Bikat Sahle, PhD
As morning came and gentle beams of sunshine flickered into her bedroom, Kidist slowly opened her eyes. She greeted the new day with her usual moans and groans that have become her daily reality of the last few years. As she has been doing for the good portion of the night, she continued to toss and turn in bed hoping to find a comfortable position to ease her pain and to rest a little more. Unfulfilled wish.
She jumped out of bed and walked to her medicine cabinet that was packed with pain medications. Herbal, over-the-counter, prescribed, name it. She knows drugs have long stopped working on her failing body. She randomly picked one up and took it compulsively. It seemed to defy her helplessness. As if to make a statement to herself once more that she is not giving up. She silently reiterated to herself, “Because I am a mother!”
She returned and lied in bed staring at her ceiling. The series of bad news that crumbled her life and hopes into nothingness in the past five years streamed in her mind’s eye. Anger and grief flooded her anew as she pitied the 29 years she spent on the planet. The first twenty four weren’t that bad, actually they were quite good. The last five, however, were so unbearable that she let them dash any good memories that preceded. She lumped all the years together in her mind and rejected them with disgust. She refused to remember any good years, any good days. Not even one she allowed.
As she calmed down she pondered, “Who am I angry at? Kifle? The universe? My creator?” “Esti yihun”, she sighed. As she lied there, there in her bed of suffering, watching in her mind’s eye the painful memories of losses and heartache, one bright thought lit up her mind and she smiled. Her children’s adoption.
Kidist was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS five years ago and that was how her tragic ordeal began. Her husband, Kifle, first contracted the disease and died within one year. As she was hit by unending heart-rending news one after another since, she fights. Even after she learned that her body developed resistance to the medication, she fights. She continues to fight steadily for the sake of Dany (Daniel) and Elsie (Elsabeth), her four and five year old son and daughter.
She has no idea how Kifle got HIV. All she remembers is one night, the day after they celebrated Elsie’s fifth birthday, he came home looking so dark, disheveled, and devastated that she almost didn’t recognize him. He walked in like a zombie. A non-human.
Ever since, every time the topic came up, he sobs and turns mute that she eventually gave up asking him for explanation. She answered her own question, “Would it matter if I knew? Nothing will change how I feel or my circumstances. This is still the man I love. I choose not to torment him with guilt.”
In fact, without her share of tormenting him with guilt, she saw remorse, shame, and guilt eat him alive, more quickly than his fatal disease. She couldn’t save him.
The day her husband died, Kidist felt as though she needed a mental breakdown. But a breakdown seemed a luxury. “What about going into a comma?” She silently uttered as the thought felt so appealing to her. She wished to be in a coma for a few days to escape the emotions that were about to drown her. But even a coma wasn’t an option. She snapped herself out of the thought. She has to be there for Dany and Elsie. As it is, she is terrified that she soon will abandon them anyway.
She vividly remembers her first date with her husband. They worked as a teller at a local bank and they often went out for Machiato after work. The first day he asked her to go for coffee, he told her that he was attracted to her by her infectious laughter and charm. He said he agreed with the nick name colleagues gave her, “ende semua” which means “like her name”. The name Kidist is a female Amharic name for “holy”. She was well-loved, universally. And he was smitten.
On their first official date, Kifle asked her for marriage. Kidist welcomed it without hesitation as she is an only child who always longed for companionship. Her parents lived out in the country and she has been living alone.
So on their first date, they talked about their wedding, playfully argued over the number of children they should have, and their children’s names. They laughed and giggled imagining themselves together in old age with gray hair and walking with a cane leaning forward.
In six months they got married and with each passing year their love grew and deepened that getting old as a couple seemed a sure dream. Today, Kidist stood numb at the reality that this cherished dream has just been stolen from her heart and shattered to pieces in front of her eyes. She gently patted her face with her two hands. “Come back. Be strong for Dany and Elsie” she reminded herself.
Kidist gathered all her strength and took Dany and Elsie in for HIV testing the next day. They seemed a little somber that day, but she made sure to protect them from their uncertain reality. They had no idea of the bleak future that was looming heavily over them like dark clouds. Only their mother could see and fear it on their behalf.
The next day, as the goodnews of both her childrens’ negative test results were handed at the clinic’s waiting room, Kidist was surrounded by her aunt and nieces who hugged her and jumped up and down out of joy. To her surprise, instead Kidist shivered as she felt like she was hit in the head. The thought of leaving the apples of her eye as orphans suddenly toppled any good feelings of the news. She felt as though she was losing her mind as a kaleidoscope of emotions engulfed her. The flood gates of her feelings broke loose and she gasped and sobbed uncontrollably. Bystanders wiped away tears as they watched her with sympathy.
As she arrived home later that evening, she felt her dwindling energy was completely sapped for the day. She felt frail as a wilted vegetable. She recoiled into her bed to escape the palpable reality of her mortality. As she laid her head down on her pillow, she whispered a silent prayer that the next morning she would wake up from her nightmare, from the nightmare of her current life, to her idyllic former life.
As she became weaker and weaker and having realized that none of her extended family came forward to offer her children parental love and home, Kidist decided to try adoption. She was determined to do it as soon as possible while she was alive to help facilitate the process and prepare her little ones for the inevitable new chapter.
Out of the list the adoption agency offered her, Kidist said a prayer and picked Sisay and Roman.
Sisay and his wife Roman have one biological child. Sisay had a life changing conversation with his co-worker John who loved children and often talked about adoption. John’s passion was so contagious that it soon penetrated Sisay’s heart.
One evening after work, Sisay thought about orphaned children all the way home. He put himself in their shoes. He dreaded even the thought of his own child left in this cold and vulnerable world without parents. He felt it could happen to his child. “God forbid,” he muttered. “It can happen to anybody”. He was saddened by the thought of how difficult life without a parent must be for the millions of orphaned children in the country. That day he was determined to adopt a child.
As he was overcome by the daily grind of his busy life the next day, Sisay’s plan slipped away from his mind. What he also did not know was that his wife registered their names as potential adoptive parents.
Kidist woke up one morning remembering it was Saturday, the day for her weekly visit by her children and their adoptive parents. Soon after, she heard Danny and Elsie running and busting open her bedroom door yelling “Ema” as they endearingly call her. They were impatient to tell her all that has been happening in their new life in which she was strangely no longer a part of. At first, she was startled by their unabated happiness and even entertained some jealousy and sadness that they didn’t seem like they missed her or that they weren’t concerned for her. She realized, “Wait, they are children. After all, this is exactly what I wished.”
Following them were Sisay and Roman who walked in slowly with gentleness greeting her with a soft voice. There was a stark contrast in mood between the concerned and thoughtful adults and the energetic lively children. As Kidist kissed Sisay and Roman shaking their hands so tightly, tears of bitter-sweet joy trickled down her cheeks. She felt her children were incredibly lucky.
Kidist was gladdened by the smooth adjustment of her children with their adoptive parents in the three weeks since the official adoption. She tells everyone, “Sisay and Roman are angels”. Their extraordinary love not only to her children but to her in her deathbed overwhelms her. The love and bonding that have developed between Sisay and Roman and her felt no different from a family’s love. It was too good to be real.
For every dark hole sorrow pierced in her heart, Sisay and Roman showed her a kindness act that mended and sealed each hole one by one. The cure she couldn’t find in medicine, she found it in the loving heart of these two human beings.
Kidist still worries. She worries that she has burdened the young couple with the adoption. She then remembers, “No, my children are a gift to them, not a burden”. She wonders if Sisay and Roman would feel loved as parents by her children. She asserts, “Well, true love is seldom unreturned. Even so, true love should not expect anything in return.”
Kidist also worries whether Sisay and Roman will keep the pure love they have now or someday they would stop loving her children. She paused on the floor with a pensive stare and she remembered the unconditional love between her and her husband. “We were strangers. We were not related. There was no blood between us. But we became one because of our love and commitment. Family love is a decision, a commitment. To welcome another soul into one’s heart, one’s home.” Serenity came over her as she settled her thoughts. For now.
As she moves her body, she hurts. She quickly lets her mind drift back to the thought of Danny and Elsie in a warm home and safe hands. And she smiles.
Bikat Sahle, PhD is a fellow at Cleveland Clinic. She completed her graduate training at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, CA. She also has an MA in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA, USA.
Bik, such a touching story. It moved me to tears at some point. The hurt, anger, uncertainty and despair felt when coming face to face with loss and death is so vividly portrayed in your story. Then comes hope. And hope beats all this. So, by the end of the story, we are smiling because we can sense that Kidis is smiling too. Great story-telling.
Hi Solomie, Great to hear from you and your work. The main thing that led me to study psychology was witnessing the psychological sequelae of HIV in ppl back home. The fact that it happens in intimate relationships makes it very hard and a complicated grief. I am glad you are helping this population in Uganda and especially the children. Bikat
Dear Bikat , the counseling and clinical experience I had was mainly in Ethiopia , after reading the story you wrote , many actual stories came to my mind . I remember a friend was telling me to write the stories some times back , but I did not get this kind of opportunity to share ( I would like to thank Surafel for creating this web and networking us ) and I would like to communicate with you so that we can even write some more blogs jointly or even a book .
Thank you !
Dear Bikat , thank you very much for this story , you were able to bring out all the emotions /hurts in it .
I have been treating HIV infected children for some 6 years and have been asking the parents how they acquired the disease , and it was surprising that most acquired through innocent communication out of true loves , that is the most important factor for their depression like Kidist here.
In Uganda , they call it “put your love to test” to encourage lovers to test before marriage or close intimacy . So the era of “Love is blind” should end !
Thank you Bikat, that was a wonderful story with an uplifting ending despite the difficult circumstances.