My brother, you are dying

2014-02-17 00:00

THE lazy, languid December holidays were interrupted as my mobile jolted me into action. It was my Zulu “mother” asking if I would go to Maritzburg to see her son, Themba, who was in hospital.

A couple of hours later I walked into the ward. A good-looking young man lay asleep. I drew up a chair next to his bed and waited. In the long silence we slipped into a relationship that evolved with the seeming timelessness of profound intimacy. He turned over and opened his eyes. I smiled and gave him the message from his mother. He was being treated for cerebral meningitis.

He was discharged before Christmas, but within 48 hours was back in hospital. His mama confided that she didn’t understand why he wasn’t getting better. I suggested that maybe the doctor was treating a symptom and not the actual disease. Besides meningitis, he had dermatitis and thrush. A loaded question hung in the air: did he know his status?

The following day when I visited Themba, his older brother Sipho, from Okhahlamba, was there too. Sipho quietly said, “I have just been telling my brother here that I am HIV-positive, which you know. He also has this disease, but when they told him six months ago he didn’t believe it.” Courage had spoken in an era of denial and limited access through state hospitals to HIV treatment. We talked about confidentiality and how we can choose whom we tell and when; why it would be important to ask the specialist about ARV treatment and what sort of support would be helpful.

The specialist was unsure about beginning ARV treatment immediately. Instead, Themba was discharged to convalesce at his sister’s home.

A month later, my cellphone rang. Could I help by putting some money into an FNB account? Themba had been admitted to the Church of Scotland Hospital in Tugela Ferry and could begin ARV treatment if he paid for the first month of his therapy. Thereafter he would become part of the hospital pilot roll-out programme. A few weeks later I woke with a single thought. I must drive to Okhahlamba now, collect Themba’s mother and get her to Tugela Ferry. It was a long trip. When we got there, he was barely conscious, but seemed to rally and recognise his mama. His Ixopo sister and family arrived too. There was time to talk, cry, pray and to say goodbye.

I slipped away from this intimate family group and leaned against the wall at the entrance to the ward. The setting sun reflected specks of dust. The HI virus had our country by the throat and its impact would be felt for several generations. A specialist from Durban, who once a month gave a weekend of his time pro deo, was talking to a nurse at Themba’s bedside. There was barely room to stand between the beds — beds next to beds holding emaciated patients with TB coughing punctuating the sighing of moving bodies. Time was standing still: the shadows began to lengthen as Themba’s life was ebbing to a close.

Themba’s mother joined me at the doorway. “Will you stay with him? And if he dies phone me immediately and then stay until they take him to the mortuary.” She was quite matter of fact, calm and dignified. I nodded.

A nurse brought me a chair that just fitted between the beds. Another nurse asked me to wear a mask. I sat holding Themba’s hand and waited as the visitors left and the ward settled into sleep. There was nothing else to say or do. We were companions to the silence. Slowly the timelessness was returning full circle. Themba’s breathing changed and I whispered to him, “My brother you are dying. I love you.” And then he was gone. Time stood suspended as the medical team completed the official documents and his body was transferred from the bed to the mortuary gurney.

As I walked out of the ward a nurse stopped me and asked what I was going to do now. I explained I would sleep in the car and go home at first light. She asked me to wait. Five minutes later I was being shown into the nurse’s home, given a mug of tea and invited to sleep there comfortably and safely. We had only just met five minutes before.

This all happened several years ago. Themba’s death was tragic. Yet now, on reflection, I am left in awe of so many individual acts of compassion by different people, in awe of courage, resilience, fortitude and the embalming grace of love all of which hint of hope for humanity.

Mary Ashby (not her real name) lives in the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal with her mischievious Jack Russell, Toto. She has been involved in community development work in rural areas throughout South Africa for over 30 years. Her other interests include reading, bird watching, listening to classical music and spending time with close friends.

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