I still lie about his death

2009-03-26 00:00

Have you ever met anybody dying with Aids? Or do you perhaps know somebody else who knows somebody who died of Aids?

I didn't think so. Neither have I. My brother died of cancer.

I loved getting letters from home. We were working in a hotel in the Yorkshire Dales for the summer. I was the gardener handyman and my wife was a general assistant. It was fantastic. The scenery was amazing and on our day off we would walk for miles through the countryside without a care in the world, and then eat tomato and basil sandwiches, and look down the Dale on a landscape of peace and serenity. Then one day towards the end of summer I got a letter from home. I loved getting letters from home, but this one changed things forever.

"Dear John and Karen,

This is the hardest letter I will ever have to write." It was from my dad. The man mountain that I always wanted to be and still wish I could be.

"Your brother is terminally ill." I can't remember what the rest of the letter said although I read it 100 times. I phoned home and spoke to Dad. He was full of bravado and said we shouldn't rush home. I booked tickets a few days later.

I had four brothers in all and we met three of them in stages as we worked our way from Johannesburg down to Umkomaas where Mom and Dad were staying. They all seemed different somehow. Granted we had been out the country for a while but there just seemed to be something strained in all of them. I suppose knowing that your brother is dying of Aids (sorry, cancer) changes things. It was late at night and my brother, Adrian, and I were drinking large doses of whisky and staring into the embers of the braai, when I got the next shock. My dad had sold their house to pay for Richard's treatment. In those days antiretrovirals cost a fortune and medical aids weren't interested in people with Aids. The next day we got to Umkomaas and as much as I had tried to prepare myself for the moment it was all useless. Dad and Mom looked haggard and so small. Dad just hugged me for ages and cried silently.

Then we saw him.

Ever see those pictures of starving POWs from the concentration camps? That was my brother. He was a skeleton covered by taut parchment of skin. What do you say to your brother who is dying of Aids? I sat on the bed in stony silence fighting back the sobs that wrenched through my body. Why and how, was what I wanted to ask? But it would have made no difference.

He was dying of Aids and anybody who thought they knew what it was had already passed judgment. Whenever we met friends they would ask how things were and then nod their heads in sympathy as they passed silent judgment. You could just read it in their faces. Not all passed silent judgment. Some were more vocal. One idiot family acquaintance said Richard had got what he deserved. I could have laughed when two years after my brother's death I saw the idiot family acquaintance and he told me he had Aids. He didn't have to tell me, I could see it a mile off. I made the same mistake twice. I resisted the urge to punch him in the face and I didn't have the heart to tell him he got what he deserved either. I just turned and walked away.

Karen and I decided we couldn't go back to the UK and leave the family so I found a job in Estcourt. Every second weekend we would travel down to Umkomaas to see my brother, mom and dad.

My mom was doing the full-time nurse trip. She had been a nurse many years before and as a mother of five children she had changed enough nappies and cleaned up enough vomit. She did it all again with grace and patience, then would go out and sit on the veranda and stare at the ebb and flow of the river and cry. We seemed to cry in shifts. I felt that if we caught each other crying the whole family would collapse in a heap of blubbery emotion and would just fall apart. So I would go and cry in the garden, and then come back and try to be brave. It was so hard.

I knew he would die that Sunday. He was so restless and just wouldn't settle. He didn't even recognise me and his eyes seemed to say that he was tired of suffering. We were spending the night with my younger brother in Durban and as we drove to the flat I lay on the back of the bakkie and prayed all the way into town that Richard would die. We had been at the flat for 10 minutes and God answered my prayer.

Dad phoned and said he had gone. We drove back to Umkomaas at high speed in silence. The house was so quiet. In the distance the Saiccor steam train shunted loads of timber to the factory and the sound of the surf could be heard every now and then. Mom and Dad sat at the table in the stunned silence of grief. They were in the room with him when he died. Dad was holding his head and Mom his hand. I went into the room. They had straightened the covers and he lay there still and cold and dead. I wept for my brother and still do. I wept for my parents who had given so much and now were broken. They never recovered.

At the funeral, I wanted to throw people out. Some of them seemed to be there to gloat, while others were there just because they felt it was the right thing to do. Pay your respects and then get on with the scandal. Bet it wasn't cancer, he was gay you know. Of course it was Aids.

Twelve years down the line when people ask about my brother's death, I still lie and say he died of cancer. I really want to tell the truth but I know that you will pass judgment. It's what we humans do.

The only person I know who has admitted to having family die of Aids is Dr Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and I wish I was as much a man as he, but my brother died of cancer.

* The writer has chosen to remain anonymous.

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