Del, I never knew you except through Marlene's stories about her best friend. You lived across the continent, and because Marlene generally visited you rather than vice versa, we never met. And I only know your death as Marlene's loss. I sat across from her at the dining room table two nights ago and watched her face cave in with grief when she told us you were finally gone, then soften and spring back to life when she described holding your head in her lap and feeling, with her sculptor's hands, the shape of your bones through your skin.
Now I need to update the rape piece I'm writing, to say that you're dead. You are the nameless woman on page twelve who was infected with HIV by a rapist. I always taste bile when I get to that line, but at this particular moment I have such a mouthful of the stuff that I want to spit it out on the page and leave the paper puckered, stained and smelling sour with my anger.
One thing I never understood until you died was how willful you were. I try to imagine you looking at your daughters, ages six and twelve, and vowing to keep their lives and your own unchanged by sickness and death for as long as possible. You held in the news about your HIV status for nine long years, telling only your doctor, your husband, Marlene, and one other friend. Del, how did you do that? I see the set of your jaw, the determination to stand fast, to live life on your own terms. I see a woman not to be messed with.
When you started getting sick a year ago, the time for secrets ended, but your will remained as strong as ever. I think of Marlene shepherding you to the toilet along with your IV line, how you would sometimes slam the bathroom door behind you in a kind of laughing defiance and gain a moment's privacy--even though you couldn't always muster enough concentration to remember to come back out. I see you sitting up in bed, gobbling mangos, skin and all, long after everyone but Marlene thought you were through with eating forever. I like to think of the sweet juice dripping down your chin and the velvety pulp smooth and soothing on your tongue; I like to think that the taste was still too sweet to let go of. I like to think you had your family buying mangos by the case because you craved some missing nutrients your body still demanded, because you hadn't yet lost your hunger for life itself.
Del, what else might have sprung from that hunger? From that will? A nightmare at a rapist's hands, medical advances a little too late, a cure not yet found, and now the answer is lost forever.
--Brenda Carter (1996)