hadn’t heard from her for a few months and when we finally did, it was a call that she was in hospital and we had to rush to see her. When my family and I walked in to where we were told her bed was, we couldn’t see her. The bed the nurse said she was in looked perfectly made and when I went to tell the nurse she wasn’t there she simply said “look at the head”. My cousin was just a head. The disease had eaten at her flesh and bones. She died the next day, as if she was just waiting for us to bid her farewell.
This blog would not end if I told you about the first hand experience that I have with it. The loved ones who continue to live with it and the ones who lost their battle to it. It has taken so much from so many. This world AIDS day, I remember the loss, the devastation, the pain and the rage. I remember how far we have come with destigmatizing the disease, the work that the medical community has done to limit its effects. I cried the first time I heard of a baby whose parents were both positive and didn’t contract the disease. I had seen how painful kids with HIV had to live their lives and how young they were dying.
What I have learned twenty years since HIV/AIDS was not just the disease that killed hoes, prostitutes and gay men, but the disease that killed my mother and my cousins, is that progress is possible. I learned that love can heal and there is power in community. It was community leaders that showed themselves hugging HIV infected folks to prove that the disease isn’t transferable through touch. It was the interfaith community working together to bring awareness and relief to underserved communities to help those left destitute because of HIV/AIDS.
As we move forward, I hope we remember how far we have come and how far we still need to go. I hope that we know that we are at the mercy of our ignorance and fear. I hope we know that something beautiful happens when we band together in love and understanding. And to those living with HIV/AIDS…LIVE!