A Hope Big Enough

"Your HIV test came back positive," the testing center counselor said. Knowing HIV caused AIDS, I tried to grasp the reality of being HIV positive, while hurling it as far away as possible.

Two weeks earlier, in March 1993, the possibility of marriage had prompted me to tell Rick that even though he had remained a virgin, I had not. I didn't become a Christian until after college, and I had given my body to others. Rick had assured me my past wouldn't hurt our relationship, but now, how could I tell him this news?

I hadn't even told him I'd been tested; the likelihood seemed so remote. So I decided to retest, just to be sure.

The struggle

Driving home I thought, This can't be happening. I am only 27 years old. Rick and I are in love and want to marry. Rick is a strong Christian man, but why would he commit to a woman who might have a terminal illness?

By midnight, my tissue box was empty, yet I struggled with my thoughts through the rest of the night. What a hypocrite. Everyone will reject you Rick, family, friends, church members, co-workers. What a failure. You'll die alone, thin and weak. Covered with sores. In pain. Without friends. You will have nothing.

By morning, I was still awake, and I knew I would see Rick that night. I can't keep this from him, and why should I? He deserves to know the truth, I thought. Then he'll be gone!

That evening, we sat and faced each other. Rick's eyes met mine. I looked down at my hands and tried to speak, but managed only a stifled cry.

"What is it?" Rick asked.

"Remember our conversation about me not being a virgin?" I sobbed. "I was tested for HIV, and it came back positive."

Rick reached over to hug me, but I pulled back. "Please let me hold you," he said.

"I don't think you should touch me. You could get this," I said, knowing very little about the virus.

"I can't get it from hugging you," Rick said. He wrapped me in his arms, and we both cried. "I know this will change our relationship," I whispered.

"I am ready to commit my life to you," Rick said. "Although I don't know exactly what the future holds, I will be here for you. Nothing you do or say will change my mind. If our hope is not big enough to handle any eventuality, our hope is not big enough. Our hope is Jesus Christ, and He is big enough for this."

The retest came back positive. I consulted my doctor for a prognosis. "Your T-cell count is 147," he said. A normal person's is between 800 and 1,200. You have two weeks to a year to live."

The doctor gave me a prescription for AZT the first drug approved for the treatment of HIV and I stared at the paper in disbelief. How do I live the rest of my life in two weeks?

Later that night, Rick held me again, and we wept together. We were not expecting such grim news. I didn't even feel sick! But Rick prayed, comforted me and gave me the courage to face our reality.

More painful revelations

Then past boyfriends began to call after the state notified them, advising them to get tested. So I painfully told Rick everything, and the truth strangely provided a defense against future misunderstandings and confirmed Rick's forgiveness.

"How can you stay with me?" I asked Rick.

"All of us are broken. Sin has consequences, but God's grace is big enough to help us through them. When you told me you were HIV positive, I chose to support you through a terminal illness. I love you, and love is not easily turned away. Our relationship with God is all that matters and no one, no disease, can ever take this from us."

At work I fought thoughts of condemnation and fear, and my struggles were not without tears. I noticed concerned looks from my manager and co-workers, and I worried that if I lost my job, I would never be able to get health insurance again. So I talked to my manager, and he graciously arranged for me to take a month off from work to locate an infectious disease doctor, establish counseling and inform my family.

At first, I wouldn't tell my family. "I can't bring all this pain into their lives," I reasoned. But my counselor convinced me I needed their support.

Rick sat by my side as I told my immediate family. When I finished, Rick added, "I love her and will be here for her." Then Rick told his parents and declared his commitment to me.

During the next few months, we asked pastors, doctors and counselors whether or not Rick and I could get married. We always got the same answer. "People with HIV can still get married, but there will be some sexual restrictions."

Committed for life

That May I took Rick out for a surprise dinner to celebrate the purchase of his first home. After dinner, Rick pulled out a small Bible and read 1 Corinthians 13. He then got down on his knee, pulled out a ring and proposed. I couldn't speak. I just kept nodding. On Oct. 9, 1993, we married knowing we might only have a few months together.

Ten years later we remain happily married. Advances in medicine provided a three-drug therapy referred to as a "cocktail." The therapy keeps me alive but involves changing drugs often. These medicines have severe side effects such as liver damage, nerve damage, fatigue, headache, rash, nausea and diarrhea. Currently, my T-cell count is 522, and the side effects from my latest cocktail are minimal though no one knows the long-term effect of these drugs.

Rick remains uninfected. He continues to lovingly stand by me as we deal with the side effects of new drugs, the uncertainty of my medical condition and the sorrow of not having children. We still walk, hold hands and exchange our deepest thoughts. And I still marvel at how God demonstrated His forgiveness and redemption through Rick's love, faith and commitment to me.

Barbara and Rick Wise live in Littleton, Colo.

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