A Survivor's Guide for Single Women
By Barbara Choser Cusack
YChoser Desktop Publishing, 2001
Paperback (45 pages), $8
To order, click here.
Following is an excerpt from A Survivor's Guide for Single Women, by Barbara Choser Cusack.
Chapter One: Banishment
In September 1996, my husband Dan was diagnosed with AIDS. Seven months prior, he had shown symptoms of HIV but we thought these symptoms -- ulcers, fatigue, weight loss and a bout with pneumonia -- were due to stress.
In September, Dan caught the flu and his doctor persuaded him to get tested for HIV. The results came back two weeks later. Dan had tested positive for AIDS. His T-cell count was 11 and his viral load was 150,000 copies.
Then it was my turn to get tested. You have to know that though I am not a straitlaced individual, I did think of myself as a decent person. Well, was I ever embarrassed! The fellow who drew my blood for the HIV test had been in a former speech class I had taken and I just imagined the horrible thoughts he must have had of me. But he was very professional, reassuring me that he did not have any bad opinions of me, that this was his job.
My results came back HIV+, with a T-cell count of 247 and a viral load of 10,000 copies. Anger and fear ran through my veins... "How could this be when we'd been married eight years and had dated for a year and a half before that?"
Dan and I agreed not to tell anyone that we had been tested but to keep this news to ourselves. The doctor gave us information to read about different HIV medications and Dan was confident that everything would be fine.
But I was sooo afraid. Dan was now far advanced in the disease and too weak to leave the house. I kept telling him, "We have to tell our parents. They won't abandon us. Yes, they'll have questions, but we need help!" Especially now since I, too, had this dreaded disease. I needed help!
Of course, our parents knew something was wrong. We had gone several weeks without seeing them, lying over the phone when they called. Our wonderful family did not banish us. In fact, it was just the opposite. They surrounded us with love, compassion and prayers, helping with Dan's care and providing much needed financial help.
It was also obvious to our neighbors that something was going on. They weren't seeing Dan going to his job or working in the yard. So we decided to tell them, not knowing how they would react. For the sake of privacy, I have changed the names of my neighbors and clients in the telling of these stories.
Well, they hugged us and made themselves available to us. I will never forget Midge. She would come check up on Dan while I was at work. If there was something that needed to be repaired, like plumbing in the bathroom to fix a leak, she would do it -- always making it a point to ask Dan's advice on the matter in order to make him feel needed instead of useless and helpless.
Another neighbor, Heather, bought me lunchables and cantaloupe because she understood how important it was for me to keep up my own nourishment.
There are many other stories that bring tears to my eyes. Dan and I were not banished from our neighborhood. If anything, it brought a sense of community. It really brought out the best in the people, not the worst.
My other biggest fear was that I would lose my cleaning business and I would have to start over. I had been with most of these families for years. We knew about each other's personal lives.
About five to six weeks after being diagnosed, I started to inform my clients. It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. Out of the fourteen or so families, only two canceled my services. These two families did not cancel immediately so I can't presume it was because I had HIV.
One couple, Charles and Irene, in their mid-seventies, were sitting in their recliners watching the morning news program when I came and sat down on the couch to break the news. I had no idea how they would react; I was so scared. Yet they responded great and were so positive. Irene was really educated about HIV and knew I could not infect her by cleaning her house. Charles and she had no fear of me. After that, Irene would cut out articles for me to read concerning AIDS. Charles and Irene were truly concerned for my health and well-being.
Another family is a young couple, Joy and George. They had just had their second baby, whom I was reluctant to hold. My mind told me that the mother would get angry and tell me, "How dare you hold my baby, you have HIV! Go away, you can't clean for us anymore." That did not happen. She and I cried. She said, "Barbara, you are not going to cut yourself and put blood on Tracey." With that, I was able to pick up that adorable baby and kiss her on the cheek.
The last client I'll share with you is a family of five: Laura and Phil, with their kids Rich, Jessica and Matt. These were the toughest to inform because we had such a good bond between us. It would hurt too much to lose them since I had cleaned for this family for nine years and had watched the kids grow up.
The first one in the family I told was Laura and we cried together. She did not want to tell Phil because he was funny about germs. But he knew something was wrong because Laura and I were whispering a lot. About three weeks later, Phil wanted to know what all the whispering was about and what was going on. Phil took it very hard. Then he was concerned for the kids and how to tell them. Laura told Rich and Jessica (they were in high school at the time) and then I also talked with them. Rich gave me a big hug and told me he had learned all about AIDS and HIV in school. Jessica was more reserved, but she also had gone through the AIDS education classes.
Laura waited a year and a half until Matt turned twelve to tell him. She told him while they were in the car. She said, "Matt, Barbara has HIV. Her husband died from complications of AIDS." Laura told me that Matt's eyes filled with tears and he said, "Is she going to die?" Laura replied, "No." Then he had this puzzled look on his face and said, "Is that why for the past year Dad has been telling Barbara to eat more?" Laura answered,"Yes, she needs to eat." Matt said, "I always wondered why he did that!"
At the time, I did not know Laura had told Matt. So when we went out to eat at a buffet restaurant, I was surprised when Matt came back to the table with five brownies and told me I had to eat all of them. After dinner I asked Laura, "What's going on? Matt's never done that before." Then she told me that she had informed him that I had HIV. Like his Dad, he was concerned that I ate enough so that I wouldn't get sick. I was relieved that she had told him. Now everybody knew.
To all the people in my circle of life, I was the first woman any of them knew who had HIV. In fact, Dan and I were the first heterosexual couple our case-manager, with her large case load, had ever had to case-manage who had AIDS and HIV. There are many lessons I have learned since I was first told I had HIV. Here are some worth mentioning:
The Lessons that I have learned and am learning:
- Do not underestimate the goodness in people.
- Be optimistic... don't lose trust in people.
- My clients are very loyal.
- Older people can handle bad news.
- Preteens and teenagers can show compassion.
- Being in difficult circumstances is a challenge, but with God's help I can survive.
Talk to women about HIV at The Body's Community Center.