State of Denial

PBS Premiere: Sept. 16, 2003Check the broadcast schedule »

Breaking Silence: Just Call Me Lucky

Ulale Ngoxolo, Mfowethu

Ulale ngoxolo, mfowethu

("Sleep in peace, my brother")

Lucky MazibukoJune 20, 2000 -- Almost two months ago -- April 18 to be precise -- I discussed with you a book I had read. Entitled "My Brother," the book was written by Jamaica Kincaid.

Kincaid wrote about her brother, Devon, who died of AIDS at the age of 33. This was one of the passages I quoted, but now her words are mine: "My brother died. I had expected him to. Sometimes it seemed as if it would be a good thing if he were to just die. And then he did die. When he was still alive, I wondered what the world would be like the moment I knew he was no longer alive... He had been dead for a long time.

"He was lying in his bed, his head was big, bigger than it used to be, but that was because his body had become so small. He lived in death. Perhaps everyone is living in death. I actually do believe that; in his case it was a death I could see. He was alive, he could speak, he still breathed. But he was dead, in waiting.

"His death was imminent as we were all anticipating it, including him, but we never gave any thought that this was true for all of us. Our death is imminent, only we are not anticipating it...yet."

When I quoted Kincaid, I had no idea that my own brother would die of AIDS. I was touched, as happens to all of us, by empathetic imagining of what she went through. But now I know and understand. Her book gave me an insight into the life of a terminally ill person which is now indelibly printed on my brain. Her book prepared me for the worst.

When my brother's health deteriorated, he felt a strong urge to spend time with me. He came to visit two weeks before he died and we talked.

He shared with me some gruesome and dangerous experiences he had in his short, adventurous life. Sphiwe said that he had never, in his wildest anticipation, expected to die of any illness, but such is the nature of death; it is unpredictable.

He lived a fast life. A life of being high and on the run. He lived a criminal life. Several times he went to prison for crimes ranging from murder to hijacking, all within a 24-year life span. Additionally, he was an intravenous drug user.

I had never seen him in the company of a woman because he left his father's -- my father's -- house and rented a flat or room in Hillbrow, the so-called city that never goes to sleep.

At some point he knocked on my door in the middle of the night, in the company of two accomplices. He looked terrified. He was on the run, again. He said that taxi bosses were on his trail.

A few days later his frail body was riddled with bullets. He spent a long time recuperating in the hospital. According to him, this was how he found out that he was HIV positive. He told me this while battling for breath and with tears rolling down his pale cheeks.

I cried with him because I could feel his pain. For the first time I believed. I knew he was in no condition to lie. He'd reached a point of no return. He knew he was facing his own mortality and was feeling a deep sense of regret about how he had led his life. He was almost embarrassed to find himself so helpless because he was used to being in control.

This was a different and difficult situation for me. This was my father's child. He was not a client, neither was he a stranger. He was part of my family. I could not judge him. I am not God. I could not judge him especially when he was ill, helpless and reaching out for love, care, understanding and forgiveness, even though he was far from being considerate of others when he was well.

I wanted to give him all my love and kindness. I told him that I loved him and that I would give him my unwavering support. For hours we sat there, holding hands and chatting.

On his last visit I prepared food for him. I told him I would not be there when our brother came to fetch him. Ironically, I was also not there when his young, battered body was lifted from his deathbed in Ward 16 at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital.

My brother is no more. By the time Sphiwe died of AIDS I wished I could have helped him deal with his gory past. I'm sure that he had time to forgive himself.

As I continue my own journey, I feel deeply wounded and scarred. I wish I could shoulder the burden that this virus visits upon everyone but I know I can't.

My own life will never be the same. May my brother's soul rest in peace.