by Sade Langa
28/03/2009 this was a very hopeful day for me.
I remember waking up in the morning, it was Friday and I was in a weekend mood. This day was blazing hot and I just felt really good. I didn’t drag myself out of bed I was so anxious to get to Leratong Hospital to see her. This was supposed to be the day I bore witness to change, on this day I didn’t cry at all, instead I had a smile on my face. For the first time in three months, I was “Hopeful”. I remember as I was walking out the building, even the security guard said I looked happy than I had been in a while, he asked if I had received good news from the hospital. I said “nope” but I was convinced that the medication given to her the night before had taken effect.
As I approached the hospital, my stomach was in knots suddenly. The taxi I was in hit somebody and we were delayed. We had to wait whilst the police took statements and attended to the people that were hurt. I could see the hospital in the horizon. After a while I asked the policeman to go as I was rushing to the hospital. In my mind I was imagining today she would realize I was there, she would not cry hysterically when I left but would tell me I am getting better and we would be together again. Finally the policeman said we could go. I got on another taxi and in 5 minutes I was there. As per usual I was expecting the security guards to let me in. It had been the norm for me to be at the hospital by 7am daily but on this day I was there around 1pm and visiting hours were 2 – 3pm. I remember begging and pleading to go through. This nasty feeling in my stomach grew stronger, by then I was cursing out of pure frustration and it didn’t help. Finally 2pm came and they opened the gates, I actually ran up to the ward, as I was coming in, I saw that she wasn’t there, someone else was occupying the bed I had left her in the previous evening. Her mother and little sister also walked in and I was the one trying to calm her mother down, telling her maybe the medication finally worked and she was no longer in the critical ward.
I remember the stares from the people in the ward, the nurse avoiding my eyes and I knew, but still, I fought the nasty feeling and chose HOPE. Someone finally came and invited us into a small office, only her Mother and sister could sit and I stood by the door. I didn’t like her look at all as she fiddled with the file in her hand. She then started to take us on a long journey and I did not hear a word except for her mother’s sharp scream. I asked the nurse what time she had passed on. She said to me they pronounced her dead at 13:15 and I said to her, “Did it not dawn on you to call someone? I was waiting outside”. When people die, all they want is a familiar face, a hand to hold on to until they go. All she could say was “We knew you will be here at 2pm.”
She then led us to the room next door, she opened the door, and all I saw was her clean-shaven head, her face covered in a sheet to her forehead. I walked closer thinking in my head this is a mistake, a technical glitch she will wake up and say, “April fool came early”. I lifted the sheet down, touched her face, it was cool, her facial expression was of a person who had been crying, her teeth clinched together as if she was still in pain. As I moved my hand up her cheek the last tear fell from her eye. I then confirmed that she really was crying. I then started crying, realizing the pain in her face as my face touched hers. I could no longer feel life like I used to, on her face. I remember walking away in a daze. I walked out of the hospital with so many questions in my head and no answers.
By the time I reached the taxi rank, her mother and sister were still hysterical they got into a taxi to their home and I got into a taxi to Joburg. As the taxi pulled off, I cried so loud that people didn’t know what to do with me; I called my friend, told her, called my sister as well. I don’t know how I got home, but when I did, I just asked my cousin to please ensure my son did not come into my bedroom. I then texted him from my bedroom to inform him of what had happened. I took all my clothes off, got two of her jackets from the wardrobe that smelled like her and covered myself in them and I was just so numb I was not sure if I should cry out loud or just keep quiet. Immediately I played you and I, by Michael Buble on repeat “Our Song” over and over again. I must have dozed off because when I woke up my friends were there and I started crying again. Immediately I asked them to leave because they were taking me away from my dreams. In my dreams she was still there, smiling, laughing and dancing to India Arie. I could hear her in the lounge singing, “Having a private party, just me and my guitar”. They left and I went back to the last three months with Penelope.
She calls me from Cape Town, tells me she has decided to take the morning flight and will be with me in 3 hours’ time. I wake up and realize I’m unable to cook, as I am still hung over from my birthday celebration with friends from the previous evening. Around 12 pm I get a call to come and get her downstairs from the CAB. We spent the rest of the afternoon just talking and it was around 8 pm and realized we were hungry, ordered a pizza and still continued talking. Here was this lovely woman, hungry for life, had so much to give, she had plans for her brand and how she was going to be taking the South African Fashion Industry by storm. With her she carried her review by Drum Magazine of her brand soul Chaeld and the sampling of what she had designed and made. The following day we went out for breakfast and she was working the afternoon shift, 1pm to 5pm.
For the first time while we were having breakfast, she suddenly was sick, didn’t even touch her food, she was so tired and drained. We immediately went back to the flat, she said I just want to rest and when I wake up, I know I will be fine. I asked if I can get her anything, she said no this would go away. I am eating healthy and I do Pilates. She called in sick, around 3pm she woke up and went home to rest some more. When I called her that evening she said she had beaten shingles and she was on her way to recovery. I remember that evening reading and getting as much information as I possibly could on HIV so I could be equipped.
On Christmas day we went off to her family to have lunch there. I remember her singing and dancing, by the end of the afternoon, it happened again. She was in pain. This time I suggest a doctor she says no, she will be fine. We got home; she took a bath and slept. This goes on for a couple of days then she’s good again. New Year’s Eve she spent sleeping, woke up at 12am to pray and she went back to sleep.
She calls me crying because her cough won’t go away. She says she has been up all night and in pain. I go to Kempton Park, when I get there she can hardly stand. She looked so weak. My well-groomed Penelope was not there. I assisted her to the bathtub, got her dressed; she stayed 2km away from Arwyp Clinic. Getting there took us forever, as it was hard for her to walk and had to stop along the way. When we were close, I sat her down, ran to the clinic and requested a wheelchair and they obliged. I wheeled her there. She went through a series of tests, the nurses were trying to get blood from her, she was screaming from pain and the nurses were asking me what is wrong with her, how to make her comfortable, I told the head nurse she was HIV positive, immediately they called someone else who knew how to help. In my head I was trying to help make the situation a bit easier. Boy was she mad at me, she said who gave me permission to tell people about her status, her Doctor knew and why was I telling the nurse. I apologized because I knew she was talking from a place of pain. I asked her Doctor, how I was expected to take her home when she was in so much pain. He gave us some cough syrup and tablets. This was the longest night of my life, as she started throwing up; with diarrhea and so much pain.
Morning came; we get a call from the hospital to come in right away. When we got there she was admitted and some X-rays where conducted on her. The results showed that she had TB. Later on when she was settled they allowed me to go in. I had to wear gloves and a mask. She was drugged and she was dosing in and out and when she opened her eyes I was there. One of the nurses called me to do a sputum tests because I had been with her for weeks now while she was coughing. Luckily I was cleared.
On her second day in hospital, she was back to her senses. We called her mother, and she said she was so happy I was there for her daughter in her time of need and convinced her to go to hospital. She said she couldn’t get away, but I must keep her posted. On 21/01/09 her family sent her little sister; I could finally go home change clothes and see my son whom I had left for days only speaking to him on the phone. That afternoon she called asking when I will be coming back. She was crying. I told her I was checking on my son ensuring he was ok; she spoke to him on the phone.
Two weeks went by and she was looking and feeling very strong, the cough was no longer there. The head nurse called me to ask if she would have someone monitoring her medication as it is a six-month course. I said I would ensure it would happen. That evening I read up on what to expect with TB and HIV. She had to take a pill in the morning before eating and this pill made her throw up so bad but she held on.
Time went by she even went back to work.
On 13/03/09 she insisted that she had to go home and would be back in time for her appointment on 18/03/09; she had an appointment at Hillbrow clinic because all TB patients go there every morning to take the pills before work. She did not like that and I said I would ensure that she takes her medication everyday as required. Even though she wasn’t that well I agreed, she said even though her mother had not come, she missed her and her sisters. This was the last day I saw Penelope alive, well, smiling and full of energy. When I think back she was irritated with me, because she said I mothered her and I was not her mother. This was because I begged and pleaded with her to take her pills even though they made her sick and she knew at home no one would tell her what to do.
On Saturday I called because I knew something was wrong. She didn’t want to speak to me. She told her sister to tell me, I call too much and needs to rest. Here I was trying to be there for the woman I love and yet she was pushing me away, I was becoming a nag. I left her alone even though it bugged me I respected her wishes.
On Sunday I called no answer, on Monday 16/03/09 around 2pm I received a call from her, I answered with a smile on my face, to only hear it wasn’t her. Her younger sister called to tell me that she had taken a turn for the worst on Saturday. I asked if she taking the medication, she said yes but she had stopped. She then said to me you can come tomorrow visiting hours are 2 – 3pm. I couldn’t sleep at all that evening; 2 pm couldn’t come fast enough.
I get to the hospital; she is all yellow on the palm of her hands, teeth, gums and eyes. I ask her mother how long has she been like this, she says since Saturday, she says we just though it is jaundice. I said to her, “No Ma, it means her liver was rejecting the pills and you needed to get her to a hospital immediately”. She reminded me about how stubborn Penelope was. I just wish they had insisted. I ask her what has the doctor said, she says “I don’t know, no one is saying anything”. Immediately I asked for the nurse and I asked questions; I wanted to know what was wrong with her? Whey was her body like that? Had they done tests to see if her liver could be clean? The nurse told me that I should speak to the doctor. I ask for him, they say if you need to see one, you come at 8am when they do their rounds. I turn to her mother and ask why she is in public hospital when she had medical aid; she says she didn’t want to go to private hospital. I was furious. Penelope didn’t even know I was there; she was hallucinating. I sat beside her and tried talking to her; her response was moans and groans of pain. Visiting hours were over, when we were walking out; her mother thanked me for coming. The questions I had asked had helped her understand what was wrong with her daughter.
First thing in the morning, I was there, to ask the Dr, all the questions I had read up on and what my nurse friends had told me. I meet the Doctor and all he says is that they suspect meningitis and they would be doing lumber puncture to determine this and he added by saying, “Well as we know she is HIV+ there’s not much we can do unless she fights plus she has hepatitis C”.
All they could do was treat her liver with antibiotics and try to stabilize the virus so she could begin with ARV treatment. This process went on for the rest of the week and it seemed it was working.
The following week some celebrity friend and neighbor came to visit her, he told her to fight. He told her his CD4 count was at 6 and he survived when everyone had written him off. He gave me hope, because her CD4 count was sitting at 8, which was higher than him. So in my head she had a fighting chance. She was again very hopeful and started making plans of whom she would be dressing in the industry and how she would focus on getting her brand off the ground. It was a great day, because we sat and laughed, talked until we were kicked out. And so it went on, every morning her Mother and I were there for all the appointments that she needed to be in, if we were not there, no one would, as they did not have enough staff.
We were told to go for counseling so we would know what to expect as a family. It was the longest day ever as Penelope was sleeping back into a weak person again. That morning I had to brush the yellow goo of her teeth as the jaundice was finally wearing off. I was looking forward to the following day, because it would have marked a new beginning, I was not blinded to the fact that the first two weeks would be awful, but I was willing to go through it because I could see the end result having her healthy again, living to be as old as Criselda Kananda. When we were being taken through all the steps, I was just day dreaming of having her well again.
We get there; the lady in the bed next to her told us it had been a rough night. She was crying seeing snakes everywhere, calling my name, her mother and her sisters. When I looked at her she had lost so much weight within a week, I could actually carry her, thinking back to when we struggled to walk to the clinic because I couldn’t carry her; she was heavy. Now I could just lift her up and place her in a wheel chair. At this stage, she is not even talking, cannot even sit up straight. Everyone at the ward we went to or the clinic, looked at her with so much pity. People said the hospital was cruel. How could they not get this person to come and see her? I just kept on pushing her to every doctor we had to see that day; finally we went back to the ward, with the ARV’s and instructions. I called the nurse, gave her the instructions. You could see she could not care less. I even asked if I could sleep over in the hallway that evening, just to ensure she took her pills at 8pm. They refused and said they would ensure it was done.
At 8pm that evening, I prayed to God that someone would give her the new pills; the pills that would give her life. I guess that never happened because she took a turn for the worst.
On Thursday, when we were about to leave, a lady asked if we could pray with Penelope. I had not seen her smile like that since she had been in hospital. Penelope said yes, we prayed and Penelope re-accepted Jesus in her life again. She confirmed that she was no longer sick and that she was healed. In my heart I knew because I had witnessed a moment like this when my grandmother passed on, that she was really saying she is letting go, but I wasn’t ready to let her go. She then said to me, don’t worry, this weekend I will be going home with you, I promise. Just before we left, she screamed for her sister, telling her not to go. She told her that she was seeing snakes when she closed her eyes. That night she did not want to be left alone. We left anyway; blowing kisses to her as they were chasing us out.
To this day, I can hear her screaming begging us not to leave her and we left anyway, holding on to hope that she is finally going to be ok.
I am woken up by a call from her mother, asking if I am ok, I said I am. She then asked me bring all Penelope’s clothes that was at my house, I said ok. I asked her if I could please hold onto the jacket as I sleep with it and that I would bring it back on Thursday in time for whatever ritual. Suddenly I spoke to a lady on the phone that told me, it was not allowed, I had to bring everything that belonged to Penelope and she hung up on me.
My friend drives me to her house, I dropped off the clothes and the mother was so cold towards me. She told everybody I was the friend that was nursing Penelope when she was sick. She then told me the funeral is on 04/04/09. Told her I would come on Thursday. When I arrived there, they were finalizing the program for her last service. There it was written “Her Nurse” Sade Langa and I was supposed to say a few words. Again I left in pain, because I was not her nurse, I was more than that; I was there for her when she couldn’t eat. I was her lover, I loved her and yet the mother was denying me the right to mourn, to mourn my loss, because I had lost a person I loved.
The day of the funeral, I was like any person or friend who came to send his or her friend off, even at the gravesite I went to see her coffin on the ground just like everyone else. It was as if no one wanted to know that this is the woman I loved, something in me had gone, I was expected to be fine and just move on. We went back to her home and her mother passed me on the street and said thanks for coming my child, she asked if I had eaten and she was distracted by someone and left me there hanging. It was as if she never knew me. Like she had never come to her daughters place, found me there, slept in the other bedroom and I slept in the same bed as her daughter. It was as if Penelope was straight, she was not lesbian. At that moment, I realized I had nothing of her; accept for her pictures and memories. I do not like taking pictures, so most pictures I had were the ones that I had taken of her. There was only one picture of her and me in the same picture.
Regardless of all the questions I have, I am glad I met her, I am glad she was sent to my place that day to collect a camera for Zanele Muholi otherwise I wouldn’t have met Penelope. This was a heartbreaking experience to love a person and having their family pretend as if that relationship never happened. To love a woman who was raped repeatedly as a result contract the HI virus, to me all of these things did not matter, all I ever saw was this beautiful woman, who loved life so much she fought to live it despite her experiences. When she passed away she was 36 years old and had been living with the disease for 20 years.
I learned from her passing that I have no guarantees of tomorrow that we all live on borrowed time. That when you meet someone who says they love you, all one needs to do is accept that love, because there is a lesson in each everything we do.
I am here today because of friends and my sister who were there for me. Even when I pushed them away, even when I thought I was losing my mind, it wasn’t until a couple of months later that this really hit me and when it did, Boy did I for the first time know what depression was. For the first time, felt like I was alone, everyone around us knew we were in a relationship including her family, but when she was gone, I was all alone. No one knew what I felt. All I heard was “don’t worry you will be ok, everything happens for a reason, you will love and be loved again”. When people were saying all these things I thought they were joking, but today I know that a heart does heal. Even though I have questions that will never be answered, I now know things happen for a reason.
I sometimes imagine, if they had let me in, if the taxi didn’t get involved in an accident and I had witnessed her go, will I be ok?
Would it have made me feel better?
All I know is, nothing will ever erase the last three months with her in my head, the moments prior to this shared with her, the last moment I felt her cool cheek against mine.
Even though I have gone through all of this! I am ok, I am actually happy. I guess those people were right, I met someone who loves me with all my flaws and all and I love them just as much J but I will never forget Penelope Fish, May her soul rest in peace.
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