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.