This past weekend my wife and I watched the film Dallas Buyers’ Club. This excellent film took me back to a time when I met with many men, women, and children coping with HIV and, in some cases, dying from AIDS. They became great teachers. As an example, one 12-year-old boy, infected from a blood transfusion, asked quite simply “Why did God do this to me?”. I had no answer for him.
Three men in particular honored me by allowing me to accompany them on their journeys to Death’s Doorway. Each taught me powerful spiritual lessons.
I had known Bob D. from my days in the Army. A brilliant, articulate young man, he taught me of the power of forgiveness. One day at his request I went to visit him at his apartment. He was bed-ridden but alert. As we talked, his phone rang. It was his daughter from whom he was estranged. He got angry at her, believing that she was reaching out only to assuage her own guilt. After he hung up, I asked him to think for a moment on how he wanted to help his daughter. He thought, nodded, then said “I want to gently help her to heal.” He later recontacted her and invited her to visit. She came and they both shared reconciling mutual forgiveness a few weeks prior to Bob’s death.
I met Jim through a local minister who’d asked me if I were willing to counsel a man with AIDS. Jim proved to be a man of great range and grace, well read and articulate. Initially we addressed the grief he carried from his lover’s death from AIDS. I’d known he and his lover slightly and can testify to the deep caring between them.
Over several years, he shared with me his love of art, fine tea, and his softly singing canaries. He also shared his walk on the Dark Side of drugs. He talked about wanting to find a metaphor for dying, visual person that he was. He asked me to visit him at the hospital, anxious to share the metaphor he discovered. We sat together as he wept over loved ones he was leaving, books he’d never read, and so on. Then, in a moment of stunning intimacy, he allowed me to sit silently with him for some minutes, holding his hand. I read his words at his funeral when he said “I know what I am doing now. I am singing.” I believe him.
Burt was a very talented female impersonator who didn’t lip-sync but sang on his own. Flamboyant and open with his gayness, he nonetheless faced his impending death seriously and with deep spiritual certainty. When I asked him how he wanted to face his death, he said simply “I want to look forward to stepping into the light.” That is an image that has stayed with me and informed my own thoughts and fears about my own mortality.
I am blessed to have known these men.
Reflections: 1. Who are some of your own personal spiritual mentors?
Further Reading and Viewing:
Randy Shillt’s And the Band Played On is a stunning and disturbing journey through the first years of the AIDS crisis. The dramatization from HBO of his book is also excellent.
The better known film on AIDS is Tom Hanks’ Philadelphia, well worth a viewing. But my personal favorite is the lesser known Longtime Companion. This film has a death scene that captures just how loving and committed some relationships can be.
3. Because of copyright issues, they’ve muted the song so you’ll have to play Elton John’s “The Last Song” while watching this: <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1-j0hLgPEQ>
I too have been frequently taught by the marginalized, the despised, the people our culture deems “unworthy” of our attention or compassion. Over the years, the work I have done with the poor, the mentally ill, and those on the fringes of society has mentored me in ways I could not have imagined possible. What is more I AM part of the marginalized, having spent most of my life coming to terms with being a member of the LGBT community—way before it was “cool” to be gay. Perhaps I am more open to being taught by the marginalized because I understand what it’s like to live in certain portions of the margins.
In addition to being taught by marginalized people, I have been enormously taught by animals. A very sweet female pit bull that I adopted in 2000 (the most misunderstood and marginalized breed of all) taught me as much about love, patience, loyalty, and letting go than any human ever has.
Jesus didn’t come to teach the well-connected. He came to teach the outcasts—those living on the margins, and forgive me if I’m repeating myself, but someone once said that if you’re not living on the margins, you’re taking up too much space.
Beautiful. Thank you.
My spiritual mentor is a Nursing Instructor from my undergraduate days. When everyone else was voting me down, she said, “You will be a very good nurse”. She was right in the long run. But most people can’t see the long run. She could. I, too, had mentors who died of AIDS, but they were more like life mentors than spiritual mentors. It was the 1980’s and I was working as a nurse’s aide. In those days all we could do was keep AIDS patients comfortable and I did my best to do that. I remember one man who could not get out of bed. It was in Hawaii and the old hospitals still had open-air balconies. I wanted to do something and so I made sure that his bed linens were always changed. This meant asking him to turn to one side as I changed the linen with him still in bed. It was work for both of us. I wanted to show caring and so I said, “I bet you are wishing that I would hurry up and get this done with”. He replied, “I am thinking that”. Still, these daily linen changes with the balmy trade winds blowing in his room were my way of showing I cared. And it was all I knew how to do at the time. I say that these patients were life mentors because it was my first experience with the knowledge that things don’t always turn out the way they should or the way we want and what to do when that happens. Another event during that time was when the staff were laughing at an AIDS patient behind his back. I told Dr. Patterson about that and he said it was a way of drawing a curtain between his humanity and theirs. I have never forgotten that statement and I think about it whenever I see one person (particularly a provider of health care) laughing at another.