Deathwatch while laughing

In the 1980s, when AIDs and the various ramifications was inevitably a death sentence, I volunteered as an AIDs Buddy which meant that I would spend time with someone with AIDS, time that was a respite for his family. It was sometimes boring, sometimes frustrating and sometimes interesting.

Once I was assigned to a household where the mother and daughter had accepted their son’s condition and the father and older brother were barely holding in their anger. I was, for them, a recurring symbol of what their son and brother was and a family shame that was known to the outside world.

As it happened, I was there in the house during the last few hours of the young man’s life and I sat at his bedside holding his hand, not for comfort as he was long past that, but to monitor his pulse so that I would be certain that the family was in the room when he died.

I felt almost like I was myself submerged in a scene like ‘Deathwatch’ by W. Eugene Smith. Sadness and frozen grief that surpasses all words.

Last Sunday our daughter, her husband and family came over, bringing lunch and we had a nice family dinner. By the time they left, both my wife and I were tired from the effort of being nice for so long, so we had a very light supper and went to bed – me to read and her to watch tv.

After a short while, my wife turned off the sound and asked me why they came over and brought lunch and everything. I said ‘They just wanted to see you.’

‘Do they think that I’m…’ and she couldn’t bring herself to say the word, just pointed down. I said nothing.

‘Am I going to die?’, she asked in a very small voice.

‘Honey,’ I said, ‘we are all going to die.’

She started crying, but very quietly. After a few moments I hugged her as gently as I could and said, ‘I will be with you all the time, and tell bad jokes and every second will see like an hour.’

She laughed in the middle of crying and after a little while longer, she was quiet and then turned the sound of the tv back on.

She has not mentioned that small conversation again; I hope she just doesn’t remember it but of course I will.


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