3 min

When a friend tests positive

Being there when bad news comes

Though learned like a shot to the head, I can’t shake the feeling of loss. When a close friend choked back tears and told us that it wasn’t shinggela but HIV that had caused the diarrhea, my heart felt like it fell to the ground.

I couldn’t think of anything appropriate to say. All the clichéd speeches rushed to my mind but my heart couldn’t will me to say anything. A real-life nightmare had just begun and there was no way of waking up.

This was the waking life.

Another friend said what needed to be said. We’d be there for him, we love him. There was no other way to react. How is it possible to un-love someone on the spot? It was the second time he had had to come out and, like the first time, the anticipation was greater than the task, he said.

I wanted to rush to him and give him a hug. It was my way of falsely comforting myself. I remained seated. I smiled; it probably came out as a sympathetic smile. My problem with sympathy is that unless acted on, it is empty, useless and unnecessary.

After the shock had worn off, I tried to get back to the mood before the second coming-out. I didn’t have luck; all the things I wanted to say felt unimportant. I asked if he knew who had given it to him. He nodded. My boyfriend asked if it was during the trip he had last gone on. He nodded.

He told us that his main concern was that he would end up alone. My boyfriend said he always has us. He said of course, but he had meant finding a partner. I added that having a partner isn’t the same as having friends, but also it doesn’t mean you will never feel alone. I asked him if he would have considered dating people who were positive before he had been tested. No, he replied. Now he has this whole new door to open and get into, I added. On second thought it would have probably been better to think it rather than to say it. He said it was a nice try.

I apologized. He asked us to not go around telling everyone. If we could respect his decision to let people know on his own time. We nodded.

I had not seen this coming. When my friend had invited us to dinner at his place I thought that he had good news to share. I was thinking a trip somewhere. Or a new person to meet. Does anybody ever think they’re going to an HIV coming-out party? Anyway, this was unexpected. I was woken out of my thoughts when my boyfriend hit me on the leg and asked if we should go. I nodded.

He said he’d walk us up the hill. He walked a block with us and said good-night. I hugged him and said that I usually don’t hug. He said I must have felt uncomfortable. I smiled. He hugged my boyfriend with more ease. I vowed to never treat him differently.

We waved each other off and walked under the darkness of November. The walk home was silently filled with sighs. Something had changed and it will never be the same.

Similar thoughts kept flowing through our minds. When we got home we kept saying the same things over and over. HIV doesn’t go away. You can’t wake up and forget about it. I may be wrong but all I could wonder about was what it was like to be reminded of death every day.

For the next two weeks, my first thoughts were always of my friend and the horror. It might not be the politically correct thing to say, but I just wondered about the hell he must have felt. Eventually I would think of it with less severity as my own life has a way of upstaging anybody else’s.

My friend that night had asked us to help him get back into “normal” life. He also explained his sudden distancing from us and said he was tired of hiding. That night he told us he was ready to get back to life.

When the mood felt right, we all went dancing.

At the club, where everything stays the same, the music sounded different. The crowd felt like it was ready to party. We all got caught up in mood and the drinks helped. Not much of a dancer, my friend stayed off the dance floor. I stood with him most of night. Not enough to make him feel like I was treating him differently of course.

We didn’t say much to each other; this time the silence was from the comfort of knowing that, no matter what, we’d be there for each other. Some of us managed to get him on to the dance floor, where he shuffled his feet left to right for a song or two. I mostly sat it out, watching my group of friends smiling and laughing like everything was alright.

I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen when his body gets weak. Then he was done dancing. He asked why I didn’t go dance. It wasn’t the right song I responded. He leaned in and said, “I needed this, thank you.” I smiled and turned back to face the dance floor.

Maybe the feeling of loss will never really settle. Would I want it to? Isn’t it just a reminder to be more aware of each other? If I really knew what it meant to live every day as if it were my last, would I not be better off?

Maybe I should ask my friend.