This short story was written in 1999 for WAY Magazine. It links the new, long-living face of HIV+/AIDS; that is to say life under the thumb of intense daily medication with one of the little flower legends about Saint Francis.
Escorting Brother Body into the New Millennium
Come on in. Please don’t let the cats out. Thanks for dropping by. There’s the bookshelf I mentioned to you or somebody on the phone. You can take them all over to the Drop-In Center. Most of them should be in pretty good shape. My partner had a personal respect for books that often bordered on downright affection. I swear some of them were just like his good friends. Now I would imagine that people who are homeless need good friends just as much as anybody else!
Just drop anything you can’t use into this paper bag next to me. I seriously doubt any of them have been written in or underlined. No, no, no, one just does not write in a good friend, for heaven’s sake. But I also know that at least a couple of these little buggers got a little ragged while watching the USA pass by the back window of our Toyota a few years back.
Even though it has already been a couple of weeks since his funeral I need to start getting some of these things done, like moving these books on, before I can really start over myself. After I called you, I was going to box them all up, but I kept getting distracted and never did make it back to them. That’s something of an issue for me, that bouncing back and forth between one thing and another. One day I wake up feeling like my life has been the biggest waste of good oxygen on the planet. The next day I wake up feeling totally tired of treating my body like a time bomb ready to explode if it isn’t medicated in the next 30 seconds. “Boing, boing, boing,” I flip-flop like a rainbow kangaroo between being depressed and being pissed off. Sometimes I don’t know which is the most real the self-loathing or the self-pity. “Boing. Boing.”
You know, I did so much running around making all the funeral arrangements and putting the memorial notices in the newspapers while the family took their own sweet time getting out here from the Midwest. Then they did not even invite me out to lunch with them after the Memorial Service. And just who was it that bought the beautiful urn and picked out a soft, new lavender jogging suit for the cremation?
Believe you me I am not pretending that I ever expected them to actually accept us as a real couple, a real family unit, although in our own eyes we definitely were. But 12 years is still twelve long years together, no matter what you call it or don’t call it. So it did hurt when they didn’t invite me to join them for crab sandwiches at the coast. I mean it is no big deal in the long run, I suppose. But it is just plain decency. I wasn’t fishing for thanks from them, but yes I was fishing for some tiny acknowledgement from them that my grief was like unto theirs.
But instead I took the BART home from Colma, and caught the F Streetcar back up to the Castro, while they sped off in the rented limo to Pacifica. After I got home, I watered the plants and paid some attention to a couple of oh so neglected kitties. I even halfheartedly started to clean up that darned bookcase. But I suddenly felt so exhausted that I took a nap instead. And I dreamed that giant killer crabs had infiltrated all the restaurants in Pacifica, and were lying in wait there, hidden under the lettuce leaves of their Crab Sandwiches. At first bite, the gigantic purple pincers rose up out of the sourdough slices and struck back at the tongue and lips of their tormentors.
There I go again, drifting off. What did I tell you? You just can’t keep a good grief down. We probably bought most of these books on one of our little Sunday outings over to Green Apple Books on Irving Street in the Sunset District. He in particular liked to bring home a shopping bag nearly full of used books: Fantasy Books, Cook Books, Psychology, Mystery, Novels, Poems and Philosophy. You name it.
Arriving home late on a foggy afternoon, loaded down with treasure, he would drop the bag beside this very couch and having shucked our shoes we would collapse in a pile together in the Bay window. Thumbing through our new discoveries, we waited for the tea water to boil and watched the kitties do their cute little Cirque de Soleil imitations on the back of the couch.
Ah thanks very much. Just seeing them getting stacked away in the boxes makes me feel a little relieved, as if this will all be over soon. Just like it was for Princess Diana and little John- John after they passed on. We had to learn to get along without them, didn’t we? I mean I feel like it really is time for me to “get on with my life now.” Whatever that means. So what if I’ve already cased in my Life Insurance, maxed-out my Macy’s Card and already spent my monthly SS check. You don’t hear me complaining, much.
Actually even my most sincere self-pity is beginning to sound a bit forced to my own ears. For the past decade, ever since my “HIV +” diagnosis, I have been tick-tocking between hating my life and fearing for my life as each crazy new side effect of the meds I am taking seem to foretell even greater losses to my health waiting up just ahead.
Truthfully, even the worst stuff –like the night sweats or the compulsive diarrhea has become old news. My friends have already heard all the horror stories about these damn facial blotches, the distended belly and the big buffalo hump growing at the base of my neck. I swear I just woke up one morning and found The Blob with terminal eczema staring back at me in the bathroom mirror. For joy, for joy.
To top it off, I feel so awful and ungrateful when I think about the situation in Africa where an entire continent of HIV ravaged men, women and children do not even have aspirin available for them, let alone my designer cocktails. To be honest, the whole idea of dragging this early worn out body of min into the New Millennium leaves me feeling confused, sorry and sad. After I got used to the idea of not having to die because of AIDS, it started to seem like the more restful option when compared with the uphill struggle of maintaining my own against the constant little degradations that the medications were giving me.
Yawn. Excuse me. I haven’t been sleeping well lately. I thought at first it was just eh same old insomnia, and of course it was something like that, only deeper. Even though I bludgeoned my mind every night with a couple of those bright yellow pills, nothing was helping much. Well, it turned out not exactly to be the same old insomnia, but a new psychological complex they call, “Survivors Guilt.” This is something even the bright yellow meanies can’t touch.
The shrink I was seeing gave me some suggestions for dealing with it, Beginning with my not reading any more articles about the lack of AIDS’ medications in Africa. Which, O.K. Dc, I will try. Secondly, that I take down the wooden crate I decorated as my Memorial Shrine. No way, Doc. The shrine stays. Although I might tastefully drape a silk scarf across the front of it for a while, and keep only fresh, living flowers there from now on, instead of those dead rose petals I was keeping as memorials from the funerals of friends.
Thirdly that I not buy any more magazines with feature articles about the deaths of Princess Diana or John Kennedy. Now we are just going to have to see about this one, Doc. It all depends on whether or not some new evidence surfaces regarding either tragedy, don’t you think?
Oh, here, I’ll take that book. You don’t have to toss it out just because it has a torn cover. As a matter of fact, I think the cover was torn before he fished it out of the bargain bin. Somehow it seemed appropriate that The Little Flowers of St. Francis would be falling apart.
You know, to be honest, I think the Doctor has a point in a way. When I first found out I was immune deficient, I thought I would be dead before by next birthday. Especially watching so many of my friends get sick and die, I felt so vulnerable. Every death left a hole in my memory until eventually entire photo albums worth of life experiences had disappeared from off the coffee table of my memory. Friends, neighbors, people younger than me, people older than me, people my age all of them gone forever. The grocer, the parish priest and now my own, sweet partner, the gentle best friend of all these damn books.
Oh and there was on more thing the Doctor said, am supposed to visualize putting to rest of this nasty self-hatred I have been developing. I am supposed to imaging having feelings of real care the pock-faced, bloat bellied serial shitter that I have turned into This Doctor doesn’t ask for much, does he?
I am going on and on, aren’t I? You’d never guess that I now live alone with a couple of acrobatic cats who can’t even be bothered to learn English! Seriously, thanks a lot for listening to me rant. And I want to say that it is a great relief to see that bookcase all cleaned out. I don’t think I can help you carry those boxes out to the truck. I’ll just wait here with St. Francis and the little flowers while you load the truck.
* * *
Did everything fit O.K.? Great. Here, have a glad of Tutti-Frutti iced tea. It’s our house blend, made with fresh raspberries and chopped peach. You’re quite welcome. You know I picked the strangest Little Flower to read while you were out at the truck. Especially considering all that we were just talking about, the little story actually gave me goose-bumps. Listen to this:
During the last years of his life, Brother Francis was sorely afflicted in all parts of his body. His eyes were inflamed, and he could no longer see. His bowels were unsteady and he could no longer support himself upright to walk. His condition was such that the brothers who cared for him were brought to tears just watching him suffer, and entreated him to restore his greatly weakened body with the help of medicines. But Francis, with his noble spirit fixed on heaven only wanted to depart and to be with Christ, and refused entirely to take the medicines he was offered.
One day after the brothers had been arguing with him in this way, Brother Elias quoted Sacred Scripture saying “The Most High hath created medicines out of the Earth, and a wise man will not abhor them.” The saint sighed and said to the brothers, “Send me the youngest in the community and leave us alone for a while.” And they sent him Brother Stephen, who was a young man and simple of mind as well. Francis rejoiced for he thought at last he could talk with someone who would agree with him.
Francis said to the young brother, “What do you think, my dear son, of the fact that my conscience complains so frequently to my soul about the care of this saint sickly body of mine? It murmurs that my taking medicines would only force Brother Ass to plod along painfully behind the carrot of a life it will never reach?”
The son replied to his spiritual father, “Tell me Father, how well your body obeyed you when it could?” Francis replied, “It spared itself nothing, but obeyed all my commands.” And the brother said, “Is this your idea of generosity, and is this a worthy way to reward your most faithful companion who has offered all that he is for your sake? Is it reasonable that you now abandon him when he is in such great need? Far be it from you, Father.”
“May you be blessed my son,” Francis said. And he began to speak joyfully to his body, “Forgive me my friend. I will no longer call you Brother Ass, my dear Brother Body, my own beloved Brother Body. Rejoice and forgive me, Brother Body, for I now will gladly hear and heed your complaints and fulfill your desires.
No, no, no, I’m O.K, really. These are joyful tears but it does seem that even after he had reconciled everyone else in the world to each other, St. Francis still needed to make peace within himself at the end of his life. It looks to me like he decided to take his Brother Body out for a crab sandwich after all!
Or maybe these are just plain old tears of sheer exhaustion after watching you carry all those boxes out to the truck. Whatever it is, I feel plumb worn out, no doubt about it. I might even try to take a little nap after you leave. You are very, very welcome. I do home some new good friends at the Drop in Center hook up with these old books.
And ah – thanks for bringing St. Francis back to my attention. Who knows, after reading that little flower I might have to reconsider just how am I going to escort my own Brother Body into the New Millennium just ahead of us.
THE RAINBOW PRAYER OF SAINT FRANCIS
Lord make me an instrument
of your inclusion:
Where there is bigotry,
let me sow understanding.
Where there is rejection,
let me sow acceptance.
Where there is ridicule,
let me sow empathy.
Where there is disgust,
let me sow compassion.
Where there is condemnation,
let me sow inclusion.
And where there is hostility,
let me sow tenderness.
O Divine Master
grant that I may not
so much deny who I am
as affirm and empower myself;
not so much question my sexuality
as be challenged by it;
not so much be content with my orientation
as to become enlivened by it.
For it is in coming-out
that we become ourselves,
it is in becoming ourselves
that we discover Your will,
and it is in discovering Your will
that we are born to authentic life.
PAWS Article Spring, Summer, 2008
While I was the Case Manager for PAWS, SF, one of San Francisco’s favorite AIDS Charities for over 20 years, I helped the organization expand its outreach services to include qualified homeless persons. This article describes the situation of homeless Veteran Mike Garcia whom I help connect to the services of PAWS with his faithful companions Baby Girl and Curly. (Click to enlarge.)
ON THIN ICE
An Op Ed Column on Lay and Gay spirituality for Gay Catholic Forum.Com.
On Thin Ice is an attempt to seed a conversation between gay and lesbian Catholics and their spiritual peers, the laymen and women beside them in the pews. We need to talk. We need to talk right now. We need to begin dialogues of mutual understanding and support for each other as well as to work together to help prepare our congregations to become more responsive to the inclusive signs of our times.
Inclusiveness in spirituality means much more than just overcoming the negative stereotypes that brand gay, lesbian persons as defective heterosexuals. Catholic gay and lesbian persons also join their lay peers in trying to overcome their second class status in a hierarchical religious structure often dominated by the same sort of heavy handed religious professionals that once vexed John and Jesus including Scribe, Pharisee, Sadducee, Priest and Levite. Surely the tide in America and the rest of the First World has turned with regard to putting blind faith in Catholic Church Authority ever since the worldwide clerical sexual abuse scandals have become known. But that alone is not nearly the same things as experiencing real lay empowerment in the matters of the spirit.
Our spiritual ripening as mature laypersons can be supported and encouraged by taking note of the examples given by the “laity” in the New Testament. Again and again we find that the Good News was not incarnated in the convents, libraries and sanctuaries of the Religion of Jesus’ parents, but outdoors by the Jordan River and on the road as well as in the homes of the lay people who were Jesus’ good friends.
As we shall see the Gospel unfolded as a lay event in Israel, far from the official prayers, sacrifices and priestly traditions of the Temple; far away as a matter of fact from anything that Mary or Joseph or Elizabeth or Zachariah would have thought to call “Religion.”
Odd Ones Out
One of the understandable and deep-seated spiritual disabilities that Catholic gays and lesbians often experience in their Church is the feeling of being different from their pew-mates and unlike them in outlook. I think one way to realize how alike we also can be is to acknowledge the gifts that Gays and Lesbians most often bring with them into the community.
“Coming out,” for example, means learning to discover true self-understanding by accepting something unique about oneself, differing from the norm. It can teach a person about social justice activism on a visceral, personal level. The experience of “coming out” bespeaks a morality grounded in an honesty and courage that are distinct from the entrenched expectations of the homophobic perennial wisdom.
In On Thin Ice chapters we repeatedly encounter a Gospel Jesus who is always moving beyond the strict traditions of the cozy religious reality of his folks. Like many a feral Catholic of today, Jesus simply ignored what were considered to be some of the most important religious sentiments of his parent’s Religion, including a taboo against associating with Gentiles, the use of animal blood sacrifices, and the strict observance of Mosaic Law. Jesus just ignored them and lived, as do we in many cases. He ignored what had been up until then the most standard religious practices of his tradition. Instead he concentrated on what mattered the most to him: healing, reconciliation and the inclusion of the outcast within the Reign of God.
Like many persons of today, Jesus had no precedents in history for the “new truth” he was proclaiming. He had no authoritative credentials to support his abandonment of these stalwart Jewish traditions, nothing to back up his claim that God was his Father, except the power of his forgiveness, love, healing and inclusion.
To get us started on the right track let’s imagine that we have been asked to summarize in a single image the whole of the Gospel. What image could we use? I think I would pick the last known act of Jesus, when on his own cross he promises the thief crucified beside him, “This day you shall be with me in paradise.”
What I can’t help but notice in this story is how Jesus requires nothing of the man in return for his gift. Nor does he feel obliged to forgive his sins, or baptize him before assuring him of a welcome to the eternal banquet.
So too we gay, lesbian, straight, and in-between persons, worthy and unworthy all at the same-time, as we no doubt are, nonetheless we are invited along with Dismas the thief to share the good fortune of whatever eternity is with our brothers and sisters at the table of everlasting life. Come as you are.
So please pass the salsa and let’s talk.