It’s AIDS Remembrance Day at the Episcopal Church. The poor, old Episcopal Church creaks on, trying to be relevant. I go to the service, take out the old blue hymnal, and stand up to sing some plodding hymn written a hundred years ago, or maybe two hundred. The church is fairly empty, although not as empty as some I’ve seen. This is a thriving church, as churches go. I bow to the cross at the head of the procession as it passes by me in the aisle. “Idolatry,” I hear Hadassa, my Orthodox Jewish friend, hiss in my mind. But I love the forms. I love bowing, kneeling, crossing myself. I would gladly lie on my stomach with my arms outstretched and abase myself to God, but you have to be Catholic to do that, and maybe even a nun to boot. That would be going too far.
We swing into Rite II: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit. . . .” And the chant:
Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth. . . . Lord God, Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world: have mercy on us. . . . Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.
Then the readings, always from the Old Testament first — Elijah today — and a Psalm. Then Paul and the Gospel. Today it is the story of the rich young man who asks Jesus what he has to do to inherit the kingdom of God. He already follows the commandments and all the laws. Jesus tells him to sell everything he has, give it to the poor, and come follow him. The young man goes away sad because he doesn’t want to give up all he has. Then Jesus delivers the famous line about how it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Blah de blah.
The sermon is on how hard it is to trust in God instead of in material things. The priest admits it is hard even for him. Well, well, well. Isn’t he a swell fellow, not setting himself above the rest of us? Episcopalian humility. Blah, blah, blah. Then we stand and recite the creed, which I hate, and finally we kneel to say special prayers for all the people who are living with AIDS and have died of AIDS, and I think of Robert.
I pray for Robert and hope he hears my prayer and knows I am thinking of him. Maybe he will be glad for my thoughts of him, and for all our thoughts of people like him. Maybe he will come to participate in the service, praying along with us. Maybe he misses us and is glad for the chance to come around.
Robert came to my church when he was in his early forties. He was a short, stocky, shiny-faced man with glittering glasses and mind. And he was HIV-positive. He joined the church because he was preparing to die and wanted to die reconciled with God.
It turned out we had both gone to Columbia University at the same time. I hadn’t known him then, but the fact that we had both gone to college there, were both the same age, both rebels, both gay, both deeply troubled — ruined, even — by early sexual abuse, and that both of us had ended up going back to church, even to the same church, after years of being swept away and swept under, made me feel I had found a brother. He had been an organizer of the first gay dances at Columbia, in the sixties. It had been a new concept to me then, that a university could sanction gay dances. I’d never gone to any, but Robert had affected me through them without knowing it. We talked about Columbia, about being gay, about the dances.
Later, when he was sick and in the hospital, I visited him and we talked more. He told me about Jack, his big love, who had already died of AIDS. He told me about his childhood, his stepfather, who had screwed him when he was six, and the neighborhood men who had screwed him after that. “It was like I had a sign on me,” Robert said. “Somehow they knew. They came up to me when I was eight or nine years old, and I went with them.” By the time he was eleven he had discovered the subway bathrooms. He was small for his age, looked even younger than he was, but the men never sent him away, never told him to get out of there. On the contrary, every single one of them used him. “Not one of them ever told me, ‘Get out of here, kid, you’re too young,’ ” he said bitterly.
Sometime after he graduated college, Robert got into the S&M bar scene in New York. That was the time of the Anvil and the Ramrod, infamous sex clubs over in the West Village where anything went — public sex shows, group sex, and more and more gruesome, violent sex. Robert was some kind of S&M sex performer; he wouldn’t give very many details. Apparently he was trying to work through his past in this — to me — extreme and even grotesque way. He was always the masochist, he told me enthusiastically, even proudly. “The masochist is the one who really has the power,” he said, with knowledge that obviously came from experience. He looked in my face, searching for recognition, and I stared back blankly. It was an experience I had not had. I didn’t give a damn about S&M, but I cared about Robert. He held the oxygen mask off his face as he told me these things, then finished by saying, “That’s all over now. It was over even before I got sick. The trouble is, now that I’ve come through it all and am ready to start living, it’s too late.”
Sometimes the nurse would come in and Robert would joke with her; sometimes he would snap at her rudely. He was trying to hang on, trying to stretch out his life just a little more, by hook or by crook; by anger, self-pity, drama — whatever worked. He didn’t want to hurt the nurse, but life had shortchanged him — somebody owed him something — and the nurse was there, so it was she who had to pay.
One day, after they had taken his blood, a drop oozed out on his arm. He looked at it and said, “That blood is poison; it’s lethal.” I stared at it, wanting to protest somehow, to say, “Oh, come on, it’s not that bad.” But it was.
Lying in the hospital bed, coughing and wheezing, Robert told me more about Jack. Jack had gone to West Point. He’d been kicked out for being gay but had held fast to some kind of military honor code in his mind and lived by it the rest of his life. He never told anyone — anyone, not even Robert — that he had AIDS. Rather than tell Robert, he broke up with him and moved out of their apartment. Jack lived with his mother for six months before he died, never telling her anything was wrong. He worked up until his last week and paid his way. And he didn’t go to the hospital, ever. One night when he was sweating and feverish and Robert was sitting by his bed, not quite knowing what was happening, Jack took Robert’s hand and wrote on his palm with his index finger, “I love you.” That was the only time and the only way he ever said it.
Robert told me this lying in his hospital bed, sweating and feverish himself, sucking in breaths. My God, how do I react to that? Robert was describing the supreme moment of his life, but to me it was pathetic, silly, maudlin.
“Why didn’t he tell anybody he was sick? Why didn’t he tell you he loved you?”
Robert looked at me with disappointment. “You don’t understand. It’s a male thing. It’s what he believed in.”
No, I didn’t understand. But I could see it meant everything to Robert, that one time, the writing on his hand.
Robert died. Joan Freeman, our priest, took him his final Communion in the hospital, and he made his confession to her. He was lucid to the end. He’d been afraid he’d lose his mind, but he didn’t.
There was a funeral service for Robert at our church. Robert’s body was there, boxed up in a coffin. His mother was there, and some other family members. She was Catholic, and Robert’s father, who was dead, had been Jewish. The Jewish members of the family looked as if they weren’t sure how they had ended up in this faintly sinister place. Catholics can’t take any Communion but their own. None of the Catholics or Jews stood up or knelt or sang. The rest of the congregation just carried on around them. Joan, who was raised Jewish herself, went on about eternal life even more than usual, it seemed to me, and about Jesus and the angels. It was hard to keep from laughing.
Robert’s oldest friend, his roommate from college, got up to reminisce about when they first met, during orientation week at Columbia. For some reason this made me cry. He ended by saying that “despite his cynicism, Robert loved life, and was true to it.” I thought of Robert at the Anvil, performing violent anal sex in public, surrounded by cheering, half-naked, sweating men, and all the pain and confusion that had led him there. I didn’t know what his friend meant, exactly, about Robert being true to life, but it sounded right.
I went up to take Communion, and there was Robert’s coffin. I touched it and said goodbye. When I knelt to pray afterward, I tried to think of Robert and where he was now and what it might be like for him. All I could imagine was some kind of leaping, abstract, architectural energy. It didn’t seem human. I couldn’t tell whether he was happy and free, or maybe imprisoned. It occurred to me he had joined the angelic structuring of the world, and it required of him the steadfast, determined courage of a soldier.
This morning, as I kneel in church and pray for people who have died of AIDS, I think again about where Robert might be and whether he might be in touch with us all right now, enjoying our prayers and perhaps praying with us:
For the aged and infirm, for the widowed and orphans, and for the sick and the suffering, let us pray to the Lord. Lord have mercy. For the poor and the oppressed, for the unemployed and the destitute, for prisoners and captives, and for all who remember and care for them, let us pray to the Lord. Lord have mercy. For all who have died in the hope of the resurrection, and for all the departed, let us pray to the Lord. Lord have mercy. For deliverance from all danger, violence, oppression, and degradation, let us pray to the Lord. Lord have mercy. That we may end our lives in faith and hope, without suffering and without reproach, let us pray to the Lord. Lord have mercy.
Once again, I start to cry, as I often do in this musty old church. Most of the time I don’t even know why. Am I crying now for Robert? Am I crying for all the other people I know who died of AIDS — Juan-Carlos, Antonino, Solomon, Mark, John, Jean, Chuck? Am I crying for how painful, confusing, and short life is? Am I crying for my own life? Am I crying to God to help us all, because we are certainly lost?
I stand with everyone for the hymn and sing the old words I have known since I was a child. Their author is given at the bottom of the page, along with the composer of the music. Sometimes they are centuries dead, these poets and musicians. But not always. It is surprising how it goes on, this tradition of hope, this desperate admission of need, this exultation and gratitude, even in this century. Today we have offerings by two contemporary composers. Somehow, somebody picks up the torch.
As I sing, I am suddenly aware of the pedestrian stained-glass windows around me, each one given, I know, “to the Greater Glory of God and in Loving Memory of . . .” someone who died, in the last century, in this century. The names and dates of former priests are carved into the stone beneath the windows, all their efforts, their flaws and failures dust now. I sing through my tears. It is all we have, this musty, stilted prayer, extending back through fragile generations, the thinnest of threads, our thin voices, wavering and brave, a promise made a long time ago that we hardly understand or dare believe.