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My Brother's Keeper

My Brother's Keeper


After weeks of feeling conflicted about it, I finally came to terms with the fact that I need the assistance of a home health aide to help me manage my unwieldy life with AIDS. Someone to help out with household chores, for example, which because of my fatigue might slide for weeks on end. Someone to answer my calls when my harried friends grow tired of me speed-dialing the numbers to their cells in order to phone in a favor. I knew I had to do something. To fill the bill, the home health care agency assigned me a brotha from the motherland. George, a 40-year-old Ghanaian recently landed in the United States, arrived upon my doorstep. He was no Florence Nightingale. The beer-bellied man with a wily smile and a cackling laugh showed up looking for a meal ticket: part angel, part opportunist. I had requested only part-time service to keep from becoming too dependent on an aide. But before ending his first visit, George was already two or three steps ahead'quietly scheming for more hours and more days to add to the bottom line of his paycheck. 'You need a companion,' he told me flat out during one of his breathless bids for more work. 'You need someone to be there for you always.' Lord knows that I wanted to give in. Surrender to someone wanting to take care of me 24/7, per his uncanny suggestion. Allow someone to watch over me. But something in my mind made me think better of it. My instincts detected that he was definitely on a hustle. Still, I knew there was no shame to this brotha's game. Truth of the matter is that George had needs greater than my own, at least to his mind. Over the days he opened up to me about his two children (whom he wanted to immigrate from Ghana to the United States), his mother (who desperately needed money sent back home), his estranged ex-wife (who weeks before had kicked him to the curb of their cramped Brooklyn apartment). And after only a short time of flopping on his brother's sofa uptown in the Bronx, George had nearly worn out his welcome there too. Now he was on a mission to find a host who would employ him day and night so that he wouldn't find himself homeless and having to brave the towering canals of New York City alone. I found myself empathizing with him. Back in Ghana he was a well-paid certified engineer. Now he makes little more than minimum wage. To ease his burden, on some days I paid for his subway transportation or bought him groceries. 'I can help you, brother,' I told him, 'but I can't save you.' As much as he believes that I'm the key to his new prosperity and salvation, it is I who really need him more at this stage of my rehabilitation. Over the weeks our twisted working relationship has evolved. Although it's hard to tell at times, there are fleeting moments when George makes suggestions out of genuine concern for my well-being instead of his. His sympathies toward me, especially on days when I'm feeling physically down-and-out, make him relate to me more as a charity case and less as prey. He can look at me and shake his head on days when he cares to contemplate the tragedy of AIDS. In exchange he's my cleaner/ helper/punching bag at times when I feel particularly resentful about needing him there at all. I buckled and put in a request for George to work more days. Although I can't ask him to weather AIDS with me or give his unconditional love, he shows up each day on time. We are both served. And for now that is sufficient. Whitfield is one of the nation's leading journalists reporting on AIDS among African-Americans. A frequent Vibe contributor, he is based in New York City. Write to Whitfield at

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