February 4, 2005

Intro: In this week’s episode, Nikki attends an HIV/AIDS Support group and gets a big surprise…

The first meeting I went for this Support Group was on a Saturday. It was held in a house on the Windward side of the island. While driving to this house, I remembered telling myself that I should turn back; and I almost did, but before I found a place to turn around, there was the house. {{more}}

A few cars were outside and about two or three persons were on the veranda. Among them, I recognized the bulky body of my counsellor. She was smiling from ear to ear and my heart was skipping systematic beats. This must be what a heart attack feels like! I did not know what possessed me to do this in the first place!

Despite my nervousness, I came out of the car as quickly as possible and went straight into the house. I did not want to be seen outside with these people and much less in this neighbourhood. What if someone recognized me, life is hard enough as it is!

Inside there were about fifteen persons mingling, laughing and talking. When they realized that I was there, they had a smile on their faces that said, “you must be new!” I felt a bit awkward, so I took a corner and continued to survey the room and the people. The house was nicely furnished and well decorated. Everything seemed to match, and it was so spacious! “This is the kind of house I’ll like to have someday,” I said to myself.

From the corner of my eyes I saw a familiar figure in a white dress. On turning to pay close attention to the person on my far right, I realized that it was Liza from work. Oh my God! This was not happening to me! In a split second I felt myself turn red all over, and she saw it.

Why on earth was she here? I knew I shouldn’t have come! I wanted to cry, but I was too close to fainting… Good God! She’s coming over…with that smile on her face! That sympathetic smile! I hate that smile! It makes me sick – I swear!

“You won’t regret coming Nikki, I was just surprised you didn’t come before”. She still had that smile! I didn’t say anything, not because I didn’t want to, but because I couldn’t, so I just stood there looking at her.

“I know we don’t exactly talk at work, even though I’ve been meaning to…I see the way they treat you and I was afraid that…” she paused, looked up into the ceiling and continued “that…but you know something funny, it’s just a matter of time”.

WOW! Was that a confession? Liza was HIV positive too! But she was happily married, two children, nice house, and her husband had a good job overseas. Before I could gather my scattered thoughts, the counsellor signalled the starting of the session – it was interesting already!

We sat in a circle so that no faces were hidden. I was introduced and received warm welcoming smiles from everyone. Following that, each member of the group said a bit about themselves and why they were there. Within a few minutes I was feeling quite at home and I was glad that I came – I even learnt the reason behind Liza’s permanent plastic smile. Each had a story so touching, but so real, that I was humbled from that moment on. This group was so diverse that it reminded me of a pot of soup – you had a bit of everything in there. It was amazing how people who were so different in so many ways came together for the common purpose of companionship, and actually got along.

I was the last to tell my story. All eyes were on me. Strangely, I wasn’t shaking, my palms were not sweating and my breathing was normal. But that was because I was numb. Apart from Pam and my counsellor, I had never told anybody my story, and back then I fell apart, or started crying so much that I couldn’t go on. Now, fifteen pairs of eager eyes were on me, asking me to do the one thing I dreaded most of all – to recall and relive the past.

To them, it might be another sad story, as theirs was to me, but this was MY story, not some gossip! But, that’s all it is – A Story! A story that has haunted my days and nights, a story that I have hidden behind for years, a story that has made me miserable, a story that won’t let me let go of the past. This story almost destroyed my life. I took a deep breath and met the understanding eyes of my companions.

With a trembling voice I started, “This is my story…” I wasn’t sure how I started, what I said, and in what order, but I poured out my soul and didn’t even shed a tear. I had to rid myself of this burden, this plague, this story, and it felt good – it feels good! The session was like a breath of fresh air, and for me, a symbol of new beginnings and new friends.

While mingling with the others during a snack break, he came over and introduced himself as Peter. I didn’t get his story because he came late and was standing outside, but he heard all of mine. His handshake was firm; he was tall and elegant, but not strikingly handsome as Brandon was (yes I did compare!). He looked as though he was in his mid-thirties and although he was simply dressed, you could tell that this man had class! I wonder how he became infected with HIV? What was his story? I caught him looking at me a few times, but he was simply returning my stare. When I realized this, I was red all over. What was I doing? Why was I staring at this man? “It’s just my curiosity” I told myself, nothing else, isn’t it obvious!

It was getting dark and everyone started leaving. On the way out, Peter said to me: “We look forward to seeing you next week Nikki. Usually, the group meets at the house of a different member every Saturday. This week was my turn, so next week is Liza’s turn. Maybe we can have the session at your house the following week?”

There were others waiting to speak with him, so in an effort to be brief I replied, “Maybe” and was off.

During the drive home, I was reflecting on the afternoon and the fact that I was no longer alone. I didn’t feel alone. I was looking forward to the next session, and to find out about Peter.

As I opened the door, my phone rang. Great! It will have to ring, because I wasn’t ready for pitiful chitchat or sympathy. Nothing was going to ruin my evening!

The phone rang, and rang, and rang, and rang and…this person was persistent. I couldn’t imagine what was so important, but one thing was for sure- if I didn’t answer this phone, I would go crazy! Before the receiver reached my ear, I heard a hysterical voice say, “Nikki, thank God you home! I was calling you all evening! Brandon in the hospital! He real, real sick, and he calling your name all day! Talk to him Nikki, this is me only child, ah begging you!

I was panicking quick, too quickly. I was falling apart when Brandon needed me to be strong. “O.K Ann , put him on, let me talk to him”. I’ll never forget the voice that came on the phone – it was low, dragging and drifting.

“Brandon, it’s Nikki, I’m here n…

“Nikkkkii, Nikkkkii, Nikkkkii, Nikkk…

“Brandon, it’s O.K. shhhhhh…

“Nikkkkii, Nikkkkii, Nikkkkii, Nikkk…

My heart was heavy. I didn’t know what to say to make it better. I listened to him call my name for about three minutes, and my well of tears that once dried up, now overflowed. Nobody could make me cry like you Brandon! I wished he would stop, but he went on and on and on saying Nikkkii… It was a cry of love, a cry for forgiveness and a cry of pain. He had much to say, and it revolved around one word, that one word spoke volumes and meant the world to one man.

“Brandon, I forgive you, it’s O.K, you’ll always be special to me-Boo”. He went silent, so I knew he heard me.

“Brandon? Brandon…”

“Nikki what did you tell him? Now he crying” Ann exploded.

“Something I should have told him a long time ago. Call me if anything changes”.

That week I prayed for Brandon more than I’ve ever prayed for anything in my life, more than I’ve ever prayed for myself. “One more chance Lord, let him live, give him health and strength to go on. I know it’s not my will Lord, but yours that will be done. Please help Brandon”.

The dreaded phone call came four days after – On Wednesday, at 3:17am to be exact. Ann was hoarse with grief. Brandon hadn’t spoken again after our conversation, and his mother was thankful that he went quietly. He was to be buried in the States that Friday. I couldn’t bear to see him so I didn’t go. He spent his life running away from reality, maybe his race was finished, or maybe he quit. One way or the other; no more running for Brandon; he was home free.

I now know why it is called a Support Group, they pick you up when you fall, shelter you from the storm and provide warmth for the cold and lonely. I related my story, and they cried with me, they shared my grief and my loss. I spent the last years of my life trying to forget about Brandon and finding ways of finally saying goodbye, but he beat me to it. Saying goodbye is never easy, not when it means forever!

The months that followed Brandon’s death were hard and Peter was a valuable friend. His brother had died of AIDS so he knew what I was going through. I wasn’t completely over Brandon and he respected that, although he wished it were different. More and more as time went by, I became drawn to Peter but I didn’t want him to hurt after I was gone- he wasn’t HIV positive.

One day he took me to the Gardens and while looking at the tadpoles in the pond he said, “Nik, I know you’re not going to live forever, but I love you so much that it would be easier to love you and lose you, rather than living the rest of my life feeling incomplete. Marry me?”

My search came to an end. I found a man who loved me for me, accepted me the way that I am and wanted nothing more.