Monday, July 18, 2011
You know. The way it always does.
I heard yesterday that my dear friend Tracy died on Saturday. He was found on the floor in the hallway outside his apartment in an independent living complex for those who are elderly and disabled, next to his motorized wheelchair.
His family surmises that the only logical explanation is that he might have accidentally overdosed or taken the wrong combination of drugs and had suffered an adverse side effect. He may have been trying to get himself to the hospital, being unable to dial the phone any longer.
He was fifty-something and had battled AIDS for, as I recall, more than twenty-five years.
I do not say "battled AIDS" as a metaphor. I mean B.A.T.T.L.E.D. As in hand-to-hand combat. Bayonets drawn. Bloody sweat and grime. Valiantly. With passion and grace.
As Tracy often said to me, no hill that he ever captured as a Marine in Viet Nam was as high or as difficult to climb - no swamp filled with more filth and slime and ugly, menacing creatures - as his battle with HIV and AIDS.
He took a mouthful of pills several times a day, which needed to be taken exactly on time. No medical "cocktail," this. It was more like a twenty course meal.
The drugs kept him alive but severely strained the quality of his life. The muscles in his legs, arms, hands and fingers were seriously atrophied. He could barely walk - even with his walker and two strong sets of arms on either side of him - and he had a hard time feeding himself.
He had little control over his own body, so much so that when he turned over in his bed while he was asleep and no doubt dreaming of his once Marine-fit body, he would fall out of bed. His partner, Joe, who is just a little guy - who also has AIDS - had to call the police in the middle of the night to help him get Tracy back to bed.
That happened many, many times. Tracy, in his gentle, good-natured way, just made friends with the cops, warning them that they might get a "bad reputation" for visiting him in his bedroom so often in the middle of the night.
Joe also bathed Tracy daily, changing his Depends frequently so as to prevent bed sores. Joe cooked his meals - or, more frequently, order take-out or delivery - and helped him eat if and when he needed it, cutting up his food into bite-sized pieces.
Tracy had taken to his motorized reclining chair which could also lift him up so, when he did need to stand to get to his wheelchair, he could do so more easily. In the last year or so, Tracy just stayed in that chair.
All day and all night.
I suspect that, despite his good nature, his supply of jokes to tell the cops finally ran out.
Except, of course, when he wanted/needed to get somewhere and then he was off in his motorized wheelchair. He would go everywhere. By himself. Whenever he could. The grocery store. To a doctor's appointment or drug store to pick up his meds. To the local Deli or Cafe or Sub Shop.
And, of course, to church.
Tracy LOVED church - and, he LOVED Jesus - which was something he inherited or acquired or learned from his father whom he absolutely adored.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of presiding at the simple funeral home and graveside service of his father, Carl.
Carl had been a cop. A native of Germany, he was a veteran of WWII, having served in the military forces of the Navy. He was also a deacon in his church, but when he lost his two daughters to drug overdose, the good Christian folk asked him to leave his position of leadership.
If a man can't manage his own household . . . well, you know what the Bible says.
Even so, Carl was a deeply religious and spiritual man as was his son, Tracy. Every time I visited Tracy and Joe, I was shown the American flag - now encased in a glass frame - which had been draped over his father's casket. Tracy also had a poem his father had written inscribed on a glass plaque which he hung on the wall of their small, one bedroom apartment, next to his father's flag.
Tracy said that his father never judged him for his sexual orientation or the fact that he had AIDS. "My father loved me," Tracy said, "just the way Jesus says we are to love one another. Unconditionally."
And then, his eyes would well up with tears and grief would get caught in his throat and he wouldn't be able to speak for a few moments.
His love of Jesus got him into some heated arguments with his former rector who practiced the justice of God and the radical welcome of Jesus but did not profess the unique divinity of Christ - any more than, say, Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Dorothy Day.
It. Drove. Tracy. Nuts.
No joke. He finally left that church and became a member of the church where I was rector. I don't "steal sheep" so his former rector and I had a long conversation about Tracy's leaving before I would fill out the "Request for Transfer" forms. We both concluded that Tracy had made the right decision.
However, Tracy was never "home" in his new church. There's a huge difference between a church which thinks of itself as "warm and welcoming" and one that practices and understands "radical hospitality". Tracy never really felt as welcomed as he did in his former congregation - acutely symbolized by the fact that, when the wheelchair lift finally broke forever, the church did not act to get it replaced. Still hasn't, more than six years later.
Tracy was very sad about that - especially because he missed coming to the daily mid-week Eucharist and attending his favorite Christmas Eve, Great Vigil of Easter and Easter Day Services. He loved the music. He loved the prayers. He loved the wonderful feeling of everyone being in church together, worshiping God and praising Jesus.
I tried to assure him that, soon and very soon - sooner than any of us would really want - he was going to be in a place where the music was surpassing sublime and he'd be able to walk or run, skip or jump, and everyone would be surrounded and uplifted by the Spirit as together, they would worship God and praise Jesus.
"I know, I know," he said, "And, I believe that with all my heart. It's just that. . ." he paused, in his gentle way, carefully choosing and forming his words so they did not carry the anger and frustration which were the source of them. "....It's just that it would help so much if, just every once in a while, I could catch a glimpse of that glory here and now."
"Isn't that what church is all about?" he asked, "To give us little glimpses of the Realm of God every now and again so that we can have hope and make it through the tough times here on earth? So that the 'radical hospitality' of Jesus is more than just a smile and a handshake. It's something that accepts you 'just as you are without one plea' - just like we'll all be welcomed when we get to heaven."
I think we in the institutional church forget that, sometimes. Okay, more often than not. It certainly forgot it with Tracy's father, Carl. It certainly forgets that when we don't "live out in our lives what we profess with our lips".
I'm sad, today, missing my friend, but also because his family wants the service in the Funeral Home and then a Grave Side Service, and not in or from the church. A church. Any church.
I'm not really certain that Tracy would have wanted it that way. I think if he had had time to get to know the new rector at his old church, it might have been a little different. In fact, knowing her as I do, I know it would have been different.
Time ran out, is all, the way time often does.
I'm sad, today, missing my friend, even though I know in my heart that he is in a place where he doesn't have to take great handfuls of meds and can cut his own food and wash his own body and isn't bound to a wheel chair. Now, he can fly. Now, he knows the Realm of God that he could only dream of when he was here with us.
Now, the gentle spirit that made a humble abode for a little more than fifty years in a former Marine's body is set free to give light to the night sky as one of its million and billions and trillions of stars.
We're all just lit tapers left over from the Easter Vigil, waiting to be reignited by the Holy Spirit.
We're all just lonely souls, searching the earth for a few good companions to walk this journey with us until we find our way back home.
We're all just creatures of hope who sometimes find ourselves in the Valley of Despair, longing for the Word and the beauty of God's creation and creatures to lift us up and inspire us to go on to find little glimpses of The Garden.
The services to honor Tracy's life will not be in or from a church but, even so, the church will be there. I will be its representative. I hope that I will represent the best of what church professes to be but often fails because, well, because it forgets.
And then, suddenly and much to our surprise, time runs out. We disappoint. We make a mess. We betray or feel betrayed. We hurt or are hurt by others.
That's just the truth of the enterprise of being human.
The truth of God is that God loves it all - the hurt, the betrayal, the mess. God loves us most, I think, when we remember and try to be our best selves again.
Please pray for the peaceful repose of Tracy's soul - well done, thou good and faithful servant - and for his family who grieves and mourns, regrets and questions, and tries to find equilibrium after this shock and discover hope and solace amidst the shattered pieces of their faith.
But mostly, please pray for your own mindfulness and self-awareness. These are great gifts which lead us to find the joy in being human, so that we might rediscover our mission and ministry as the church.
You know. Before time runs out. The way it always does.