It’s been over twenty years since you passed away. I had to recount when I realized it had been so many years since my great friend had been taken by AIDS- related illness.
Two friends couldn’t be more different. I was the nerd, full of teenage angst and ennui with the two parent family. You were the wild child, trouble maker with the deceased father and stressed mother who ran away from home at thirteen. Life had by eighteen taken you to drugs, the streets and a relationship with drug dealer boyfriend who could never understand how his promiscuity would take both your lives.
When you finally ended up with your foster family, as good pastors they thought it would be marvelous if you spent time with “regular” teenage girls who had nothing more to worry about than music, makeup and clothing.
When we ended up roommates in our tiny little school, it was the meeting of sisters. We cracked up our classmates and teachers with farts and teenage jokes. We’d cook curry, Italian and be the smash success when it was our turn to run KP duty. We convinced everyone to jump in the lake in full uniform.
When we noticed that you got a cough, fever and fatigue you could not shake, we were concerned, but not worried. When you started losing hair and the ‘purple marks’ started showing up on your forehead and neck, we wondered if this wasn’t serious. When you turned down the curry chicken we spent hours making that day, we knew you needed to see a doctor right away.
Later that week we got the diagnosis. HIV positive and full blown AIDS. The ‘purple marks’ were Kaposi sarcoma. You’d probably been infected for years. Your white cell count was nearly non-existent. An immediate course of antiretrovirals were prescribed when all medicine knew was the new drug AZT. The good doctor put you on a strict diet.
For the next year you battled illness after illness. You never missed a full day of class and would sit in when it was clear you should be in bed. We would hold all night prayer vigils for you asking for strength for our friend. Your awesome foster parents, doctor and the small group at the church would daily visit the little school plying us all with treats to keep your appetite and strength up. Time after time you would get an opportunistic infection and each time a miracle would happen. By the time I’d left to go back home and you left to go live with your foster parents, your skin had healed, you had no Kaposi, you white cell count was nearly normal and you weighed more than I did.
It was a surprise when you called me long distance from the hospital, but it was nothing to worry about you said. It was even more of a surprise when you called two days later again from the hospital, but could only talk for a few minutes because you were just too tired.
It was five thirty pm on a Wednesday. I still had on my school uniform and was going to change to head out to Acteens. The phone rang, my mother answered and told me it was long distance for me. Our friend Trish was on the line. She told me you had passed away an hour ago in the hospital. You had gone to heaven singing your favorite song with your foster mom. She said you just closed your eyes, smiled and slipped away.
I understood why people in the Bible would tear off their clothes in grief. I went out to the porch and all I could do was fall to the ground and tear off my school skirt. It hurt so bad. How could you possibly be dead? Yes, you had that terrible virus, but you weren’t even twenty. We had plans that summer for Europe and were going to go to the same college together with two of our other friends. All I could do was “rend my garment” and scream in hopes the sound of the tearing and sound of my voice would draw out of me the pain. Perhaps the angels would hear it and bear you back. Surely you had more life yet to live.
You are gone Catherine, gone, but certainly not forgotten. Your foster parents took in many street children over the years. Your doctor became an HIV patient advocate opening free clinics for those most in need of care. The other girls at school have married, graduated college and started families. We all remember you. We all remember the lively girl who never let a virus define how she would live and whose joy in her last days continue to remind a group of girls how important it is to live joyously.