She died from AIDS

I see the coffin being lowered into the ground by pallbearers dressed in black. I hear the wailing and screeching, sniffs and sobs. I feel the chill in the air. Lettie’s tears streaming down her raisin cheeks onto her new dark dress. The smell of freshly dug wet earth covering Susan’s body. Her footsteps eternally erased from the soil she walked on. All that will be left is the smell of her, for a while. On her clothes, her bed, her things. And the imprint of her in our hearts.

With a trembling hand Donald reads the letter I wrote. The one in which I tried to explain my love for Susan.  Agnes is nodding her head. She is the only one sitting down, her shortened polio leg unable to bear her enormous weight. Edith stands with her head bowed, clasping her thin hands in front of her.

“Susan always worked hard. Her smile graced my home every day. I will always remember her laughter and the fact that she didn’t get angry. People came for advice because she was wise. She loved her mother Lettie and her family”.

Cousin Donald’s voice rings out over the crowd. Today is about remembrance. We are reminiscing together even though I’m not there.

“I am glad because now I know she will never have pain again. Her tears have been dried and she has been filled with joy”. He stops and looks at the funeral goers before carrying on. “My prayer is that Tsepo shall become a big man just like his mother dreamed he would. Tsepo, your mother loved you and she was very proud of you. Always stay on the road that she pointed out so that you may honour her name”. Tsepo’s seven-year-old face reflects the turmoil within. His newphew Johannes is eight and feels that he should comfourt his little cousin so he digs into his pocket and hands Tsepo a mint. Even though he is sad, he is glad to see his father again. Joseph works on the mines and does not often get time off work. His mother lives far away in Rustenburg, but Johannes does not like going there. She is mean and her parents treat him badly. He is always hungry when he visits her. It is much better to stay with Gogo Lettie and Tsepo. .

By means of a little piece of paper I tell them how much richer I am for having known Susan. I know they will soak out of it all the feelings I had poured into it. And afterwards, someone may ask about the person that wrote the letter. And Lettie will tell them about a white woman in Gauteng who became her friend.

oooOooo

If someone asked me, I would tell them that I was only twenty-one with a baby on the way when Lettie found me. She became my housekeeper and my teacher. Whenever I became despondent over baby problems she would say to me: “Nooi (young girl), as long as you can wrap him in a blanket your troubles are small”. How I used to laugh with her. Little did she know then how small that blanket would become when her own kids got older.  Joseph would land up in prison for killing a man in a drunken brawl. Nicholas would develop epilepsy and need permanent care.  Agnes would always be crippled. Hilda’s husband would always beat her. Susan would be in the grave long before her mother.

She only worked for me one or two days a week in the beginning, I forget which.  My husband and I lived in a tiny little house on a huge piece of grass. Everyone laughed because it looked like a doll’s house. Two years later we moved and Lettie followed. She stayed with a woman whose mother she had worked for. She told me that the couple fought all the time.  She was miserable.

Then one day she said: “Nooi, they told me to leave. What am I going to do? I have nowhere else to go and I cannot retire yet”. I was astounded. “Why Lettie, what’s going on?” “I think they are getting divorced”. My husband and I spoke it over before I approached her with my suggestion. “Lettie, you know the zozo? It is not much but if you want to stay there until you find something better, you are welcome”. I saw the worry disappear off her face in that instant. “I will take it nooi”. “Lettie, promise me you’ll look around for something better”. “I will nooi, I will”. By the end of the month she had moved her few belongings and there she stayed. I wanted to build her a proper room but did not have the means to do so. The zozo was made from precast and it was draughty. It got hot in the summer and cold in winter. But whenever I asked she insisted that she was quite comfortable. She never did look for another place to stay.

She spoke about her children often and they dropped in whenever they were in the area.  I got to know them all. Edith, Joseph, Agnes, Susan and Nicholas. Hilda I met later and her daughter would eventually work for my brother. By this time Lettie was well into her fifties and working for me three days a week. The other two she spent at neighbours. She would come home and astound me with stories of how they lived. People who seemed so normal from the outside. She also told me the story of her life. She only had a standard four because she ran away from school. Her mother then found her employment on a farm but she ran away from that too. I think in different times and under different circumstances, Lettie would have been somewhat of a free spirit. But poverty is a chain that nails everything down. She eventually fell in love with a “Boesman” as she called him, a coloured man. She had 6 children before he ran off. She left the children with her mother to find employment in Johannesburg.  Six children did not come cheap.

One day I asked her: “Lettie, did you never fall in love again?” “I did nooi. But it did not work out”. “Why not?” “Because he was from Mozambique and he wanted to go back home. He was a madala (old man) already by then”. “Why did he leave you if he loved you?” It did not understand the cultural differences. “He wanted to take me with him, but I could not leave my children Nooi.”   That ended her only true love. From there on she put men behind her and sought to raise her kids as best she could. To provide for them and see to it that they appreciated what they got.  I saw exactly the same trait in Susan in time to come.

Then Joseph was imprisoned. One night on the mine compound he got into a fight. They had had too much to drink and a man pulled out a knife. So did Joseph. In the ensuing fight, Joseph killed the man and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.  I still remember the look of shock on her face during the months it took for Joseph to receive his sentence. The embarrassment. But she did whatever it took to raise the money to pay his expenses and never wavered.  Today Joseph’s imprisonment is but a dim memory.

She always said that at sixty she would retire. We used to laugh at that. “You are still a spring chicken Lettie, you have a long way to go. Anyway, what will you do all day long” I’d ask. “I’ll sit in the sun and I’ll rest. Then the children will look after me like I have looked after them”. I wonder if she knew it would not be the case but hoped for it anyway?  I also never really entertained the thought of her leaving. Somehow I imagined that I would always have her with me. “But when I leave nooi, I will send someone to look after you”. She saw me as a child and never noticed that I had grown up until we were apart. “Who will you send Lettie? No one will be able to look after me the way that you do”. She’d smile wisely and say: “When the time comes, I will know”.

Then she turned sixty.  And she left.  She sent her sister Olga in her place. The rest she longed for turned out to be bringing up grandchildren whose parents were working away from home, carrying water from the communal tap in the village and walking hours every month to collect her meagre pension. All the while dealing with daily life in a dusty town where everybody knew everybody’s business. She kept in contact with me. She even sent Susan or Edith  to visit and update me on their news. We wrote to each other and she visited once, just to see how big my children were.

Olga was with me for little over a year when she died.  She went to a shebeen one night with a friend and an argument errupted.  She ran off, not stopping to look for cars and was knocked over, dying instantly.  The husband soon appeared at my doorstep with family and friends. They sat in her room talking about her and planning her funeral.  He was an alcoholic, dependant on Olga for an income. There was no money for even a modest funeral. The only thing to do was to take care of the arrangements ourselves. My husband and brother made the coffin and we found a helpful mortician to make her look the way we remembered her. He lined the coffin with fabric and placed her in it. He even agreed to rent us a trailer to take her home in.

My sister-in-law and I piled the bakkie high with Olga’s belongings. On top of everything was her two-seater couch and on top of that, her son Ben and Donald. Behind us followed a ‘Martin’s Funeral Parlour’ trailer carrying Olga’s earthly remains. It was a slow six-hour arive, made worse by the starring passers-by and my attempt to stop smoking. We arrived in Jan Kemp Dorp at midnight, wondering who would help us off-load. But to our surprise, all her family and friends were there in their Sunday best, awaiting our arrival. They respectfully removed the coffin and placed it inside her house. Then they silently filed past it to pay their last respects. The only suggestion they made was that in future we should split the coffin lid so that the face only may be viewed.

Afterwards we had tea with Lettie at her house. She proudly showed us the works of her hands and explained the things she still needed to do. The house was warm and friendly and loving. It smelt of cooking and cleaning.  I was glad for the opportunity to have seen her world.

When I spoke to Lettie again she had decided that Susan should come and work for me. Her baby girl. I was reluctant because Susan was capable of so much more. She had completed a basic computer course and had elementary typing skills. Besides for that, she was a vibrant and energetic young woman. I was concerned that housekeeping would stifle her spirit and that she would land up regretting that she did not try other things.  Initially I think Susan agreed only for Lettie’s sake, but as time went on she grew roots. She always assured me that if she found something more suitable to her, she would tell me.  I got to know and love her. We chatted often, about the mistakes of our pasts, the hopes of our futures and everyday life. She told me that she had a relationship with a man when she was in her final year of schooling but only found out that he was married after she fell pregnant. She kept Tsepo but left the man.

Shortly after she came to me she entered the darkest time of her life. She fell in love with a man who cheated on her. Susan was a SeSotho and Thomas a Zulu. Their traditions were worlds apart. He said that he wanted to marry her but that she would have to go live in Kwa-Zulu Natal on their land with his mother. “Mandy, I can never do that. My mother would never allow it. And I’m not sure that I would ever see my family again, KZN is so far”, she said. “If you love him Susan, sort this out before you go any further”, was the only suggestion I could give. She cried. He had no shame. I did not understand, but I did. “Susan, you have to leave Thomas, he is destroying you!” I pleaded. “I know Mandy, but I love him”. “Love is a decision Susan, not a feeling. Move on!”  Her usual sunny face gave way tot perpetual sadness.

During that time a friend of hers contracted AIDS.  The husband, mother and children deserted her. The stigma of the disease was just too much for them to bear so she died alone, and was buried alone.

Susan finally ended the relationship with Thomas but it took a long time for her to heal.  But I was able to complete a goal I had for Lettie. I built Susan a room with a bathroom and the zozo hut was pulled down.

Then suddenly she became ill. “Mandy”, the gynaecologist warned, “this is a pelvic inflammation, but it is unusually high in the abdomen.  She needs to be admitted to hospital so that they can run tests”. “Where would you suggest I tale her Doctor?” I asked.  Susan was not on on a private medical aid and government hospitals were notorious.  Little did I know what lay in store for us. “Joburg Gen is good, but Baragwanath would be better. Get her in there today”. He wrote a letter that I saw as a talisman guaranteeing good treatment. How wrong I was.

Our first attempt at having her admitted at Baragwanath was when she arrived there at two in the afternoon with Donald.  Shortly before seven o’clock that evening he had to leave to catch the last taxi home. And since they had been there already five hours, there was no reason to suspect that they would not admit her. I was at a business dinner with my husband when I received her “please call-me”. “Mandy, they say that I must go home”. She sounded weak. “Susan, did you show them the letter from your gynaecologist?” I was livid. “Yes Mandy. They say that there is nothing wrong with me and that I must go home”. “Let me speak to the doctor”. He sounded uninterested and insisted that Susan was not ill. “What about the letter from the gynaecologist?” I asked. “Well, I believe that he has misdiagnosed this case. I am prescribing some medication, if she starts vomiting she should come back”. His manner was blunt. “So what you are saying is that she is only ill enough to be admitted if she vomits?” I asked. “Yes”. “Then you will admit her?” I insisted to make sure that I understood. “Yes”. Susan had to wait at the hospital for over an hour as we wangled our way out of our evening.  She had a packet of painkillers and an anti-biotic.

For three days she was too weak to get out of bed and then she started vomiting. Eight o’clock that night we rushed her back to Baragwanath. I was sure that she would be admitted. Seven o’clock the next morning she phoned me and asked me to come fetch her. “Why?” I screamed. “They say I am not ill”. Her voice was toneless. When she got home she told me that the doctor only consented to see her at twelve o’clock that night. That after looking her over and doing a urine test, he again told her that she was acting up and that there was nothing wrong with her. He put her in the men’s mental ward for the night.  She was never really able to tell me what had happened to her that night and God alone knows what damage it did but after that she lost her laughter and I believe, gave up.

Three more times she went back to the hospital but all she got was to stand in a queue for hours for a handful of pills. By the end of October we decided that she should go home to her mother.  There was a doctor in the town of Hartswater who knew the family. We hoped that he would be able to diagnose what was wrong with her.

She saw the family doctor immediately and phoned me from his consulting rooms.  He told me the same old story: “I cannot diagnose this until we run some tests. Susan needs to be hospitalised’.  But as a private doctor, he could not get her admitted. By now we were deep into November and what started as pelvic infection had turned into chronic diarrhoea. She needed constant care and could not keep nothing down.  In February she told me that she had Tuberculosis.  The lights came on for me. “Susan, maybe you should ask the doctor to do an AIDS test”, I suggested. “What do you have to loose? If it is not AIDS that will be wonderful, but if it is, you can at least get proper treatment for it”. “Okay Mandy, I will go”. She was beaten. “And Susan”, “Mandy?” “You don’t have to tell me or anyone else if you are positive. You do understand that?” “Yes Mandy”.

Two weeks later she phoned. “Mandy, I am HIV positive, but the doctor says that I don’t have AIDS yet”. I found that hard to believe.  “How do you feel Susan?” I was concerned about the community’s treatment of her because I knew how they felt about AIDS. “I feel okay. At least I know what is wrong and they gave me an anti-retroviral”.

The TB tablets made her vomit so she could not keep the anti-retroviral down.  She told her family that she was HIVpositive, not feeling the need to hide it from the community. I admired her for that. Other than her trips to the doctor and the hospital, she was bedridden most of the time. Every time we talked there was less of her.  By mid-March she couldn’t get out of bed and did not speak. At the end of April she died.

Lettie took it stoically and took care of the arrangements. “Nooi, Susan will have a headstone”. “Yes Lettie, she will”.

We were left with only memories.  Memories of a laughing woman in her prime. Beloved woman.  I am sad for Lettie who has outlived her baby girl.  I am sad for Tsepo who grows up an orphan. I am sad for me because I lost a friend.

oooOooo

Lettie is getting old but she still has two young boys to raise and water to carry from the communal tap in the village. I guess the RDP has not yet reached Jan Kemp Dorp.

She phoned the other day to tell me that she was coming to visit with Tsepo in June. “I took a video of the funeral nooi. I’ll come show you”. I am looking forward to her visit so that we can talk again like we always did.

My Lettie, your life has been hard but your reward will be great. I always tell you that when you arrive in the hereafter, you have the mansion and I will have the zozo.  You always laugh but a heart so pure and faith so steadfast will not go unrewarded. You say that I must not throw you away and my reply is this: “You have been given to me, and I to you, for always.”

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”

THE END

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