Saturday, November 06, 2010
It belonged to my dear friend, Mark Clark, who died in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, just as it was starting to hit Baltimore in the late 1980s/early 1900s.
Mark was a patient of Ms. Conroy, who had co-founded an AIDS Hospice Home Health Care Agency. It was a necessity at the time. The collateral epidemic we called "AFRAIDS" - fear of AIDS compounded by a xenophobia of gay people and people of color - was also at its zenith.
It was hard for that "demographic" - one of the sterile, medicinal terms used by the medical profession as a veil of emotional distance - to get the care they needed. So, a group of lesbians who were public health nurses got together with some of the doctors who were gay men or allies to provide that care.
That's how I met Mark.
Well, actually, I met Mark through his partner, Dennis who had, just the week before, learned that he was HIV positive.
Dennis had been a Roman Catholic priest who had left - Rome and the priesthood - after he determined he could no longer live a lie. The week before his diagnosis, the letter had come from Rome, which informed him of what he already knew: he had been laicized. The letter and the diagnosis, coming together like that along with Mark's recent bout of serious illness, had conspired to devastate him.
Would I talk to him Ms. Conroy had asked.
I should have been used to it. She was always dragging me into the lives of her patients. Someone wanted to be baptized before they died. Someone wanted to confess before they died. Someone wanted to get married before they died - mostly those from the African American community which was also being hard hit by the epidemic, but also a few gay men.
I grumbled but the truth was that there was a place in my heart where I knew that I was being invited onto holy, sacred ground. It was a privilege and, in an odd way, a true joy - probably because I never got a dime. The reward came from knowing that this was enormously important work. I never felt more alive and embraced by the Spirit of the Risen Lord and my faith was never stronger.
Oh, I did get to attend some of the most amazing, inspiring, faith-affirming funerals in the Black Baptist Church. Ever. As well as some magnificent memorial services with incredible music and the most fascinating and diverse congregations comprised of men in tuxedos, drag queens, prostitutes, drug addicts, jazz musicians and artists, along with a full ration of clergy and other religious types - not to mention other assorted n'er do wells.
It would have made Jesus smile.
As Sara Miles would say, "If you want to meet Jesus, sometimes you have to sit in the smoking section."
And, I got invited to dinner in some of the most humbling homes where I was invited to a veritable feast of fried chicken, creamy grits, rice and beans, 'chitlins', pulled pork, macaroni and cheese and some of the best bean, sweet potato, or apple pie this side of Eden.
Mark and I didn't like each other at first, although he did finally allow as how Dennis was better after talking to me. Very soon after that, when Mark was stronger, they invited us over to dinner.
There were two other male couples at that dinner. It was the first time they had ever invited lesbians to dinner. Ms. Conroy and I giggled that they must have begged some friends to come as back-up reinforcement. Truth be told, it was the first time we had ever been invited to dinner with gay men.
It just didn't happen that much, back in the day. Gay men were gay men and lesbians were lesbians and, trust me, whatever the 'the 'twain' was, it never met. In any way, shape or form.
And if you were bisexual, well, I suppose you dined mostly with straight people because most of the lesbian and gay community didn't trust you.
The AIDS epidemic changed all that.
Mark was an engineer. A graduate of University of Delaware (Go, Blue Hens!). He was a handsome young man in his early thirties with blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, which, if you paid attention, gave a bit of a forewarning to his very intense personality. He was serious and intellectually curious, which was always a challenge to his doctor and the other health care professionals who were part of his health care team.
He loved music - any kind of music - but mostly pop music which was always playing in the house. Whenever he knew I was coming over, he would make sure to play "our song" - a little ditty by a group known as The Fine Young Cannibals appropriately titled, "She Drives Me Crazy."
Eventually, as we got to know each other and our fondness for each other grew, we took liberties with the song and changed it to "You Drive Me Crazy" - laughing as we sang the song together, while his IV line dripped silently in time and the oxygen traveling through his nasal cannula hissed softly in the background.
Our friendship grew - despite our many differences. Indeed, we first came to Rehoboth Beach with Dennis and Mark, who had bartered with Ms. Conroy: a long weekend at their rented beach house, a block from the ocean, in exchange for her care of his Hickman Catheter and administering his medications and nutrients that would keep him alive for another year.
We fell in love with Rehoboth Beach right then and there, and always came back, year after year. If you had told me over 20 years ago that I'd be living on Rehoboth Bay I'd have laughed right in your face and said, 'I'm a New England girl. I'm just here for the party."
Apparently, God had other plans.
They owned an absolutely "gawjus" home in Bawlmer, hon, just down the street from Memorial Stadium (now home to the Ravens Football Team) where we would sometimes park our car and walk to catch an Orioles Game.
One day while I was visiting him in their home there was an unexpected chill in the air. It was one of those "suddenly fall" days that hits Baltimore from out of the normally blue skies and moderate season. Mark asked me to turn on the heat, giving me explicit directions about how to manage the thermostat because, of course, a girl couldn't be expected to know about such things.
"Hey," he called out to me from the other room. "While you're there, go into the hall closet and bring me my red varsity jacket."
I called back, "Um . . . bring me my red varsity jacket, please?"
I could hear him groan before he responded to my request, his voice dripping with sarcasm. I giggled softly to myself, wondering when it was, exactly, that this man had become my little brother.
"Got it? Have you got it?"
"I don't see it in here, Mark. Are you sure it's here?" I regretted saying it the minute the words came out of my mouth.
"Of course I'm sure," he scowled. "Just open your eyes. LOOK!"
"Okay, okay," I said. "Wait! Here it is! It was in the back."
"Nice jacket," I said, walking into the room. "Feel like going to a game later today?"
He smirked. "No," he said, "I . . I . . .I . . ."
This was not like Mark. At. All. He never stumbled. Never stammered. I waited.
"I want you to have it," he said with a sadness and resignation that broke my heart.
My mouth went dry. I knew instantly what he was saying. What the gift of that jacket meant, symbolically.
He was acknowledging that he'd never wear that jacket again. He was admitting to himself, something he had never done before - that there was no going back. The disease was ravaging his body. He was weak. He knew it. Could feel it. It was becoming increasingly difficult for him to walk. He napped often, not always able to finish a chapter in the books he loved to read.
"Try it on," he said.
I slipped the jacket off the hanger and tried not to cry. God, that would have been embarrassing to me and unbearable to him. I would be acting like a total girly-girl. Completely unacceptable. Besides, he'd only get angry.
It fit. Perfectly.
"Well," I said, "how does it look?"
He nodded, obviously pleased. "You need a little 'butching up'."
"Hmm . . .," I said, "it does fit well." I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes.
I stood there for a few silent moments, trying to gain my composure and reaching for something to say that might break the tension that was suddenly thick in the room.
"Should I pass a blue light over it before I take it to the cleaners?"
He smirked. "Don't worry. You won't get any 'boy-cooties'. Anyway, I never wear a jacket when I'm having sex," he said, indignantly.
"Well," he said as a smile slyly crossed his face, "maybe not THAT jacket."
We laughed. God, it felt good to laugh. So, we laughed some more. We both knew we were laughing so we wouldn't cry, but we did. But, it was okay. Tears streamed down our faces, anyway, disguised by our hilarity.
It felt good.
Later that year, I wore the varsity jacket to his Memorial Service.
It felt good. And, right.
When I was packing to move to our new home, there were many things I knew I couldn't take with us. I gave away forty bags of clothes and shoes. I must have taken Mark's jacket at least forty times, putting it in a bag and then taking it out again.
I knew I needed to give it away. I knew I couldn't just give it away. I just couldn't.
I had it dry cleaned and waited for some direction from the cosmos. Finally, it came. I gave it to a dear friend, telling him just a bit of Mark's story.
"I'll take good care of it," he promised. I knew he would.
Later that evening, my friend called me. "Elizabeth, it doesn't fit. I'm so sorry. What do you want me to do with the jacket?"
"Will it fit your daughter?"
"No, I don't think so," he said sadly, "but, you know, I was thinking. I have some students at the University who are here from Africa. Often, they don't have any warm clothing. If you'd like, I could hold onto it until the fall. I'm sure I can find a good home for it."
"Oh, that would be wonderful," I said, truly relieved.
"I know how much that jacket means to you, and I wanted us to come to the decision together," he added. I was even more grateful for his friendship.
A few weeks later, he called. "I found a home for the jacket," he said.
"There's a woman I know. Lives at the Market Street Shelter. She was working on her PhD when her son became ill. Then, she became ill. She lost her job. Then, she lost her home. She comes by my house every so often, to use my computer and have a cup of tea and just have some time alone in a real home. She came by today and I asked her if she had a jacket for the cold weather. She said she didn't. She tried on Mark's jacket and it fit perfectly. She was so happy. I hope you are, too."
"I am," I said, "but more importantly, I think Mark is very happy knowing that his jacket has found a good home."
Early this morning, as I walked outside to take out the trash before the trucks arrived, I was taken by the cold, brisk wind that sent a violent chill through my body. Fall has fallen on Rehoboth Bay. It came as an unexpected but not completely unwanted surprise.
It's just brisk, is all. It comes with the change of Season and I am deeply grateful to live in a place that has all four seasons, albeit milder versions of the ones I remember from my youth in New England.
And then, I remembered Mark's jacket. I thought about that woman and hoped she was able to wear it today, a day that would, no doubt, be much colder in the NE Corridor.
The memory of Mark surrounded me like a warm embrace. The chill in my bones was suddenly gone. The furrow across my brow that my shivering had brought on melted and I felt myself smile all the way back into the cozy warmth of my wee home.
Some memories are difficult, bringing back images we'd rather forget. Others are more pleasant, reminding us of better, happier days.
When both come together, winding their way together in the corners of the heart in a tangle of bitter and sweet, they are sacred gifts that warm the soul, warding off the harsh realities of the present, giving us strength and courage to persevere into the future.
This was one of those memories.
I am deeply grateful for its blessing.