To write about someone who has passed away, someone you barely knew, is like putting together a thousand-piece puzzle with only three pieces in your hand. She cleaned our house once a week. She left a husband and a four year-old daughter who wears our kids’ hand-me-downs. She spoke Afrikaans so I hardly knew what she was saying even when she was addressing me.
The most interaction I had with her was in the last two weeks of her life as most of her body shrank to half its size while her lower legs grew. Her family had no way of getting around, so I offered to take her to see a doctor. She sat coughing next to me in our vehicle each time I took her and her family to various public clinics. I waited in the hallway for hours as she was told to sit on a wooden bench with a drip, among at least six other patients. She needed help getting up. She dragged her swollen feet and legs as she struggled to cover the shortest distance.
The first public hospital to finally admit her was only willing to keep her for less than 24 hours. I spoke to the attending doctor and nurses, even the secretary of the hospital director, and begged. She needed proper treatment and I thought another night might just save her. No luck. Ten beds needed to be cleared for patients worse off than her. They suspected she had TB – which is a real threat for someone who has AIDS – and decided to give her a week’s supply of TB treatment before discharging her. When I fetched her we exchanged a few disconnected sentences. The longest conversation I ever had with her, and the last.
A week later I learned she was in a different public hospital. Her husband asked me for a lift. It was around seven in the evening of the 31st of March. I drove him and their daughter to a much larger hospital. It was a massive place, quite well-known, and yet seemed mostly abandoned. There was no clear signage put up for visitors, so we only found her room after half an hour of frantic walking through empty halls and heavy doors. It felt like we were weaving through a half-lit maze. I wouldn’t want to be stuck wandering there on my own.
When we finally found her, she barely moved. She stared at nothingness most of the time and only held out a hand for her daughter to kiss after she was prompted by her husband. We were looking at someone who was fast fading.
There was only one doctor on duty that night, and about seven or so interns buzzing around him. We waited for the doctor to tell us her condition, but when he finally came around he said he wasn’t the one who dealt with her in the morning. He looked at her charts and said TB had taken over most of her internal organs. And that she was very, very ill. We must phone two other doctors in the morning, he said.
On the way out I came up to her and said goodbye. She looked at me as if through thick fog and tried to raise her left arm for a wave. I did not even touch her. I think I was scared I’d actually weep right there, though I was practically a stranger.
On the drive home her husband asked me what I thought. I said at least there she was being given some treatment. He said she did not recognize him and his daughter most of the time. She had asked about my wife and kids, but kept wandering away in her mind.
At 1:00 A.M. I got a call from the hospital. She had passed away about an hour before and her body was being taken to a funeral parlor – no doubt to follow hospital policy of getting a body out in time, but not for the relatives. She may lost the fight with the disease in the last few minutes of my birthday.
Her husband worked for the family across the way from us, so they got to stay at the nearby workers’ cottage. But the owners of the property – who never really considered us as friends – had vicious dogs that drowned out my calls to him. So I set my alarm to go off at six in the morning in order to catch him when he got up. It was cold and dark, and only an hour later did he show up. When I said “She passed away” he looked like he didn’t understand.
He had to say the words himself. “She died?”
Then he said he had to find a way to take their kid to the preschool, could I take them. His daughter put on a wide smile, thinking I was taking them to visit her mother again at the hospital.
Two days later one of my kids saw him walking by a fence, moving aimlessly, not really looking at anything that was around him, not even what was in front of him.
One of my daughters said “What is he doing?”
“Walking,” I said to her.
“But what is he doing?”
I couldn’t give her a better answer.
This was written in April 2008, soon after the events mentioned. South Africa, where I have lived since 1994, has had a long history of battling AIDS. If not for heroic efforts of the Treatment Action Campaign, matters would be much worse now. The TAC forced the South African government to wake up and deal with the terrible realities of the AIDS pandemic.