Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

The Gifts of the Body


People who are dying are not statistics. People who are dying are loved ones; parents and children, family and friends. People who are dying have bodies, dying human bodies with needs identical to the needs of those of us with healthy bodies. We understand so much about AIDS now – how it transmits, how the virus cruelly mutates, how it takes over the immune system, how drugs can help, how if they come too late, they can’t. What very few of us understand, unless we are medical personnel or close to someone who is dying, is how people die. We understand that the body slowly gives up and that the basic functions fail, but we don’t understand how that feels. We don’t understand how hard it is to have our needs met when we are dying.

The Gifts of the Body is a small, spare book written from the perspective of a home-care worker who visits people with AIDS in their homes, and who helps them in their day-to-day care as they are dying. The unnamed narrator describes the basic care she gives – washing someone, making someone a meal, creaming someone’s sore-covered body with salve. She does not give you the individual stories, you do not know how or why people became infected, but she takes you into their bedrooms and shows you how people sustain life in the face of death. In doing so, she gives you their humanity.

In the chapter The Gift of Hunger, the narrator visits Connie who has received some Vermont maple syrup as a gift from her daughter. It is a symbolic gift of happier times, but Connie is desperate to eat it, so the narrator makes her pancakes to have with the syrup. Connie is so hungry that she asks her to make her an egg on the side too. After four painstaking bites, she can’t eat any more, but she is still hungry so she asks for some oatmeal. Connie manages one agonising mouthful of oatmeal before her body revolts and she must expel the food. The simple tragedy is that Connie is dying to eat. She is desperate for the taste, the flavours, the nourishing memories that food brings, but her body cannot tolerate it.

Another chapter I found moving was The Gift of Skin, in which the narrator describes bathing someone. It is so simple, and so beautiful:

I squeezed the cloth under the water then pulled it up his forearm to his elbow.

He took a deep breath, “Oh, that feels so nice.”

I cupped water in my hands and poured it down his arm. I washed his elbows and arms and toweled them dry. I washed the hollows of his armpits and his ribs. I washed his back and stomach and shoulders. When the water began to cool I filled the pan again with fresh warm waters and fresh clean oil. I did his neck and face. I washed his forehead and eyelids and around his beard and mouth. The air began to smell like oil, like mint or eucalyptus.

I sat on the floor and washed his feet. I poured the water over them.

He looked down at me. He touched my head. His face was full of kindness. “Thank you,” he said.

Other chapters include The Gift of Tears, when tear ducts fail and someone cannot cry no matter how much they want to; The Gift of Speech, when words fail and a person is too weak to talk; and The Gift of Sweat when a simple walk down the street to the bakery precipitates a visit to hospital. They are written without sentimentality, and yet they tore at my heart, because eating, crying, talking and walking are basic functions which I take for granted but which are, in fact, gifts not to be taken lightly.

The Gifts of the Body is the best book about AIDS I have ever read. The author, Rebecca Brown, is a former home-care worker and her compassion for the dying and unstinting generosity in meeting people’s needs is astonishing. It is not entirely clear to me if this is a work of fiction or non-fiction, but in the reading it begins not to matter. It just a book about one person helping others. The narrator sees people for who they are and she recognises what they need. It is a book about empathy.

On 1 December, World AIDS Day, and every day, empathy is what we need to have. After all, we are all human.


Further reading for World AIDS Day:

Natalian’s moving tribute to her manager J, who died of “TB” in Durban a few years ago.

Sharon from The Not So Secret Life of Us, writes about volunteering with AIDS babies at Nazareth House in Cape Town.

Julie Belle’s message of love.

Christopher’s review of the movie Longtime Companion.

John Self’s review of Adam Mars-Jones’ Monopolies of Loss, a book of short stories about AIDS.

Atherton Bartelby’s tribute to a beloved friend.

* If you have a World AIDS Day post, please let me know and I will link to it here.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

14 thoughts on “The Gifts of the Body

  1. Oh, this was a lovely book review, and lovely commentary. Thank you.

  2. It sounds like a wonderful book – empathy is so hard to find for something totally outside your experieince, especially when there is fear lurking there too – fear of our own mortality that makes us want to turn away from suffering like this and pretend it doesn’t exist. Looking clearly through the fear to find simple humanity that is somthing we all share, is a real gift – thanks for the great review.

  3. It’s the kind of book that I’d like to be able to read but just couldn’t do it because it would wrench my heart too much. I seem to spend so much of my time trying not to imaginatively enter other people’s experiences because they always seem too close to me already. I’m sure this makes me a terrible wimp. I do admire people who have the courage to convey this kind of suffering to their readers, though.

  4. That was a beautiful tribute to this book. It’s a difficult topic for most people, perhaps because of the fear that surrounds it. Fear when you go to the dermatologist and read the warning in the waiting room that you can get AIDS from a pedicure. Fear that the drugs that keep the virus at bay will help the disease thrive and mutate until it’s even more easily transmitted. Fear about the outbreak of the disease in average suburban high schools. Fear for our children – what will AIDS look like in ten or so years when they reach sexual maturity? But behind these fears, as you so rightly point out, are real people in need of the most basic comforts. We’re all in this together.

  5. Great post, Charlotte and thanks for all the World Aids Day links. We had some stats on Aids this morning (33 million infected worldwide, 5 infected every minute etc.) but they just made me scared rather than evoking empathy. Sounds like I should read this book. I’ve had a few HIV-positive patients and I remember the trauma they experienced just in being diagnosed (and that’s way before any symptoms start to appear). I’m also interested in looking at the discourses around Aids in SA and have Jonny Steinberg’s Three Letter Plague on my TBR list.

  6. This is beautifully written. AIDS takes away so much from the human body but it is carer’s, like the author of this book, that allow those in their final days to die with dignity.

  7. Thank you so much for commenting on my World AIDS Day entry, and for linking to it. Because if you had not, I would have missed out on being introduced to what sounds like an amazing book. Your review of The Gifts Of The Body was so poignant, and such a wonderful way to memorialize this day.

  8. Charlotte, thank you for this. I plan to buy the book because of your review.

  9. Thanks for the link, Charlotte, and for the post.

  10. Charlotte, if you haven’t already seen it, you might like to view this video, which a friend of mine posted to facebook:

  11. What an excellent post, Charlotte. I really, really wanted to post for AIDS day but the bucket is empty after NaBloPoMo… A crap excuse I know but it’s the best I have. The book sounds wonderful but like a previous commenter I imagine myself weeping all through it. Still, I am going to try to find and read it.

    There was an article in the paper here in London on 1 December that made me want to weep in frustration. Despite all the warnings and the campaigns, HIV is on the increase in the UK (along with all other STDs) and now there is a division of thought as to how to deal with it. One camp advocates cigarette-style shock tactics – pictures of people with full-blown AIDS etc etc. Another camp says nooooo, don’t scare people, just gently educate them. Umm…. like that’s helped so far??? People here think a) they can’t catch it because it is a gay/African disease; or b) if they are HIV positive, they just pop a pill each day and they will live long and happy lives – as if it’s like taking blood pressure meds. It absolutely floors me that in a country where everyone reaches a basic level of education unheard of in most of the developing world, we still cannot get the message through that it is EVERYONE’S problem, that EVERONE who is sexually active is at rosk, and that ARVs are NOT the easy option like some sort of “morning after” pill – they are more like Band-Aid on a very big wound.

    The final official response to what the way forward in the HIV education campaign in the UK wll be?? A campaign targeted only at gay men encouraging them to have safe sex.

    I weep.

  12. Pingback: Reading about AIDS « Charlotte's Web

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