Rosemarie Stone, widow of the late university lecturer Carl Stone who made the Stone Poll famous. - Andrew Smith/Photography Editor
Barbara Ellington, Lifestyle Editor
Her appearance on the popular television interview recently sent shock waves through many Jamaicans unused to such candour about a subject that is still taboo in some quarters. But for author Rosemarie Stone, widow of the late lecturer Carl Stone, the time had come to start talking publicly about how she contracted the dreaded HIV virus from her husband, and the subsequent nightmarish proportions her life assumed.
Through it all, she has remained focused, forgiving and determined to live. As she counts the days to the launch of her book about the journey, Mrs. Stone spoke with Flair about unconditional love, her children, her health and her desire to live for a long time.
What has been the response to the TV interview?
Positive, but men ask about my children; how they are doing and their response to the book.
How are the children responding?
When I started writing, I told them that we have professionals who can help us deal with it. I think a part of them expected it would not be completed. When they saw it, they asked me to take out some parts. But I was resolute since it was the first time in 15 years that I would be doing something entirely for myself and I wanted complete honesty. We had help, including advice to talk about the book before going to the media.
The professionals advised me to have all members of my large household get together in groups with friends on different nights and then we went through it. They asked me many questions (not knowing the television interview was coming). We spoke about what was the worst thing that could happen when the book is published. My daughter Tricia said the worst had already happened because of the negatives said to her at the start. My son had received more subtle reactions.
It was rough on him, being only nine when Carl died. When he was first told about plans for the the book he did not want to hear. He couldn't understand how I had dealt with the situation; he expected more anger.
The grieving process goes through phases, including anger and denial before getting to acceptance, where are you now?
I think I have finished grieving but I still cry every now and again. I don't know if it's because I am ill. When I was writing the book there would be timeswhen I would be talking and just could not say the words.
There are two sections in the book that are very private but they showed the depth of the relationship. To get them on paper, I was awakened in the night by the need to just go and write about them. It happens all the time, if something happens to upset me, I will cry. More often than not, it's men who say insensitive things to upset me. People believe they can dredge up the past to me and many of the comments are unnecessary.
Has the writing experience been cathartic?
Yes, and it was cathartic and revealing that I could go back and write about these things.
Motivational and self-help sessions tell you where you ought to be in terms of spirituality and mental maturity; reading the book, I get the sense that you are already mentally strong. I also felt you spared your husband a lot. What did this book teach you about you, and do you feel that you are mentally strong?
I am afraid to say anything about lessons learnt but I knew before I got married that I was strong. I was the eldest of my siblings and that prepared me. In the book, I said I did not want to be married but we fell in love and I thought we had a fabulous relationship. What I think I learnt is that even though I was so in love with Carl marriage was just a part of how I defined myself. I was a mother and other things. For a while, I did not know how to get into those other things so the book helped me. Apart from everything else I was physically unwell, and yes, I was honest but it does not make sense wallowing in the negatives.
Now that you have written the book, what's next?
I don't know, so I'm saying to the universe, tell me what's next. There are talks about motivational speaking but I'm not into that.
Part of it is physical, I don't know how I would stand up to it, I am afraid of contact with the general public because there are so many unknowns and some I would prefer not to know. I saw an AIDS victim's experience; he tried to do good in public and the response was not good.
So you think we (Jamaicans) still have a far way to go in terms of accepting the fact that HIV/AIDS is not a sexual preference disease? That it is not something only gay men get?
Yes, there is that part of the educational process left. But I also want to live as long as possible and I believe that the kind of stress that comes from dealing with things you can't control can wear on you. So I want to do work that is important and valuable but not necessarily in the public eye. I don't know where I will find that, but I could write, plus, I don't think I deserve to be in the position of a motivational speaker because if I knew and did all the right things, I would not be in this position. I think if you read my book and get something from it that's fine. I cannot tell people how to run their lives because, obviously, I did some things wrong.
Where are you health-wise, has it progressed from the virus to full-blown AIDS, or are you in remission, like the American basketball player, Magic Johnson?
I think it works on a continuum; you can go from the virus to the disease and back again. In 1996, when I opted to tr medicine, my T-cell count was 50 (normal is between 800 and 1,000), I took something to detoxify me and developed an allergic reaction to it. That was my lowest time; most people thought I was going to die. My skin was peeling to the point where it could be cut off. The top layer came off my face. I remember looking in the mirror once and thought I did not want my parents to see me like that.
My doctor suggested going to Miami for further treatment. There I was tested and my T-cell count was 2. So, if by any definition that is what full blown AIDS is, I had it even though I did not have an AIDS-defining illness such as pneumonia. I had lost 20 pounds in two weeks. After three weeks I returned home and I have never been ill like that again. My T-cell count is now up to 700 and it is checked every six months. Also, my viral load like Magic Johnson's is undetectable (not gone but at a level that won't be as damaging as when it was first checked).
I have had various bouts of illnesses as a result of side effects of drugs. These include diarrhoea and a persistent cough. I also had chronic fatigue syndrome which makes you so tired, you cannot even raise your eyelid. It can be so bad, you lie there and cannot sleep; you have to wait it out.
How much do you pay for drugs monthly?
The cost since 2006 is not a lot but when I began, it was sometimes US$1,500 monthly, now it's down to J$1,000.
Do you become obsessive about the virus to the point where you run to the Internet regularly to get the latest updates on it?
No, I was hiding for a long time so I would not even go on the Internet for fear people would know I was looking up information about it. I was so far gone, I thought the computer server would find out.
So this is what can happen when people don't think about the far-reaching consequences of what is deemed 'just a little sex'? Did you ever feel like strangling Carl when you found out you were positive?
Oh no, he was sick, poor thing, he couldn't even raise his hands. Remember, he was sick before we knew what it was. That saved us from outrageous reaction. What I felt for him at the beginning was a lot of pity, I was really sorry for him and I kept thinking of the children.
Reading the book, I wondered where you got the strength to focus only on him, apart from the unconditional love, that is.
I don't know, but I just did. He used to tell me he has to build up credits rather than debits with me and I guess he had built up a lot because I did not think, I just acted. I also made sure that no one had a hand in how I dealt with Carl. I did not ask for advice. I could not believe that I thought I was in control all along and now I was faced with this. After I got past what had happened, I just dealt with it.
You mentioned earlier that you want to live as long as possible. Has any doctor said to you, you have X number of years to live?
No, but I have overcome the fear of feeling I was going to die each time I coughed, had a fever or felt dizzy. Those were panic attacks and I'm over that now.
Have you, like Carl, encountered medical personnel who don't want to touch you?
No, apart from the chatter in the early years from especially nurses in some institutions who treated you badly when the doctor was not looking. Now the treatment is professional, I always tell them to be careful because I have the virus and they will be very understanding. What I did not like about Carl's case is that I think news of his virus was spread deliberately because of who he was.
In the book the names you called were women you knew. What was it like knowing your husband was cheating?
I always wondered about it, I thought stupidly we had a strong enough bond and I enough for him. He was married before and I thought you had to help your man not to stray. By that I mean, not putting up with him being late too often but through the years you hear something and men have a way of asking you not to upset yourself about foolishness. But the names I mentioned calling to him in the book were all women I knew. I don't know if any of them have the virus.
What do you want to achieve through the book?
I want people to read and try to empathise with pain, fear, irrational behaviour and thoughts. I want them to get a feel of what I went through and what anyone else could go through when you get something like this. I thought about dying at first but I thought about my children and decided to take the medication, we had so many hopes for them and now we put them back with other things that did not have to cloud their agendas. It's good I'm alive.
Would you go back into another relationship?
No, before I became ill, I would think about going to lunch dinner or dancing.Afterwards I did not want to share this illness with anyone. I know there are couples doing it but I have enough family and friends. I don't hate Carl but I was still more than bruised by this in every way. I felt attacked so I don't think I want to do it again.
Has it made the children cautious too?
I hope it has, we talk about it. I also have a grandchild and that satisfied another part of me since I had stopped hugging other people's children.
Do you make long-term plans?
I made one for the book, to finish it. I made plans for my parents, mom died but my father is alive. For many years, I became the opposite of the active person I used to be and it's just now with book I am being Rosie again. I am even speaking up again whereas I had become somewhat silent.
Have you forgiven Mr. Seaga for the incident in the book? Your anger was palpable.
Yes, I have forgiven him, all that is in the past and in fact on Thursday (last week) I presented him with a copy of the book. It was a different time and truth comes out and we move past it.
Rosemarie Stone will be signing copies of her book on Saturday, May 19, 2007, at Sangster's Book Store, Sovereign Centre, between noon and 3:00 p.m. Her book, No Stone Unturned, is available at all Sangster's book stores islandwide from Friday, May 18.