One In The Same

Seventeen years ago, 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, known as Irish twins, mom used to sometimes dress us in matching outfits 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 certainly 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 did not change anything.  In fact, it made it even better.  “What more could a girl want that did not have a sister?” I used to say.

In 1987, at 25 years-old, Chris tested HIV positive.  At the time, we did not know a whole lot, for sure, about AIDs, but we knew enough to know that this was a death sentence.  For several years, Chris went about life as usual, burning the candle at both ends, working hard and playing even 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%, 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 sickness 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 was no 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 AM. “There is 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 good-byes.  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 pain, 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 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 does not say how in the hell you are supposed to do this 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 it to be over 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 could not even feel the energy of who he was anymore and, sometimes, questioned whether he was ever really here or if I had imagined it all.

9707241371_071595bc74_qEleven 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.  With a pill popping stunt, I tried to commit 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 tuned into Chris, I have no doubt that he was watching over me, helped me survive the suicide attempt, and has guided my recovery. There really is no medical reason to explain why I survived the initial assault to my body and recovered fully.

These days, I do not feel that Chris is around and helping me so 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.

image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/101108298@N04/

  • Judy M. Hampton

    Thank you, Debbie, for who you are and for what you did for Chris. He is, I know, very proud of you. Love, Mom

    • Debbie Hampton

      Thank you for giving us him and for your loving guidance while he was here. Hugs

  • http://www.haveabettergolfgame.com Tony Piparo

    Thank you Debbie. What a wonderful tribute to your brother. I wish that I could have known him when he was alive. But somehow, knowing you I feel a connection to the spirit that still lives and thrives in the world. I can feel his presence telling me to “party on” tonight on New Year’s Eve. I am proud to call you friend.

    Tony

    • Debbie Hampton

      Oh Tony, you don’t know how big your words make me smile. I love thinking that he lives on in me.

      Chris died at around 7:30 on New Years’ Eve. My mother always said that he knew he could not go to the parties he wanted to in his body. So, he left it so he could attend in spirit. I think she is right! :)

      Thank you, my friend and all the best in the coming year!

  • Nancy Morris

    Debbie, what a beautiful tribute to your brother and my friend Chris. I still remember our prom and high school days and seeing him in Atlanta a few times after college like it was yesterday. I know how it feels to lose someone so precious. I do believe he still looks down upon us all and is very proud of the beautiful, brave, and inspiring woman his sister has become today, having risen above and conquering her demons. Thanks for sharing this beautiful tribute! God speed to you and many wishes for a wonderful 2013! I hope you will continue to help others through your work for many, many years to come!

    • Debbie Hampton

      Nancy, many thanks for your encouraging words. I especially enjoy sharing with those who knew Chris, like yourself, and jogging memories of theirs. I feel by doing this, the spirit of Chris lives on. I know that I have finally become the sister Chris would be proud of again – with his help. That makes me smile, and I know he is smiling too. Blessings to you!

  • Carole De Gree

    Thank you for being so brave in sharing this story, Debbie. It anguished me to read this especially near & at the end. I too have a brother, Bernard, who is 11 months older than I am. We were also very close growing up. I couldn’t ever imagine not having him around. I am so sorry for your grief in the loss your brother, Chris. He was a sweet & wonderful person. I never stop thinking about him playing lead role of Oliver Twist in our 6th grade play. He was the perfect candidate. May God always continue to hold you, heal you & give you strength.

    • Debbie Hampton

      Carol, thank you for sharing your memories of Chris. I had forgotten him in the role of Oliver. Yes, he made a good one!

      I remember Bernard. I did not connect that he was your brother. Well, maybe I knew at one time….brain injury.

      I do think siblings close in age share a tighter bond simply because they grow up constantly together facing the same issues at the same time. I know that Chris and I may have gone at it frequently, but we always had each others backs even as adults.

      Blessings to you and Bernard.

  • http://invisiblemikey.wordpress.com Invisible Mikey

    This was such a moving testament, so easy to connect with. If your book’s this good, I can’t wait to read it.

    • Debbie Hampton

      Mikey….music to my ears! :) I hope the book is good too!

  • Donna

    Thank you for the gift of insight and
    acceptance through your story. Happy 2013.
    H

    • Debbie Hampton

      Donna, thank you for your kind sentiments. All the best to you.

  • Sheryl

    Beautiful, loving tribute to your brother, Debbie. I enjoy reading your insights and bearing witness to your own journey of personal growth through your various writings. Best wishes for a glorious and meaningful 2013!

    • Debbie Hampton

      Thank you, Sheryl. Hoping 2013 is the best year yet for both of us. I plan to make it a good one!

  • http://thefightofmylife.blogspot.com Resilient Heart

    Thank you, Debbie, I’m deeply moved, to the point of speechless and teary from reading this. I’ve shared it on Facebook and Twitter in hopes other will read it too.

    Wishing you all the best. – RH

    • Debbie Hampton

      Thank you for your kind words and for sharing the post. Blessings to you.

  • Kathleen (KT) Thompson

    I Wonder by Kathleen Milistefr Thompson
    Today I noticed my cotton underwear was frayed
    at the edges.
    You know when the elastic is stretched far
    past its usefulness
    but, I hang on to them
    longer than I should.
    Perhaps another wash or two.
    I wonder
    what part of me has been stretched
    past my usefulness
    to me and others…
    I have been here before
    yet, noticed different wear then.
    This occasion time seemed to s t a n d s t i l l.
    I am far too young to feel this old.
    To have my heart stretched
    so out of shape.
    I doubt whether it will snap back in place
    whole again
    with dreams intact
    to carry me forward
    I wonder …
    * I wrote this while a 24/7 caretaker of my husband w/ Alzheimer’s.
    I was 44 then. written 7-11-1997 My husband passed 10-20-1997

    • Debbie Hampton

      Kathleen, thank you for sharing your poem. I can hear the anguish and pure bewilderment in your words. I wrote a poem too, even titled “I Wonder” about Chris. I think they are expressions of our minds and hearts trapped in the pain of a situation trying to make some sense of the events. These painful lessons do have value, I have found, if you keep moving through them and let them mold and shape you into a stronger, gentler, and wiser person. I hope your trials have proven of benefit to you and that you have moved on to find peace and joy. Blessings to you!

      • Kathleen (KT) Thompson

        Debbie, My life of pain(s) is no more or less than anyone else’s, perhaps experienced differently by past life events that seem to shape me /us into the life tapestry we weave… Thank You for your warm response! Blessings/Namaste’, KT

        • Debbie Hampton

          Kathleen, it took me a while to realize this. That we all have pain in life. It just manifests very differently as needed for our souls to progress, I think. Now, I think of pain not even as a bad thing. It is part of it and as wecome as the other emotions. It is just a thread in the rich fabric of our lives. What we weave is up to us. I thought you might like to read my “I wonder” poem:

          I wonder what I would see
          If I could still look in your eyes
          Would they have that fiery spark?
          Would they seem a bit more wise?

          I wonder what I would know,
          If I could still gaze upon your face.
          Would it have shed its stoic mask?
          What lines would life have traced?

          I wonder what I would hear
          If you could share your thoughts again.
          What crosses would you bear?
          What would be your latest trend?

          I wonder what I would feel
          If my hand could still touch yours.
          Would you hold on just as tight?
          Would we open different doors?

          I wonder how I would laugh
          If we could run and play once more.
          Would you still wield that smirkish grin?
          Would your fun be a qentler sort?

          I wonder what I would have
          If it changed by just one year.
          Could they have resurrected you?
          Would you have still been here?

          I wonder what I should learn
          If the trials you lived have truth.
          Could I have still been me?
          Could you have still been you?

          I wonder, I dream, I remember.
          As if the answers will come somehow.
          I wonder what might have been.
          I wonder where you are now.

          • Kathleen (KT) Thompson

            Happy New Year 2013 Debbie… Thanks for your “I Wonder”, sincerely touched my heart w/ tears running down my face… The last line of your poem brought to mind
            “I wonder where you are now”; In life we can only share, live, love etc. in the present moment face to face… I have had the marvelous experience to KNOW my husband is now
            more with me, in everything I do, see, smell, laugh, love, cry
            ;) etc. and I always know he is with me now he has passed on. I would not wish for him to be here, as he was, prior to his passing. Though I do wish we could be together one more time…Is this selfish of me? Blessings, KT

  • http://trying2express.com Pam Blackburn

    Debbie, what a beautiful and moving tribute to your brother, and insight into your personal journey along side him. I love the way you share your truth, from the depths of your heart and soul, allowing me to feel deeply what you’ve experienced. You’ve got this now…and thanks for sharing that gift with those of us who still need a little encouragement every now and then. Hugs, Pam

    • Debbie Hampton

      Pam, thank you for your kind words. My intent, besides honoring my brother, with posting this was to get some feedback on my writing this type of material. I have written a book and am in the process of editing it, (which is a proving to be a long, arduous, never ending task!) and needed some encouragement to continue. I think I have it!

      I also like the idea that, by sharing my journey,others can find hope in their own lives. Blessings to you!

  • Penn Martin

    Hi Sis,

    That really helped me understand your interaction with him during his illness and the depth of your love for him.

    Thank you.

    I will always remember the feeling of how we stood by his bedside with mom and dad and held his hands head and feet while we blessed him during his transition into the light.

    I love you.

    Penn

    • Debbie Hampton

      That scene of us around his bed at his death used to evoke pain and horror for me because that is what I focused on and where I was in my journey. Now, I can feel the love and peace of the moment. I feel fortunate that we had the opportunity to do that and that it aided in his transition. Wonder what he was thinking as he hovered near the ceiling watching us? :) Love you bunches. Thanks for being my brother!

  • http://www.maryazoy.com Mary

    Your eloquent blogs remind me so much of those lines from a Leonard Cohen song, “Ring the bells you still can ring/Forget the perfect offering/There’s a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”

    I’m a psychotherapist – and I so ofter refer my clients to your website. Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom!

    • Debbie Hampton

      Mary, thank you so much! I am smiling from ear to ear and giggling because I find it so ironic that a therapist would refer clients to a me – the woman who was so messed up she tried to kill herself. I guess, the best teachers are those who have lived it, eh?

  • http://melbatoast68.blogspot.com Melissa Harrelson Johnson

    Most of my memories of Chris are from my childhood….all the beautiful Hampton children – There are fantastic genes in your family. I remember crushing on Penn and Chris in middle school and how beautiful you were (and still are.)

    I was never around Chris when he was sick. I did get to spend an evening with him my sophomore year in college when a group of us went to Atlanta. My mom told your mom and he was roped into it. But he did it with that gorgeous smile of his and if he complained, I never heard. But I always remember his smile.

    I’m so glad you were able to let go of the pain and find the love and beauty of that relationship again. I know he is so very proud of the strength you have found and I’m sure if you need it, that connection is still there.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Debbie Hampton

      Melissa, thank you so much for commenting and sharing your memories. Yes, we did get lucky in the gene pool, but so did you guys! I often wonder what Chris would look like as a little, old man.

      Glad you got to spend some time with him in Atlanta. He was Mr. Hospitality and loved to play the host. I am sure he enjoyed it, and I am certain he showed you a good time! :)

  • http://alwayswellwithin.com Sandra Pawula

    Simply beautiful!

    • Debbie Hampton

      Sandra,

      Thank you. I did rework it a little to fit a blog post, but I bet it was familiar! :)

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    • Debbie Hampton

      I’m glad you found this helpful. Maybe, I need to reread it and take my own advise as I am going through a rough spot. But, I do know, now, that they never last. I’m actually curious to see how it all turns out.