In 1995, on New Year’s Eve, at a hospital in the ritzy Buckhead area of Atlanta, Georgia, my brother, Chris Hampton, with the wicked sense of humor, impeccable taste, and ability to make me believe he was invincible, drew his last, raspy breath, succumbing to AIDs at the age of 31.
Being only 10 months older than me, Mom used to sometimes dress us like twins when we were little. I always liked to think that we possessed that super special, twin-like bond. While Chris and our eldest brother, Penn, shared a bedroom with stacked bunk beds, Chris and I pestered our parents almost every weekend to let him have a sleepover in my room until they relented. As any brother and sister, we did our share of squabbling, but we were also best buddies.
Through the years, Chris played the part of the typical older brother by sitting on my head and farting and shooting me with a BB gun while I ran as fast as I could in the other direction. As a cheerleader for his little league football team, I proudly wore my home sewn outfit and shook my newspaper pom poms while I screamed, clapped, and stomped with enthusiasm. Because he heard me practice all the cheers, Chris knew them well and would often join in with us cheerleaders while standing on the sideline in his football uniform. Well, maybe he wasn’t so typical after all.
When he got to junior high, Chris joined the wrestling team and, in me, had a convenient partner to practice all his moves. I could tell you first-hand what a half nelson or a banana split felt like. In high school, Chris found his niche and passion in drama, started a mime troupe, and, later, attended the North Carolina School of the Arts.
After college, Chris settled in Atlanta, GA, and began living an openly homosexual life. As far as I was concerned, his being gay didn’t change anything. In fact, it made it even better. "What more could a girl want that didn’t have a sister?" I used to say.
In 1987, at 25 years old, Chris tested HIV positive. At the time, we didn’t know a lot about AIDs, but we knew enough to know that this was a death sentence. For several years after that, Chris went about life as usual, burning the candle at both ends, working hard and playing harder. Nothing really changed, but everything had changed. A black cloud followed him everywhere now, and, no matter how furiously he danced or how much he crammed into his life, he could not shake it.
The ominousness of his HIV status oozed into the pauses of conversations and rudely sat down with us at meals. We didn’t talk about his plans for the future anymore. On the one hand, I wanted to tell him, "Chris, slow down a little. Take it easy." On the other hand, I wanted to encourage him to have fun and live life to the fullest while he still could. He chose the latter. Even as the protective sister in me cringed, I always admired that about him. Chris didn’t do anything if he didn’t do it 110 percent, and AIDs didn’t change that. During the height of his sickness, I asked him, "Is it just not worth it to you if you can’t go full force?" Without hesitation, he replied, "No."
By 1994, Chris started getting sick. First, the initial opportunistic infections: shingles, Koposi’s sarcoma, and the sweats reared their ugly heads. All too soon, the nastier invaders such as pneumonia and wasting syndrome became his constant companions. These wretched acquaintances would land Chris in the hospital, and, then, bravely but more haggardly, he would go about his life the best that he could until the next round of illnesses.
The cycle of sicknesses reminds me of me of my sons’ electronic games. In the animated worlds, a zombie gets gravely wounded with body parts grotesquely hanging off, but the bloody figure always manages to get back on its feet somehow and, with outstretched arms, stumble forward. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a video game.
Throughout Chris’ battle, I, the devoted sister, was determined to keep the promise I had made to take care of him. I would frequently travel to Atlanta from my home in Florida to perform necessary, tactical tasks such as administering IV medications through the catheter drilled into his chest; cleaning a fashionable but dirty house; and trying to comfort myself and him by fixing fattening foods which I could only hope he might be able to keep down. Just as necessary, I tried to console Chris and meet his other needs which might have us reminiscing late into the night about our childhood antics, welcoming a sudden attack of the "giggle-snorts." Laughing fits were far and few those days.
The night he spiked a fever of 104 degrees with alternating periods of violently shaking chills and profuse sweating, we stayed awake out of frustration and desperation. After trying ibuprofen, acetaminophen, an alcohol bath and a cool bath with no success, I paged the doctor at 2:00 a.m. "There’s nothing else to try," she said. "Just keep doing what you’re doing." Not knowing what else to do and following my instincts, I crawled in the bed with my brother during one of his shivering sessions, and spooned him, pulling him close to give him my body heat and love.
Months passed in a blur of trips back and forth to Atlanta. Family members came and left. Friends visited saying silent goodbyes. The haze of sickness was dotted with awkward moments like when the nurse wheeled a port-o-potty into his hospital room, and this grown man had to take a crap in front of his sister. Tender moments, like when I used my expensive moisturizer to massage his feet, were sprinkled in. An epiphany moment occurred when Chris realized that his Lexus meant nothing and that he "just wanted to be remembered." A spiritual moment unfolded one night we were alone in his room, and Chris began talking to someone at the foot of his bed that I couldn’t see.
Finally, there was the agonizing moment when I had to give my brother permission to die. The medical staff determined that it was time to put Chris on a respirator. He had always stated that he didn’t want extraordinary measures taken to prolong his life. Before the morphine drip was started, while he still might be lucid, I sat by Chris’ bed in the fake leather, mauve chair, and, with tears streaming down my face, I held his hand and told him how proud and honored I was to have been his sister and what a privilege it was to have known him. I told him that he had waged an admirable battle against AIDs, but that it was time for him to rest.
He just stared up at me with a vacant glaze in his big brown eyes without speaking. I’m not sure if he understood my words, but it was what we had agreed to when he wasn’t facing death — when there was still some life behind those eyes. Once again, I acted instinctively from my heart. Sniffling a now runny nose, I crawled over the cold metal bed rail, and eased myself down gently next to Chris on top of the tangle of IV tubes. Making sure I wasn’t causing him discomfort, I hugged my brother close one more time giving him warmth, memorizing his scent, sharing his pain, and saying goodbye.
We had Chris cremated, and his ashes were put into a blue piece of pottery he had displayed on a bookshelf in his home. It was utterly incomprehensible to me that all that remained of person that I knew as Chris, the brother I loved so much, was now in this vase.
I returned to Florida and numbly went through the motions of living. As the old saying goes: "Life goes on," right? But, it doesn’t say how in the hell you are supposed to do that exactly. Life did go on, but nothing was the same anymore. I was not the same.
Immediately after Chris’ death, I was relieved and happy — yes, happy — that the ordeal was finally over and that he was no longer suffering. I had wished for it to end for a while; however, amazingly enough, I had never thought about what life would be like without Chris or how much I would miss him. I got up every morning and tried to remember how to live — for Chris, for my son, for myself.
Scenes of Chris’ sickness and death ate away at my soul and threatened to consume me. Because I dwelt on the awful memories, they grew stronger and more predominant in my mind until I couldn’t even feel the good ones anymore. It was as if the laugh track got erased that went with the happy memory movie. While the pleasant recollections were there and I could see them, I couldn’t feel the joy that was once infused in them. The pain of the past became an integral part of me. The agony of his death was a medal I wore proudly and never took off. "I had earned it, hadn’t I?" I figured. By holding onto the ache, unconsciously, I thought it proved how much I loved him and how special he was to me. The sadness and anguish became my connection to him.
As the years passed, I buried the pain and went on with my life or rather my life went on without me. Chris’ love became a distant memory, like a book I knew I had read at one time, but couldn’t quite recall. I knew how the story ended, but the details were blurred behind a cloud of hurt. I got to the point where I couldn’t feel the energy of who he was anymore and sometimes, questioned whether he was ever really here or if I had imagined it all.
Eleven years after his death, I found myself a depressed, divorced, single mother of two sons with no idea who I was or why I was here. I couldn’t locate anything resembling the strong, smart, feisty sister Chris had loved. I had gotten so lost, so far removed from my own soul, and so of touch with the feeling of Chris. I attempted suicide, which resulted in a serious brain injury and losing custody of my children.
While healing from the suicide attempt, emotionally and mentally, I realized that to be estranged from my own heart was to be disconnected from Chris because the feeling of Chris was the experience of unconditional love. The feeling of Chris that I missed so much was the same caring and kindness I needed to extend to myself.
While I learned to love myself and tune into Chris, I have no doubt that he was watching over me, helped me survive the suicide attempt, and has guided my rehabilitation. There really is no medical reason to explain why I survived the initial assault to my body and recovered fully.
These days, I don’t feel that Chris is around and helping me as much anymore because he knows that I’ve got this now. I took care of him when he needed it, and he was here for me when I needed it. I have learned that connecting with him means tapping into my own heart energy and loving myself. It is one in the same.
If you — or someone you know — need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn’t make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let’s talk about living with loss. If you have a story you’d like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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