This is the Day
by Peter Braswell
[Persons living with AIDS] "loved ones, and care providers want and need the consolation, comfort, and peace that the gospel and the people whose lives are shaped by it can bring."
-From AIDS: Personal Stories in Pastoral Perspective by Shelp, Sunderland and Mansell, The Pilgrim Press, New York, 1986.
AIDS. Rock Hudson and Liberace had died from it. Several casual acquaintances had it or had died from it, but no one I knew very well. It was something that happened to people somewhere else. "Maybe I'll call Project Lazarus, the AIDS residence", I thought. "I should maybe go down there and help them with bathing, shaving, feeding, or whatever needs to be done." Then, one day I called .... "No answer after three rings .... Oh well, no more time .... I've done my part .... I'm such a good person!"
More AIDS!! The news is full of it. Oh well, it's somewhere else; New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco. There is very little of it here in New Orleans . . . .
February 10, 1987
Business as usual. My office is a beehive of activity. An employee answers the telephone, and places the caller on hold. Turning to me he says I have a personal call. "Peter, I just received a call that Timothy was taken to the emergency room last night. He's having difficulty breathing." My heart skipped a beat. Deep-down inside I knew what it must be . . . . NO! I'm being silly and an alarmist!! I hung-up after a brief conversation. I felt numb. That night I visited Tim in the hospital . . . . . .
February 11, 1987
The doctors still haven't said anything. Why is this taking such a long time? . . . . . His breathing is better now and his color has improved . . . . . Just as I thought, it's something minor and he'll be out soon . . . .
February 12, 1987
Still no word from the doctors . . . . This is ridiculous!! They are looking for something that isn't there. He's already better . . . . I'm confident . . . .
Friday, February 13, 1987
It's been such a good productive day here at the office. I feel great! Now I'll run to the hospital for a visit with Tim . . . .
"Hi! How's it going, guy?"
"Well, I've got good news, and I've got bad news."
"At least you've got some good news"
"The good news is that I'll get out of here in about two weeks, and the bad news is that I have AIDS."
Suddenly, there's a weak feeling in the pit of my stomach. I don't remember much after that, only some hugs, a few tears, and that weak feeling that wouldn't go away. I only know that my life direction has changed, and I'm not in control anymore. The confidence I had the day before is gone . . . .
That was my introduction to AIDS. AIDS had a face, and a face that was REAL.
The next day was Valentine's Day, and I arrived at the hospital with a huge heart-shaped box of chocolates and a funny card. As an afterthought, I brought a Bible, just in case he might want to read.
The Days and Months Thereafter
Several days went by and I realized I needed some help to get my head together, as I could feel myself starting to give in to that weak feeling and to give- up. I was beginning to unravel. A business acquaintance of mine had done some volunteer work in the AIDS arena and he seemed like the logical person to call as a first step. He put me in touch with NO/AIDS Task Force. I was immediately connected to a lady with a soft, gentle voice. A sense of relief came over me when I finally said the word "AIDS" out-loud for the first time. I felt comforted when I realized she felt my pain and distress. She told me about an AIDS Awareness Seminar being held the following weekend and invited me to attend. I jumped at the chance to learn about something about which I knew very little.
The night before the seminar, I visited with Tim and told him I would be gone the next day and where I was going. I promised to report back the minute I arrived home.
Another reflection. I remember that cold, rainy Saturday morning in February preparing to go to the seminar. On the lavatory in my bathroom there is a small brass plaque I hadn't really seen for a long time. It simply says, "This is the day the Lord hath made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it."
After an intense day of being bombarded with all sorts of information about AIDS from doctors, lawyers, social workers, and clergy, I started the drive back home. It was still cold and rainy, and I cried almost the entire way. However, I couldn't wait to call Tim and let him know about all of the things I had learned. I was cheerful and almost glib on the telephone, but when I hung-up, overwhelming grief erupted and tears came from my heart as well as from my eyes.
After church the next day, I visited with Tim in the hospital. Suddenly, he started talking about the Bible I had given him a few days earlier, and began asking me questions about my local church and my denomination. Casually, I invited him to go to church with me when he was feeling better and he accepted. We attended church together every Sunday for the next four or five weeks and, then, one Sunday, during the singing of the invitational hymn, he turned, put his hymnal down, excused himself, and walked down the aisle to the altar and joined the church. Mixed tears of pain and joy filled my eyes and I was unable to continue singing. After church, I took him out for a celebration lunch.
Several weeks passed and it began to occur to me that Tim and I were going to need the kind of support only a pastor can give. I thought, "Who is going to tell him?" The answer came quickly from Timothy. I was elected!!!
My faith in the church and my ministers had never been put through a test before, and certainly not with anything as frightening and controversial as AIDS. How were they going to respond? I wanted my pastor to respond with love and compassion, and I even had an angry response ready in case he did not respond as I wanted. I was going to take my membership elsewhere, and cancel my pledge. My fears and anger were quickly dispelled by his warmth and compassion, along with his promise to do everything in his power to help Tim. Later, I found out that he was not only there for Tim, but he was there for me as well.
That was the first time in my life I started to understand the true meaning of Christian Love. Not only was my faith nurtured, Timothy got the support of his church and his pastors; something I had prayed so hard for. Knowing that he was being supported and comforted was comforting to me as well.
During this time, I continued my AIDS training in an almost frantic manner, hoping to learn at least one thing that would prolong, if not save, Timothy's life or add substantially to the quality of it.
The next volunteer training event exposed me to the different areas of involvement. The area I chose was the Buddy Program because of it's intensive, personal, hands-on approach. I knew I had to be the best that I could be for Tim.
November 11, 1987
Tim and I happily boarded a flight for San Francisco to attend the United Methodist National Consultation on AIDS Ministries. We were excited and delighted with the information we received, and to learn there were others facing the same struggle and having the same fears we had. We were encouraged, also, to learn that work was going on nationally within the United Methodist Church to address the AIDS epidemic.
During the evenings we had wonderful dinners together in the marvelous "eateries" in San Francisco. Some of them turned into very personal discussions of the information and ideas we had learned during the day. And sometimes, the discussions became very intimate and emotional. Sometimes we said nothing at all, just sitting together quietly with insurmountable agony which cannot be verbalized.
At the closing worship service of the consultation, during the singing of the last hymn, the "Song of Hope", I saw Tim start to shake and tremble with grief. All of my emotional safeguards came crashing down, and I reached-out, put my arm around his waist, and pulled him close to my side. Together, we found strength and comfort to continue singing. That afternoon, we drove out to Golden Gate Park and stood in silence while we watched the sunset on the Pacific.
The next six months were good ones for both of us. I met his parents and all of his brothers and sisters, attended a family wedding, and re-decorated his home. He said he didn't want to spend his last days in an ugly house! Little did we know he would lose sight in his right eye due to CMV retinitis, which deprived him of much of the pleasure of our endeavors.
Our relationship continued to deepen, and finally one day he said to me, "You know Peter, we've been friends for years. It's such a shame I didn't know you all that time as well as I know you now". I could only think to myself that we at least had ONE thing to thank AIDS for.
After several long hospitalizations, illness of every description seemed to fall out of the trees on him. He was discharged from the hospital on a Sunday, and his mother and father drove in to be with him.
November 11, 1988
Then, exactly one year to the day that we had so happily boarded the plane for San Francisco, I received another phone call at work. This time from Tim's house-mate. The words still ring in my head.
"Peter . . . . something's wrong with Tim . . . . he's having some kind of seizure . . . . . now he's passed- out . . . . . the home-health nurse is on her way . . . . . I'm scared . . . . . I don't know what to do." I told him I was on my way and with a quick word to my employees, ran out the door. One of them thought to call the church office to tell the staff. Arriving at the house, the first thing I saw was Tim on the floor in the kitchen, his mother bending over him. He was drifting in and out of consciousness.
The ambulance arrived and we rushed to the hospital. After what seemed like hours, a nurse came into the lounge and said, "I think you'd better come now, I don't think he's going to be with us much longer." A few minutes later, Tim's soft and shallow breathing stopped. The battle was over and I had lost. As I looked at him laying there still and quiet, I was stuck not by the sight of death, but by the sight of complete and total peace. An absence of pain and agony. Divine Peace!! I, also, felt robbed of that experience of peace.
Minutes later, the church secretary, who is a dear friend, and both pastors arrived. They had all been on their way from different parts of the city. After a few hugs and words of reassurance from them in the corridor, Tim's parents, his house-mate, and I entered the room, surrounded Tim's bedside, and shared in a much needed moment of prayer while holding hands. I shall never forget or doubt the mercy of God. God had been with me all the way from February 1987, and I didn't know it!
I have continued my work in the AIDS arena since Tim's death, but not with the sense of frenzy and urgency.
Several months ago, after a sabbatical from the Buddy Program, I received another assignment. The one thing I had hoped to escape is still with me: an overwhelming sense of helplessness. This feeling is not easy to overcome in the face of pain, suffering and eventual death especially when I see the staggering amount of anger and hatred, judgment, hysteria, and the vulgar sight of apathy. I only hope that one day soon, before too many others die, the general public, federal government, and the church will realize the tragic proportions of this epidemic, and do something about it, rather than standing by idly.
Through my experiences with my minister and my church, I have come to realize that others affected by the AIDS crisis should open-up and talk to their clergy to make them aware of their personal sorrow and crisis, and make them aware that although they may THINK their congregation is untouched by this crisis, some members probably are trying to reach them for help and direction.
If clergy are not informed and educated, they cannot be blamed for not ministering to a person with AIDS or their loved ones. In turn, we all have a responsibility to support our pastors and that support has to come from the bottom up, as well as from the top down. I have made a promise to myself and to Tim that I will continue to pray, advocate, and badger to meet these objectives. It is my prayer that from the writing of my personal journey with the AIDS epidemic, some will gain the confidence to open dialogue with their pastors.
One further flashback . . . . I remember arriving home late in the evening the day Timothy died, and for the first time in a long while, I saw again that little wood and brass plaque on my lavatory that says, "This is the day the Lord hath made; let us rejoice and be glad in it."