The Wedding – What to do when a spouse is infected?
Adopted, but never really accepted. Always the feeling that the inclusion in the foster family was an act of charity. Marriage and ascent into the middle class. At some point left by the husband; a new girlfriend, new happiness – for him. After a year he resurfaces and climbs into the marital bed as if nothing ever happened. After another year the husband is dead, officially from organ failure but in reality as a result of Aids. After all those years of fidelity a test produces the dreaded result: Charmaine is HIV-positive. The adoptive family cuts all ties, she is relegated from the middle class, becomes dependent on grants. A fate that many thousands of women share with her.
But there is a silver lining. She is admitted for treatment at Tygerberg Hospital. She assists at the hospital as an unpaid volunteer. She educates patients, performs care tasks, and supports herself by selling her pearl embroidery. But she has no steady income and remains dependent on the charity of patients and colleagues who give her money and food parcels.
I get to know Charmaine at this point. She has made contact with HOPE Cape Town and often visits our small office in the Ithemba ward. In mid-November 2005 I receive a letter from Charmaine and her new boyfriend Nigel. She writes: “We would be very happy if you had the time to conduct our wedding on 1 December. We are both HIV-positive patients and in treatment at the hospital. Because the hospital is such a great source of support, we would like to celebrate our wedding with other patients and hospital staff. By doing so we want to break the stigma against HIV-positive people and in that way give hope to other infected people.” I wonder how people like Charmaine still find the strength to motivate others after all her bitter experiences.
Charmaine’s story is just one of countless others about faithful spouses who get infected. The cases of emotional cruelty, the parting pains, the feelings of abandonment are innumerable – one could write huge tomes about that. Charmaine’s story is also a textbook case about the problems with the now universal ABC strategy. A for abstain; B for be faithful, C for condomise. For the Catholic Church, A and B play the decisive role, while as a priest I sometimes feel that the Church views C as diabolical.
Be faithful! That’s easy to say, and often we nod sagely and think that fidelity is pure common sense. But that is one of the most difficult commandments because it can work only if both partners stick to it unfailingly. Fidelity by itself offers no guarantee against infection. I think here about Lorraine*, a 21-year-old Coloured woman. She was with me as we drove to Tygerberg Hospital for the official launch of our HIV/Aids project on 29 October 2001. She was uncharacteristically quiet in the car. Only later did I learn why: she had just returned from the doctor who had delivered the shattering test result. Lorraine had always been faithful to her boyfriend; he unfortunately not to her. Only 21 years old and HIV-positive: what prospects…
Be faithful! That recommendation also reminds me of Desiree, a young Xhosa mother, whom I met during one of many house visits in the townships. She had been with her boyfriend for a few years and had two kids. During her second birth an Aids test was taken, a precautionary obligation that now applies to most expecting mothers in South Africa. The result – HIV-positive – came as a shock to Desiree. How could that happen? In her desperation she turned to her boyfriend. He had no qualms about admitting to all sorts of adventures and affairs, but take a test? No way! He was insulted by the mere idea that his girlfriend suspected him of having such a disease. He moved out and into a shack two doors down. Alas, the same sad story will repeat itself: new love, new bliss. And, quite probably, soon a new infection.
Be faithful! Perhaps a wife or girlfriend will turn to one of the many Protestant churches that support affected women with prayer meetings and house visits. I don’t see much of that kind of help and solidarity in my church – with some exceptions, my brethren barely acknowledge the problem because they usually don’t know any “such” people. And when they do, they counter with a reproach: “It’s their own fault”. If people followed the Church’s teachings, they’ll say, none of this would happen in first place. Which is true. And yet I wonder why it that such a big chasm exists between the ideal and reality.
Is it a blip in God’s creation? Or a human error in reasoning?
Charmaine and Nigel’s wedding is a poignant celebration. Guests come from all departments in the hospital, and patients form a guard of honour. The mood is happy, relaxed and, yes, defiant. Newspapers, radio and TV cover this unusual event. In all reports the message is the same: there is a future with the virus after all, a livable future in God’s mercy. And that is good.
* Name changed
Gott – Aids – Afrika
Hardcover: 207 pages – Publisher: Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH (August 31, 2007)
Language: German – ISBN-10: 3462039253 – ISBN-13: 978-3462039252
Gott – Aids – Afrika
Paperback – Bastei – Luebbe –
Language: German – ISBN-10: 3404606159 – ISBN-13: 978-3404606153