Above the bustling sounds in the restaurant’s kitchen is the contagious laughter of a tall, slender, waitress named Kristi Kissell. She quickly replaces her smile with a serious visage but can’t help but grin again when a familiar face walks through the door. After removing her clear rimmed, black glasses, she slips them into her pocket. The pretty bleached blond is self-conscious about her appearance. She covers the scars of weariness on her face with foundation. As she carries two plates on one arm, she holds a drink with her free hand. Her toned physique reveals her strength, but the inner burden she bears has muscled more strength out of her than the number of plates she could carry in a lifetime.
Life changed for Kissell at age twenty-five when she contracted HIV. At thirty she developed cervical cancer as a result of the virus. Depression and anxiety now drown her mind.
“I’ve missed out on a lot because of the AIDS. It’s like I’m an empty glass, and now I have to fill it up again,” says Kissell, now forty-five. “But when the doctor told me I had cancer and only six months to live, I was in total fear—I was more hopeful about being HIV positive.”
The unknown can hold nothing but fear for many in her shoes. And yet, she is woman who refuses to allow her agony to kill her spirit. With every blow, she fights back harder ten times more.
At around seven a.m., her painkillers have worn off from the night before. Lying in bed, still too groggy and weak to function, she takes her first round of ten pills. By the end of the day, she will have taken twenty more—AIDS medications, doses for those medications’ side effects and past side effects, pain pills, and eight different anti-depressants.
Kissell’s immune system began deteriorating after she contracted HIV. Medications caused nerve damage. The bone in her left foot is disintegrating, making it difficult for her to walk for long periods of time. She’s constantly anemic and fatigued, having undergone six different surgeries for cervical cancer and three blood transfusions.
“I wanted to have kids, a family, a partner, but I won’t have that. I have hardly any cervix left,” she says. “I wouldn’t even have any muscle to hold the fetus.”
Like a prisoner bound to her bed, anxiety restrains her. By 11 a.m., she forces herself to find the strength to stand.
“She knows when she’s depressed and tends to withdraw herself,” says Franzie Latko, who’s been a customer and friend since she started working at the restaurant five years ago. “But she also knows when it’s time to get herself up and out and be with people, and she does it.”
She perseveres by going to every monthly doctor visit and therapy session, regularly taking her medicine and nutrition supplements, and engaging in what others could otherwise neglect. With no health insurance, she lives off of public assistance, her meager wages as a waitress, and help from her parents. Her pills cost over two-thousand dollars a month.
“You can either give into it, or you can fight it,” says James Lyon, her roommate and best friend. “[Kissell] chooses to fight.”
The day she was tested for HIV, she walked in the clinic alone. Her husband waited for her in the car. He never told her he was HIV positive and refused treatment for it. She cared for him for two years when his health failed, but when Kissell became ill, he didn’t give a damn. His usual consolation was “I love you so much. I want to bring you down with me.” He’d threaten, “If you leave, I’ll kill myself…when you go home you’ll find my brains scattered all over the walls.”
She’d sit in her bedroom in utter darkness with the blinds shut for days. For nine to ten months, she suffered from migraines, vomiting, diarrhea—banged her head on walls. The sight of her ingesting medicine angered him. “You can’t pretend it doesn’t exist!” she yelled at him one day, near tears. He choked her in their kitchen until she collapsed.
After twelve difficult years together, she had enough courage to leave him and moved to San Francisco. She never learned how her ex-husband contracted HIV. Before he passed away three years ago, her animosity towards him died quietly, with her forgiveness in its purest surrender. “There was no way he could be true in this lifetime, so all I could do was be true to myself,” she explains. “I let go of his responsibility to me.”
Three years ago her T-cells were below one-hundred. The lower T-cell count, the greater an opportunity there is for an infection. With her new medications, the count has moved up to five-hundred. A normal T-cell count is between six-hundred and sixteeen-hundred. Her cancer has now stabilized and her immune system is slowly regenerating.
These days, the littlest things matter: the thrill of hunting for a good deal with her best friend, visiting with her nephews, watching old films, walking her dogs, getting hugs and kisses from her customers, and eating peanut-butter chocolate ice cream.
The day she was leaving for San Francisco, Rocky, her nine-year-old, Chihuahua/corgi canine companion, sneaked into her green Mazda, hid in the backseat, and wedged himself between suitcases. He’s been her faithful little baby for eight years. She added a new addition to her family six months ago, another mixed breed dog, named Charlie. They’ve brought joy and healing to her existence.
“HIV has become so prevalent in my life that it’s changed who I am, but maybe for the better,” says Kissell. “I’ve never felt like giving up. I’m not sure how confident I am, but I know HIV is not gonna kill me. It’s not in my heart to be negative anymore.”
In her living room, she sits on a floral sheet-covered couch adorned with ten pillows. Her two dogs snuggle up to her, licking her lips, whimpering. Her laughter brightens the room once again. She’s still alive.