(I've found it would behoove me to state up front that this "Remembering Death" series is my lenten blogging, taking my cue from the Ash Wednesday admonition to "remember that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return." I'm remembering people who have died in my life.)
In my (and many) Christian tradition, those studying in seminary will have to complete a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (or CPE). Basically, it's time as a chaplain and might be in a number of settings. Mine was on the cancer floor of a hospital.
I visited more than one person who died before my unit was up. Occasionally, I was in the room with the family keeping vigil as their loved one took their final breaths. It's an incredibly holy and mysterious thing.
The patient I'm thinking of tonight was something of a problem case. He was a man, maybe a couple of years older than me, and he was dying of AIDS. I had more than one AIDS patients and some also had cancer (which was common). I don't remember if this fellow actually had cancer, too, but the cancer floor was where AIDS patients ended up, regardless. This would have been the summer of 1993, past the peak of the AIDS crisis, but still a few years before people were consistently living long lives with an HIV diagnosis.
I received a call from a nurse on my floor, asking if I could come right away. They had a patient that was being uncooperative and a little verbally abusive to the nurses who were trying to help him.
What I found was a very thin man who you could tell had been really quite good looking before the virus wasted him. He was, in a word, terrified. He was acting out of terror. Chaplains sometimes got called to help with this sort of situation.
I was wearing a clergy collar that day and I experienced the power of that symbol in his room. He calmed down almost immediately. (It's also possible that my being male had something to do with it, as all the nurses were women. I also learned the way that maleness can be privileged in these situations, too.) I talked to him a while, asked him what was going on with him, asked him to not give the nurses such a hard time. He promised me that he would try, but asked me to come back. Of course I said I would. We prayed together and I left.
Over the next week, I visited him daily, or at least the days I was in the hospital. He never got explicit, but he was clearly scared of dying for the "things" he'd done. I can only assume that he was referring to some fairly wild sex. He alluded to it, but the collar also makes people become less explicit (sometimes, not always). I talked about God's love, read to him from Romans, chapter 8, and he seemed somewhat reassured. As reassured, I guess, as you can be when you're convinced you're being punished, dying, for "things" you've done. Realize, at that time, I had not yet come out, was still not so sure about how my suppressed sexuality squared with God myself. Still, I was a Lutheran seminarian. I did and do believe in a grace that goes far past our understanding of right and wrong. I did my best to convey this saving grace to him.
A complication with him was that he didn't want anyone to know he had AIDS. It was such a stigmatized diagnosis at that time. All of us on the hospital staff were sworn to patient privacy, of course, but one of the toughest visits I had was the day his mother was there. At one point, she and I left the room and visited a while in the common area of the floor. She was so confused. He didn't want her to know he had AIDS, I couldn't tell her, and so I sat with her, listening to her bewilderment at what was happening to her son. "Heartbreaking" doesn't begin to cover it.
One night, I went to visit him. A nurse warned me that he was talking out of his head, a sign that his end was near. I entered his room and he recognized me and asked me to come sit with him and hold his hand. What I soon discovered was that, while most of us would have looked in that room and seen only a patient and a chaplain, my patient saw a room full of people.
I talked with him, I don't recall about what now, but our conversation was sometimes interrupted because he had to tell the other people in the room to quiet down, he was trying to talk to the chaplain. At one point, he yelled toward the built in dresser, "Get out of those drawers!" I squeezed his hand and said, "I think it's okay. I don't think there's anything in there they can hurt."
Apparently, the people I couldn't see were a rowdy bunch.
When it came time for me to take my leave, I asked him if he wanted me to pray with him. He did, and he again shouted, generally to the whole room, "Y'all hush up now, we're going to pray!"
I looked around the room, held out my hands in invitation and said, "Let us pray."
I've always contended that just because I couldn't see them myself didn't mean they weren't there. I'm fairly certain everyone in the room prayed with me.
The next night, I went to see him and he was unresponsive. He was in the last stages of dying. I held his hand one last time and said a prayer with him.
The next day, I went to his room and it was empty. I asked the nurse where he was. "He died this morning," she said. I asked why I wasn't called, I was in the hospital. "None of his family was here so we didn't feel a need for a chaplain."
I felt unreasonably cheated that I wasn't called, but the nurse was right. My duties were to the living in the hospital. I was not needed for the dead. Not in this context.
I always remember him for the pain in the ass he was. He really was. I said he was good looking---he was also probably insufferably vain at the height of his beauty. I could tell that we was probably a tireless flirt. To an extent, his grasp on religion made me off limits to his flirting, but I recall certain looks and gestures that were unmistakably flirtatious. It was habitual, I figure.
When I think about him, I remember how an unmistakable pain in the ass can teach a chaplain about grace. In that short week that I visited him, calmed him, prayed with him, I certainly loved him. I learned how a pain in the ass could be loved. I'm certain it was not me who loved him, but I was a conduit. I can't say I did "everything right" with him. No doubt he read my lack of patience at times, too, certainly that first night when he was a wild, terrified child of God, lashing out at the nurses. Really, what happened between us that week is full of mystery. Or maybe that should be Mystery, with the capital M.
I remember him as a pain and with thanksgiving.