A moment that changed me: I was told the love of my life was going to die

‘You know he’s going home to die?” I was at St Mary’s hospital in Paddington, London, in 2004, collecting my boyfriend, Miguel. The words were spoken gently by his lovely Scottish ex-boyfriend, Gordon, as if he was checking to make sure I understood.

Did I know that Miguel was going home to die? Not really. He had been deteriorating for more than a year from HIV, but until now had remained independent. Surely he would get back to normal? Gordon’s question pierced my denial, but weirdly I still felt hopeful that Miguel would make it.

We met in a London nightclub in 2000. Miguel, five years older than me, was a video games tester, raised in Africa, Portugal and London. He was kind and gorgeous. Three months in, we gave each other the keys to our flats. From then on, we were usually together. After six months, he told me that he was HIV positive. I assured him that it changed nothing. It wasn’t a lie but it wasn’t the entirety of what I felt. What did HIV mean in 2000? Wasn’t it no longer life-threatening? I’d find out sooner than I had anticipated.

Miguel in 2003.

I wish I had been nosier. I might have discovered that Miguel sometimes stopped taking his medicine. He’d been on some form of it since 1989; perhaps he grew lax about taking it or was tired of the side-effects. I suspect this was why his health faltered in 2003. He was losing weight. By the end of the year, his skin was pallid. He neglected himself, skipping sleep to play video games.

In mid-2004, we took a break from each other. He spent the summer with his family near Lisbon and I tried to get sober. I had been losing control of my drug and alcohol consumption over the previous five years, at such a gradual pace that at first it didn’t register as a problem.

When Miguel returned to London that September, he was rushed to St Mary’s. We held each other on his hospital bed. As far as I was concerned, the break was over and we were back together again. A week later, it was time to take him home and that question, “You know he’s going home to die?”, hung in the air.

If Miguel had been gaunt before, now he was emaciated. He was losing the ability to walk. His world became me and his two closest friends, Gordon and Michael. We had strengths in different areas; they were brilliant at advocating for Miguel at hospital appointments. We made sure he took his meds and fed him. It was heartbreaking and my anxiety was compounded by other stressful situations: I was coming out to my parents, I had a job I found very taxing, and I was struggling with sobriety and kept relapsing.

When Miguel died in January 2005, at 35, I fell apart. Without the distraction of looking after him, I was constantly assailed by memories. I slept with two hot-water bottles to try to trick my brain into thinking he was still there. Jennie, a friend Miguel had met volunteering – taking meals to people housebound with HIV-related illness – wrote a card, stressing that what we’d done for Miguel was special, that it counted for something. I clung to her words for dear life. But I resented the world for rolling on, heedless of my loss and suffering.

Jennie’s letter.

For the next eight years, I was lost. Sometimes I looked for Miguel in other people, in the street and on hookup apps, and the more I searched, the lower the bar became for being “like Miguel”. Periods of recovery, sometimes lasting a year, made my relapses even more devastating. Then in late 2012, out of my mind, I had a terrible fall and broke my back. That was when I finally accepted sobriety in earnest.

What Miguel went through still haunts me. I trudge forward and savour joy when it happens. My spinal injury causes me lots of problems. Although I’m never out of pain, I have trained in bereavement support with the charity Cruse and begun to study psychoanalysis. I am awaiting a spinal implant that might enable me to sit up or stand for longer and have deferred an MA until then. There have been flings, though I’ve never had another relationship. But rather than search for Miguel, I’m just glad I got the chance to be with him.

Charles Donovan is a contributing editor at Record Collector


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