We were saying our Christmas goodbyes in the office, I had bought each colleague a little gift which I had handed out and all was merry at the prospect of a week off work till the new year! As everyone bounded out the door I started closing down the office, my eyes fell on the one solitary gift that lay on my desk. It was to be given to my Manager who had once again not pitched for work. His behaviour over the past few months had become erratic, he would fall asleep at work and his absenteeism had increased. I was about to leave when he walked through the door, still sporting his 100 watt smile but he was different. He was sweating profusely and as he hugged me to thank me for my gift I was hit with the smell of alcohol on his breath. I wrote it off to the silly season and kept my silence from our Superior after all it was the last day of the office year. If only I had known what he was hiding behind his smile.
The new year rolled in and we were all systems go except for my Manager – he was AWOL. Not even his family knew where he was. It was so out of character for this man who had been so committed to his job and his family. We started to get worried as the days became weeks.
Eventually his family contacted us – he had been found wondering the streets of one of the outlying towns and had become very sick but as soon as he was better he would return to work. We waited.
Another telephone call and this time it was a desperate plea from his mother, he needed to go to hospital. We rode out to his family home and my Superior got out the car to access the situation. I remained in the car and out the corner of my eye I saw how two friends were helping our Manager to get into the car. It was the day I saw death. I smelt it before I saw it. I turned to greet the 100 watt smile and I was met with the face of a stranger. He was skeletal, his face gaunt and his lips had receded back over his beautiful white teeth. I didn’t know this face.
We rushed through to hospital to admit him, phoning our company medical aid to ensure he could be admitted. We stood around his wheelchair as he sat with his big blanket wrapped around him waiting for our Superior to process the paper work with the administration. The blanket slipped and his knobbly knees protruded from underneath, I reached to cover him and saw strange markings on his body. He lifted his head from weak slumber and dropped off again.
Three days later we were back at the hospital, he wanted to see all of us and his family had come to visit. Around his wrist was a piece of goat skin – his friends shook their heads – it was put there by a witchdoctor in the hope that it would ward off the evil muti which his family believed had been put on their son by his ex-girlfriend. “Only God can help him now.” they said.
He requested Coke, his favourite drink and ice-cream, which we bought for him from the vending machine in the hall. His close collegues held the can for him and fed him spoons of ice-cream. For a brief moment a glimmer of the soul we knew shone through his eyes and I think for him it felt like a moment of normality. It was short lived. His body rejected the precious treats and he requested that his friends help him to the toilet in a bid to retain his dignity in front of the men he use to work with but the nurse ushered us out the room and not long afterwards she walked out with a bedpan. I knew how humiliated he felt at that moment.
We entered the room once more while our Superior spoke to his family, in our ignorance we urged him to get better and that we missed him. He raised a finger and pointed at me and another colleague and indicated that we had to carry on without him. With his head slightly arched to the heavens he started to kick the foot board of the bed involuntarily, his body acting out on it’s own accord. His friends stared and a realisation hit me. He wasn’t going to get better, he was not going to come back to work and his round bubbly baby boy was going to grow up without a father. His body was shutting down. I called the nurse who once again ushered us out into the hall. We were allowed one last goodbye.
Two days later as we entered the office we were met with the tear stained face of our Superior. He was gone. The death certificate listed the cause of death as dysentery and we were told to say he died of TB.
The day I hugged that seemingly happy, healthy man was the day he found out he had contracted the virus HIV, it was the explanation for his fatigue and constant illness. The sad part of this story is the fact that he felt shame and that he gave up. He did not want to be a burden to his family, funerals are expensive, so he took to the streets, starving his body, welcoming disease and hoping to speed up the process of dying. He succeeded. He begged his current partner to test herself and their son but she refused. The family choosing to believe that they had lost their son to evil muti.
I met AIDS that year. All that I had read and been told about HIV/AIDS were just words until I saw it ravage the body of a man I knew and respected as it delivered his soul to deaths door too soon.
So today, World AIDS Day, I choose to remember “J”.