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Evidence and substance: A remembrance of Annesha Taylor

Published:Friday | May 15, 2015 | 12:00 AMKwame Dawes
Annesha Taylor
Taylor during an interview at The Gleaner in 2006.
Professor Peter Figueroa (centre), chief of epidemiology and AIDS in the Ministry of Health, with Annesha Taylor (left) and Ainsley Reid, during the launch of the ‘Getting on with Life’ media campaign at the Hilton hotel on September 15, 2006. Both Taylor and Reid had publicly acknowledged their HIV-positive status.
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Here is the end of a story I wrote seven years ago: She died.

She died of complications associated with HIV/AIDS. She died at Kingston Public Hospital.

Her friend, Lorna Gooden, says, "I think she gave up, she got tired."

Her address is the same. Her cell number is the same. She did not become rich. She did not finally get a permanent job. All her brilliance, her humour, her resourcefulness did not result in some dramatic change to her life. Instead, she kept struggling, hustling, trying to make ends meet, went in and out of hospital, got sick and then a little better, better enough to leave the hospital and try to make it through life, and then one last time, she got sick, she began to lose weight, and then, eventually, she died.

When you write stories, you carry in your head a narrative that ends with transformation, hope, and the idea that, if you return to the person, she will tell you of how much better life has been and all the things that have changed for the better since the story appeared. It rarely happens like this, but we hope.

If we, in Jamaica, have made any progress on reducing the level of stigma associated with HIV/AIDS, if people are less likely to attack people living with the disease in Jamaica, a lot of that is owed to what Annesha did when she became the public face of the disease.

When Annesha went public, I met many people living with the disease who would not. They were from all levels of Jamaican society. They said they could not do it, they said that Jamaica would not be accepting and they would suffer consequences. Some have died, and there were whisperings around their deaths. Their families sought to hide the fact of their HIV/AIDS. So even in death they remained a stigmatised people - they were hiding in shame for something that was as much their fault as diabetes may be the fault of the diabetic or cancer may be the fault of the cancer patient.

 

Difference in attitudes

 

Last year, I went back to the topic of HIV/AIDS in Jamaica, interviewing many people about HIV/AIDS and the Church in Jamaica. That was six years after the work I did with Annesha. The difference in attitudes was remarkable. There was greater understanding about the nature of the disease, about how it is contracted, and there was less stigma than before. More people were willing to say, "Hey, I am HIV-positive."

The work Annesha and others did deserves credit for this progress, even if we still have a long way to go. She is going to be buried as a woman who died of complications associated with HIV/AIDS. Even in death, she is breaking taboo, challenging myths and ignorance. There is no hiding it. There will be no euphemisms about her death. And there will be no snickering.

Her daughters always lived with the fact that their mother was HIV-positive and they may well have suffered from teasing and abuse from their friends about this, but they can stand proudly and say, "That was my mother. She died of complications associated with HIV/AIDS, and she was a brave woman."

When I first met her, she had known what it meant to give up, and now she was ready to fight. She had hope. She wanted to fight. She wanted to dream. She still cared enough to reinvent herself, to withhold details about the choices she had made, and to be direct and forceful about the injustices and absurdities of her society that has not quite come to deal with HIV/AIDS and its implications. She was hopeful enough to buy into a scheme by a US-based fly-by-night alternate medicine outfit that was promising cures with herbs and other concoctions, and best of all, a job for her as an agent for them in Jamaica selling this cure to other people living with HIV.

 

Lost her job

 

She was hopeful enough to be embarrassed about saying exactly what did happen to the child she was carrying whose existence had been the cause for her to lose her job, because of the absurd and hypocritical expectation that she, as the poster child for people living with HIV/AIDS in Jamaica, should not show any evidence of having had sex, unprotected sex. Pregnancy was not a good look, the Ministry of Health in Jamaica thought, so they took her job as the official spokesperson for people living with HIV/AIDS from her. It was unfair, small-minded, and sad. She was hopeful enough to be fierce, brilliant, articulate and direct about the silliness of this injustice. She was hopeful enough to imagine a future for herself and her children.

That is when I knew her. But we knew that she was hoping against a massive tide of her mortality, of the powerful force of this disease in her body, and when I asked about what would happen to her daughters if she passed, she smiled softly, but never answered, and I did not press.

It never got better. It got more and more difficult. And then she died.

Today, I looked at a photo of her in bed a few months ago. It is strange to encounter a familiar photo - the classic image of emaciation that we see of the bodies of those who are at the end stages of this immune system-destroying disease - and then to look closely to see the face of the person who means something to you. It is strange, sad and powerful. I will carry these two images in my mind of Annesha: Annesha, smiling or animated as she talks to people in the Slipe Road clinic about sexually transmitted diseases, or her sly smile while talking about Beenie Man; and then the Annesha, lying there, already travelling, it seems, already traveling.

I think of her as a beautiful presence. I can't help that. After all, I did know her - the details of her life - with the kind of intimacy and access that one gets as a confessor, as a reporter asking deep questions, painful questions, and as someone who, after many conversations, saw her in various stages of crisis and challenge. I imagine her as a poet does. I imagine her by delving deeper into what I knew of her, and more than that, what I imagine about her. But I have never been able to trust this knowing as reliable. It is the curse of the writer.

I spoke to her friend, Lorna Gooden, the woman who sent me a brief email to tell me that Annesha was dead, a woman who had met her just around the time I first met her, and who remained close to her for the ensuing years.

When, as we spoke, I heard her say "Oh crap!" and then start to cry. "I have been trying to keep it together, I really have, I am sorry."

When she said this and cried, I knew that I could trust this woman's account of the beauty I always carried in me when thinking of Annesha. I found it comforting to know that someone loved her and cared for her so deeply, so much that she could be angry, she could be amused, heartbroken, heartsick, and painfully helpless in the face of her passing.

 

Annesha's story

 

When we die, what do we leave? Beyond material things, we leave stories. Some stories have a knack of multiplying themselves in ways that we could never imagine and in ways that may seem to have

little to do with who we are. Annesha left her story. And her story's importance was not accidental. She made decisions, stepped into this place of being the subject of a story that would travel around the world, that would win awards, and that would sensitise so many people to the challenges of living with HIV/AIDS. She would never know who might have been moved by the story. She simply told her story with honesty, wit, and the kind of ease that comes when two people make a space for curiosity, empathy, pain, bewilderment, and laughter. She said she would take the chance of letting her own people, the people she lived among, know that she was HIV-positive.

She could have chosen to do something else. Most people did something else. They stayed silent, they stayed hidden, and they did so for good reason. They knew the effects of stigma, they knew how people would view them, they knew how people could hurt them, and they decided it was not worth it. She chose otherwise. She was courageous. She was also pragmatic. She determined that she was not going to hide in shame. She understood the absurdity of her luck. Yes, she did have sex. Yes, she contracted the disease through sexual intercourse, but she also knew that so many others who looked down on her and who condemned her were just fortunate enough to not have slept with the wrong person, to not have had the particular circumstance of that sex act that would cause her to take on the sickness that the other person carried in them. Yes, it was her lot, but she did not need to accept their condemnation and she wouldn't - even if sometimes the weight of it was more than she could bear.

The official message was that HIV was not a death sentence. Each day she lived, she knew better. HIV did not leave her alone. It made her sick. It consumed her time, her money, her energy. And then it killed her. Her true message was that, despite the fact of death, and this specific kind of death, she was going to try to live, still, to try and make it work. Eventually, we will all get tired.

Annesha told me that she had lived in Ghana for several years when her aunt moved there. She went to Achimota School, one of the best schools in the country. But she wanted to come back to Jamaica. She fought hard to come back to Jamaica. She promised her aunt that she was just coming back for a vacation, but never went back to Ghana as promised. And so she had her way.

 

Pregnant at 17

 

She came back to Jamaica, and, immediately, her future was set. She was pregnant at age 17, and she was soon living with HIV. She would see death. The man who gave her the disease was murdered by the brother of another woman he was sleeping with who had contracted the disease. When Annesha got the news about her positive status, she attempted suicide and ended up in hospital, the same hospital she would visit again and again for years, and where she would eventually die. She survived the suicide attempt and was rescued by a man called Mr Lindo, an HIV counsellor who guided her to support organisations. Perhaps because she had faced death and because she still carried a sense in her head that she was living with death as a reality, she boldly volunteered to be a public spokesperson for people living with HIV/AIDS.

We talked about how different her life might have been had she stayed in Ghana. This speculation of what might have been was part of the sweetness of her tragedy. This, too, is what she left for us to think about. But above all, Annesha's strength and her willingness to learn as much as she did about her disease and to counsel others, to encourage others, and to allow herself to be seen by so many people - vulnerable and fully revealed - is a legacy that I value most.

I am now 52 years old - I have been given a gift to live this long. And, in this time, I have learned that the people we admire are always going to be flawed and it is often the existence of those flaws that allows us to see their true qualities, the true virtues. Annesha was a flawed woman, and often the circumstances she faced, those of her making and those that she was stuck with, were nothing if not messy and complicated. And amid all this, there she was, fully alive, thoughtful, courageous, heroic, and always leaving me with this wonderful sense that she was fully present with me. After she told me the story of her suicide attempt, I wrote a poem called 'Altar' for her and for her mother.

The poem ends with a prayer that seemed to swirl around Annesha every time we spoke. It was a prayer full of the understanding that her body would one day give up, and equally as strong was her deep desire that her daughters would be well, that her daughters would thrive and prosper. The second poem, 'Evidence and Substance', from which I have taken the title of this remembrance, is part of a song of praise and admiration for Annesha and those others who I have met over the years who lived with HIV, but who, in their living found a way to give something of themselves to those around them - each day they fought to say, "I will be here again next week", full of faith and hope despite the shadows.

Walk good, Annesha Taylor, walk good.

January 5, 1980 - April 30, 2015

*To see Kwame Dawes' related reporting and poetry about Annesha, and HIV in Jamaica, visit the Pulitzer Center's: LiveHopeLove  (http://livehopelove.com) and Shame: HIV/AIDS and the Church in Jamaica (http://pulitzercenter.org/projects/caribbean-jamaica-hiv-aids-church-religion-culture-stigma-homophobia-treatment).