I was seven years old, so naturally, nobody bothered to explain to me what drove him to kill himself. In all fairness, it would have been extremely difficult: when I learned that he had ‘overdosed’, I thought it meant he’s slept himself to death. You know, 'over-dozed'. This made sense in my little brain.
So there I was, trying to live with this massive change in my life. A dead parent leads to you being boxed into the very specific category of the pitied child.
I won’t lie, I revelled in the attention. Adults always looked at me with sad eyes and bought me stuff. It made the whole thing hurt a lot less.
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My mother: sick and weak
That is until my mother decided to follow suit six short months later. I use the word ‘decided’ very loosely. See, she didn’t kill herself. No, she died steadily. Painfully. Daily. She was also HIV-positive.
This process began almost as soon as we had buried my father. I was still seven but turned eight somewhere in those months.
'Mama, I’m dying.'
I remember this day vividly. Me sitting on a sofa in our sitting room, my grandmother helping my mother get up from her chair. She was trying to go to the toilet but had gotten so skinny and weak that her legs couldn’t hold her up anymore.
She tried to stand but fell back onto her seat.
'No, no you’re not. Jess, tell her, she’s getting stronger. God is healing you.' My grandmother looked at me, smiling and nodding, imploring me to support her claim.
I smiled back and didn’t say a word. I wasn’t going to lie to my best friend. It was clear to even me that what she said was true.
She was dying. I couldn’t for the life of me understand how we’d gotten here. She had always been healthy. Then father died. And she lost a lot of weight really fast. Her hair was falling off and her previously smooth skin looked weird. She had a wound on her breast that oozed pus and had to be cleaned daily. The damn wound wouldn’t heal, and this is what I believed was killing my poor mother.
A few days after her dejected declaration, she was admitted to hospital and only came out in a body bag.
I buried my mother two weeks later.
Terrified of HIV
I only came to find out the true cause of death of my parents when I was 14 years old; six years later.
My story isn’t special, but it doesn’t reduce its effect on me.
I have an absolute fear of sex and intimacy.
Marriage? Not a chance. The knowledge that in a union of love, a partner can introduce a deathly disease due to infidelity terrifies me.
I obsessively take HIV tests many times a year, even when I’ve only been engaging in protected sex.
A slip up in this department leads me reeling into panicked thoughts of dying when skinny, weak, and dejected.
Yeah, I know. It’s 2017. There have been great developments in medicine and one can live many years in spite of their HIV status.
But here I am. The ghost of burying my parents still haunts me, and I only hope that one day I can live free of this burden.
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