Our Valentine’s Day Love Story

Valentines day 2010 is the day I received a gift that changed my life.   February 14, 2010 was the day I learned I was infected and there was nothing I could do to go back to February 13, when I was not.

My life, my hopes, my dreams, my assumptions, my plans, all obliterated in the instant of time it took for three words to travel from Hope‘s lips to my ears.  “I am positive.”  As the sound waves of those words hit my brain and heart like the thud of an assassin’s bullet, my life ended.  It did not ebb away, it just stopped, it flat lined, gone, over.  I began to cry.

I did not stop crying for three days.  I kept crying and crying.  I was furious at God. I kept asking him with gritted teeth, “What did I do to deserve this?  What did Hopedo to deserve this? What did anyone do to deserve this?”

I did not get HIV of the body, Hope and I had done nothing more than kiss.  I got HIV of the soul.

Valentines day night around 6 pm on 2010, I learned I would no longer be immune to the plight of my HIV+ brothers and sisters here in Africa.  My once healthy immune system, constructed of ignorance, apathy, indifference, self-righteousness, and selfishness was going to slowly be destroyed, until all those invasive thoughts of conviction, like “pick up your cross” and “when you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it to me” were allowed free reign to obliterate all resistance.

The beautiful woman I wanted with every fiber of my being to marry and spend the remainder of my life with, had just told me she was HIV+.  After knowing her for four short months, I knew God had put her in my life and me in her life for a reason. I assumed to marry her, not bury her.

Yet Hope had not been willing to discuss marriage.  She always cryptically responded “God has to do a miracle for me first.”  She had finally told me the awful why behind her non-response. “I am positive.”

I felt betrayed by God.  The woman I loved was going to die of AIDS.  I was crushed completely.

Before those three words, I would say, if anyone bothered to ask, I cared about people with HIV, as in I felt sorry for them.  I sort of wanted to help them.  But, ultimately, HIV was just one of thousands of unsolvable problems in Africa.  I assumed nothing could really be done about it.

Even though I knew a dozen or so HIV+ parents who I believed would soon die leaving their kids orphans, there was little motivation to actually find a solution for them, beyond helping their kids after they were gone.  I believed nothing could be done, so I did nothing.

With Hope‘s revelation, I was finally motivated to do something about HIV.  I chose to yell at God about it.  I was so furious I swore at him.  I told him many things unfit for print.  “If I were you, if I had your powers, I would heal these people!  If I, being as weak, unloving, selfish, and utterly human as I am, care enough to want them to be healed, then why would you, a supposedly loving God, withhold from them the healing you are so capable of providing on a whim!?  Do Africans not have enough problems without this?!  Why would you take Hope from me and leave Jojo without a mother?”

It was while I in this type of tirade, a homeless HIV+ mother of three, who I hired to do laundry, just to give her a job so she could eat, entered the bedroom where I was “praying” and began putting clean laundry away.  She saw my condition and turned away pretending to not notice, saving me from embarrassment.  As she opened suitcases and put the folded clothes inside, I was curled into a ball on opposite end of the bed, trying to fake sleep.

I lit into God.  “You see Mama X.  You know she has three kids, no job, no husband, no education, and is positive.  You know her kids are going to be orphans on the street if she dies.  Why don’t you heal her?  I would, if I had your powers.  Why do you do nothing?!”

God never answers me, no matter if I pray nicely or with the venom of Job.  When I read the bible I see he values honesty over formality, so I usually just let it fly and apologize later.   Almost forty years of being a Christian, twice I know God has spoken to me. Ten seconds of talking in forty years, so I did not expect an answer.  Somehow, in this semi-dysfunctional relationship, we are still friends.  I have not been hit with lightning yet, and somehow I know he is listening.

As I was venting my rage in tears, this time he spoke, “You are closer.  Why don’t you get off your butt and do something about it?”  It was then, in that instant, I realized I was accusing God of inaction, while I myself sat on my butt ignoring my own inaction and not making use of the few talents he put in my care to invest in his absence. Mama X was, in fact, within arms reach.

God created me, he sent me, I was to be the miracle to “the least of these.” There would be no other sign or wonder sent, just inept, unorganized, unqualified, totally ADD me.  I am the pathetic miracle from God.  I am proof God seems to love dealing for himself the worst hand imaginable after betting everything he has!

I dried my eyes, thanked God for calling me and not smacking me, and got to work researching HIV.

I learned Hope did not have to die.  I did not have to live without her.  She did not have to leave Jojo an orphan.  She could see her grandkids.  I could spend the rest of my life with her.  All she had to do was take some pills called ARVs everyday and eat right and she could live a full life.

I learned HIV is as manageable as diabetes and not easy to catch if treated with respect and ARVs.  I learned we could have a fairly normal romantic life.  So I toldHope “Nothing has changed, I still love you, and want to marry you.”  Thankfully, this time, she knew I was serious.

I was the second person Hope had ever told about her HIV status.  The first was her former fiancé, who was negative. In Africa, an HIV+ single mom who grew up an orphan is not exactly considered prime marriage material. This is why she lost her fiancé and remaining extended family a few years prior and why it took her four months to tell me she was positive.   When they found out they all disowned and abandoned her, tried to get her to abort, and drove her from her own house.

I know how that family rejection feels.  I was no prize in the world’s eyes either, solidly at the bottom of the marriage-material pile, so I understood.  Thankfully, God sees us so much differently than our relatives and the world.

Grace is a gift that we receive only when we give it.  I saw Hope is a gift from God, there was no way in hell I was going to miss out on what he was giving me; a new life filled with real love, real devotion, real self-sacrifice, and living out together what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “costly grace.”

In the two weeks that would follow, we got Hope on ARVs.  We got her then 2 year old daughter, (now my daughter) Jojo, tested.   Since Hope found out she was positive in a routine pregnancy check up, she just assumed Jojo was positive frombirth.  Jojo tested negative.  Hope and I cried and praised God together in the doctors office when we heard the results.  It was a miracle, Jojo tottled out of the grave like a baby Lazarus.

In the two years since our love story began, we married and began answering God’s directive to show the love of Christ to the HIV+ as best we can.  Thankfully, with the help of a lot of friends like yourself.

Last week, I went in for an HIV test.  My blood is negative, but my soul is now uncurably HOPE+.

Happy Valentines Day!

Paul

baby laz

Hope and Jojo, March 7 2010.