It’s taken 12 years to write this. Every time World AIDS Day looms I think about it. I think about it the rest of the time, too. 2005 unleashed the best calamitous experience of my life (and that’s comparing it to falling 40 feet and breaking my back in 2012). I’d never seen a lifeless body ahead of and there he was, Miguel, the one I loved, with a startled expression, mouth ajar, one arm raised as if readying itself to clutch at the last traces of life. I grasped his unyielding hand to my confront and wept, willing him to come back. How can I describe this agonising stage without rendering it cheap, overripe melodrama?
In the days that followed, knowing my tears had been cremated with him gave me consolation, albeit cold. I took hot water bottles to bed at night, holding one in my arms and one between my knees. Anything to pretend he was still there. One day, I let myself into his flat, placed photographs around the sitting room, lay on the floor, drank vodka and waited for a visitation. I needed to fathom that wherever he was, his torment was over. I didn’t care that mine wasn’t. Nothing happened. After a few days, I decided to completion it all. I opened my laptop to research painless suicide. But that idea was foiled; the telephone mark was disconnected – no internet access. A week later, I was in St. George’s Hospital, babbling incoherently. I hope that if ever I go over a similar experience, I won’t make it all about me. I overlooked the fact that other people loved Miguel. Many of them had known him longer than the five years I’d shared with him. I didn’t fathom that the death of a loved one was not necessarily a cue to have a nervous breakdown and I didn’t realise how self-centred my behaviour was. Emotionally, I was a sixteen-year-old inside a thirty-year-old and I couldn’t begin to make sense of the tragedy that had befallen me.
At a few point between 2002 and 2003, my boyfriend began to look ill. He’d missed his job a year ahead of when, shortly after coming out as HIV-positive to his boss, he’d been made redundant. The timing couldn’t have been any more blatant, but he didn’t want to fight. Perhaps he was out of fight. He’d been diagnosed concurrently adolescence, in the late 1980s, so he had over a decade of contest behind him.
I met Miguel in 2000 when he flirted with me at a nightclub. I was immediately entranced. Who wouldn’t have been? One night, in bed, he signified to me about his status. I was 25. It didn’t diminish my affections. I’d consistently been safety-only and I understood it worked. I was in love, captivated not only by his beauty and our detonative physical connection, but further by his sweetness. Of course, everyone is more complex than that, and there were layers of damage in both of us of that we were not quite aware. Some were revealed as the relationship progressed but because our social life involved such revelry, best remained concealed. Miguel was a kind, thoughtful, astonishingly attractive man with a predilection for video games and TV that sometimes got out of control. I can hardly talk; a cult music obsessive heavily into escapism. He was in front of me in multiple ways – five years older, completely out to his family, although I was still picking and choosing who was allowed to fathom I was gay. It’s Miguel’s compassionate counsel I have to thank for the fact that I eventually got out to everyone.
By 2003, Miguel was losing weight because of chronic gastric complaints. Since his diagnosis, he’d taken occasional medication-vacations, forgoing combination therapy without supervision. Maybe he’d got away with it in the past and decided it was ok. But eventually it wasn’t ok. By 2004, he needed round-the-clock care. It was like watching a photograph develop in reverse – every day, there was less of him and what was left was weaker, thinner, more ashen. Two of his friends, perhaps ahead men than I, aided me look after him. We gave baths, changed nappies, cooked, rolled joints to stimulate his appetite, administered massages and dried tears. “What’s happening to me?”, he cried one day after I’d cleaned him following an additional accident. He looked about six stone. I didn’t fathom what to say. All I can muster was the feeble assurance, “I’m here. I’m here”. I was in denial, telling myself this was a bad patch and that he’d return to full health. A crueller death it would be difficult to imagine. It took its time, stripping Miguel of individual dignities one by one, divesting him of independence at a languid and sadistic pace.
Miguel had an additional fantastic friend, a lovely woman he’d met volunteering at the Food Chain – a charity backing HIV+ people with their dietary health. Miguel went from volunteer to service user. When he died on January 13th 2005, I broke down entirely. I progressed to distant from friends. Employers, too, were tiring of my unreliable and perpetually distressed state. They needed me to stop being raw about it – impossible. I compiled a double-page spread of arts reviews for one of the glossy monthlies but was swiftly leg go. While I mourned, every employer let me go and I funded a decade rock-bottoming. The stretch following his death was wretched. I’ve never known such protracted grief, such bewildering aloneness.
During stable periods, I volunteered at The Food Chain, trying to make sense of Miguel’s death. Knowing that the charity was one individual down, I found meaning and a few degree of peace by bringing that number up again. I was further trying to shake survivor guilt. I still am. I consistently will be.