The Story of Maria and José – a story of AIDS in Brazil, 1990s

The Story of Maria and José – a story of AIDS in Brazil, 1990s

by Sr. Sheila Lenehan MMM (1943-2018)             Ireland/Brazil        20.06.2023   

Maria is in her late 40s. She came to see us because they were desperate. They had run out of money. She had a house of her own and her son had a small business. But, because her husband, José, had AIDS, all their money had been used up. When I first met her, they were hungry. The social worker in the Health Centre sent her to us.

José was a man who used to go cray at Carnival time. He was just addicted to the huge street festival that takes place before Lent each year. He had a costume and used to dress up and go out at the start of Carnival. He would not return home until the five days of the festival were well over. Obviously, he drank to excess.

José had been very abusive od Maria and their only son when they were younger. But by now, the son was big, so he couldn’t ill-treat them anymore.

When I met Maria and José, they still lived under one roof, but it looked as if there was no marriage left. However, José was there and, when he worked, he provided something for them. Maria used to bake pastries and things like that, which she sold to the local small home industries.

José was a builder. He had a good job but a lot of his money went outside the home. Other women, and various kinds of waywardness, were a major part of his life.

Suddenly, José fell ill with meningitis. He was diagnosed as having AIDS – full-blown AIDS. They had not known he was HIV-positive. That was the first they knew of AIDS in that household. Initially Maria suspected she had the virus also. For her, it was a very anxious time until she got the results of her test – negative.

Maria and her son stood by José through it all. All the time he was in hospital they stood by him. They visited him every day, and brought him all he needed. When he came home, he was totally dependent on them for nursing care. Maria cared for him day and night. She looked after him in every way. All the money she and her son had saved went on his medicines. Then she came to us because she didn’t have any more money left to buy food.

All of this really impressed José. Even though he had been very nasty to them in the past. It wasn’t just that he was wayward, but he actually ill-treated them when the little boy was growing up.

One day José spoke to Maria. He told her he now realised that family was what really counted. He knew that they had every right to throw him out when he was at his lowest. He was the epitome of the prodigal husband. He was able to say to her how he appreciated the way that she and her son had stood by him.

Initially José was very seriously ill and couldn’t do anything. He also had TB of the lungs as a complicating factor of AIDS. He was debilitated. He couldn’t walk. He spent many months recuperating. But gradually he began to recover and eventually he even returned to work. Maria continued to work at the baking, and he is back at work now as a builder.  I think basically what made the difference in José’s case was the good care provided by Maria and their son. But that wasn’t all. José found that he had something worthwhile to live for. As soon as he was up and about, he threw away all his Carnival gear and said he would never look at it again.

José doesn’t drink now. I visit them often and I have never met him under the influence of drink. His son used to have only a metal hut for selling newspapers, now José has built him a little shop at the side of the house so that he can expand his business. Then José and Maria began planning to build a house for their son and his wife and new baby, so that they could have their own home instead of living with them.

Today, José still has AIDS. He takes his treatment, and he lives carefully as one with a chronic illness must do. But he is totally rehabilitated in every way. Family life has improved no end. Maria is happy. The quality of all their lives has improved. All of this is due to the fact that José got AIDS.

So, in the end, I think it is not the things that happen to us that are important. These may seem good, or they may seem bad. It is the way that we respond to the ups and downs that come our way that really determines the depth and quality of our lives.

First Published by MMM in 1996