My Turn to Die
Navigating the ups and downs of addictive behavior.
by K. P. Rojas
The letter sat on my desk, unopened. Why was I afraid to open it? Because I knew there was something in that letter I didn’t want to read, didn’t want to tackle. I had no idea its pages would lead to a ten-year relationship that would change my view of my God, my life, and myself forever.
Oh, just open it, I convinced myself. You don’t have to do anything but read it.
I breathed a quick prayer and tore the letter open.
By page two, I was glad I had opened it. The writer was funny, honest, and humble. Oddly, I felt comfortable learning about youthful antics he had pulled with my brother, which is why I hesitated opening the letter in the first place. But it was my brother who had encouraged me to write to this guy. “He talks about that Jesus stuff now just like you do,” he said.
The writer shared with me that he headed up a Bible study on Tuesday mornings, and he told amazing stories of conversions. It was unusual to meet someone who immediately shared so many of the same spiritual views. I didn’t want to like him, but he was likeable. I didn’t want to get involved, but he was a Christian. His name was Donny, and he was a prisoner.
Discovering the truth
By the end of the letter, his tone became serious. “Before we get to know each other any better, there’s something I must tell you,” he wrote. I was impressed with his candidness, and the more I tried to resist it, the more I realized how much I liked and respected this old family friend.
He went on: “I’m HIV positive.”
I knew I had no business getting involved with Donny if I wasn’t going to marry him one day. But would I consider marrying a man with HIV?
Marriage and ministry
We wrote for almost a year. Donny was a modern-day leper, a prisoner, and the ultimate outcast. Not being the hero type, I didn’t want to rescue him but just get to know him better. My faith overlooked his disease, and I was curious about what God could do.
I arrived at the prison the day Donny was released. We lived in separate apartments, developed our friendship, and went through pre-marriage counseling. We were married two months later. For the first time in my life, I felt I was doing something right.
We served in a prison ministry. Donny stood on a chair with his arm high in the air, his rap sheet dragging on the floor. He was a new man in Christ. He became known as the ChairMan of the Lord. God had truly delivered him from his old life.
The first few years of our marriage worked. As marriages do, ours began to have problems. I didn’t know the word relapse. I thought once a person quit drinking and doing drugs, that was it. I thought Donny’s initial relapse was a one-time mistake. I could not believe it when his second relapse happened about a year later. I knew I had to forgive him again because he was truly sorry.
The relapses began happening closer and closer together. I didn’t notice what would “trigger” (another new word I had learned) a relapse. I became paranoid. Every time Donny walked out the door, I worried whether or not he’d come home, or worse, never come home.
One day, Donny was about three hours late coming home. Angry, I wondered why he hadn’t called me.
“I saw this guy,” he explained.” He was changing his tire in the rain, and I stopped to help him. And guess what? I tried to refuse this, but he gave me thirty bucks.”
I hung my head.
He put his arm on my shoulder to balance himself while he pulled off his wet shoes. “I got another lawn account, too. I start this week with him.”
I didn’t know what to say. “What’s his name?” I managed.
I burst into laughter, and he told me all about how he had told Igor that God had told him to stop. He shared the gospel with him, but Igor declined. Donny didn’t mind. “Everyone rejected Jesus long before me,” he said.
Remembering the vow
Over the next two years, things got worse. Donny began getting motor vehicle violations, court dates, and finally county jail time. Our marriage, my life, and my faith had been destroyed. I had made a vow that I was now embarrassed to keep.
People shook their heads in disbelief.
Seven years earlier, when we exchanged vows, Donny chose the scripture from Matthew 25:35, 36:
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me (NIV).
Because of drug use, Donny’s body declined. He lost twenty pounds and could not hold food down. He spent a lot of time in bed, and the relapses stopped. His T-cell count had dipped below two hundred, which meant he now had transitioned from HIV to AIDS.
One day from his sweaty pillow, Donny clutched my hand, his eyes glassy and big like a cat in the dark, and he screamed the name of Jesus.
When he snapped out of it, he said, “I’m so sorry. You’ve given me the best life I could have asked for, and I’ve ruined yours.”
“No, you didn’t,” I lied. “At least I don’t have the virus.”
I thought of Jesus and another scripture:
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21, 22, NIV).
With a good diet and careful medical attention, Donny’s numbers began to rise and Donny was soon back to church and back to work. I was glad I had kept up my end of the bargain. But I was tired.
Back on his feet and straight to the gutter, Donny was beyond the point of return. So was I — for all my faith; for the risk of contracting HIV; for hospital calls, wasted money, broken trust, a failed marriage. This was my lot in life?
From deep within the heart I had always thought was so good came the wicked truth. My hardened heart became violent and evil. There was no way out of this vow; I felt trapped. I looked Donny in the eye and said, “Why don’t you just die.”
The sentence didn’t faze him. He was accustomed to this kind of treatment, but it devastated me. I couldn’t believe that I not only said it but also meant it. Did it take this much for me to see my own need of a Savior?
I tucked the unsigned divorce papers back in the file. The emergency room had called. Donny was in a coma again. I had gone to the courthouse for the papers ten months earlier but couldn’t bring myself to sign them, even though he had moved out at my request.
This time a bicycle accident had damaged his spleen, which I later found out is the organ that produces white blood cells, every one of which Donny needed to fight infection. I went to the hospital in case this was his time to die. But it wasn’t; it was mine again.
Through Jesus’ eyes
“You’re a really good person, ya’ know,” Donny said. “I’m going to put in a word for you.”
We laughed about it, and I acted as though the tears that spilled down my cheeks were from the laughter. I wanted to hate him, but I couldn’t. After all the horrible things I had said and done to him, Donny loved me. And he still loved our God.
I saw him that day through the eyes of God. I felt his tortured soul, and I ached for him and for me. I was much more sinful than he.
Fruit in prison
A year later, a letter arrived for me from the county jail. I didn’t recognize the name. I tore it open without restraint. In a few paragraphs, the writer described his cellmate, Donny. I rolled my eyes. I couldn’t believe Donny had given a stranger my address.
The letter went on to say that Donny shared his heart with him, and he had accepted Jesus. Now the two studied together every night. This prisoner described the light he saw in Donny’s face, and a part of me died. I wasn’t leading anyone to Christ.
Donny passed away in prison that year. I couldn’t process the news until months later, singing the hymn — “Savior, Savior, hear my humble cry; while on others thou art calling, do not pass me by.” I thought of Donny on death’s threshold, still seeing his own need for the Savior. And a part of me died.
I sometimes think what would have happened and the different paths my life may have taken had I not read that letter ten years earlier. Should I have left it unopened? I think not.