Without End

Today’s World AIDS Day, and our guest preacher, alumnus Chris Griffin, saw me after the service and alluded to a sermon I had preached on the occasion, that was on the web. I remembered it, in a general way, but in an idle moment tonight I went back to reread it.

It was pretty much the way I had thought — but seeing the details, remembering the names and the panels brought back a lot. For Gary and Jerry, for Jack, for David and Jeff and Patrick, I’m posting the sermon in the extended part of this post.

AIDS doesn’t just go away. We have to work together to prevent it, to contain it, and eventually to cure it.

World AIDS Day

Psalm 55

This afternoon, I bring you messages from the AIDS Memorial
Quilt. I have spent much of the last few weeks in San Francisco studying Quilt panels, reading, taking notes, and sometimes crying. So this is my first message to you all: I wish you well, sisters and brothers, as I bring you greetings and appreciation from the national office of the NAMES Project Foundation, the custodians of the AIDS Quilt. I wish I could say that their work is going well, that spirits at the Foundation are strong, but recent social and medical developments have cut into support for the Quilt; while we give many thanks that HIV-infected people now have a chance to live longer and more comfortably, the AIDS
crisis is far from being over. Your prayers, your volunteer time, your contributions, and your commitment to fighting for a better, safer, fairer, healthier world are as important now as they ever have been, and in San Francisco your efforts are recognized and deeply appreciated. That’s my first message from the Quilt: Thank you, and God bless you, and keep pressing on.

My second message from the Quilt:

While you were out

Gordon died
Signed, Gert

Third message from the Quilt, from William Davis Austin: “Even in the final months of his illness Bill would say, ‘I’m so lucky, I’ve had it all.’ Of course, it may be that Bill was no luckier than the rest of us, except he had the ultimate wisdom to know he was blessed and to live every day of his life in awe and with gratitude.”

Or from another panel:

To you who are still alive,
What is important?
And while you are still alive,

what are you doing about it?
Love, Patrick H. LeBlanc

Sisters and brothers, one reason I am here with you this afternoon is the number of times I’ve had the privilege of being taught by friends with HIV. There is much to learn in our complicated world, and some of my friends have been strong and wise and generous enough to reach out to this academic priest who thought he was ministering to them. Gary used to promise me that his infection was the best thing that ever happened to him. Many other people living with AIDS assured me that they had no regrets; that they never saw so clearly, loved so richly or selflessly, that they never before had known what life was about until they came to terms with death. I think Jack was the first one to remind me, “We’re both dying, you and me. The difference is that I know it, and you don’t.” So my third message reminds us that no one dies from AIDS; people with AIDS die of the same kinds of thing that you and I will die from, but sooner.

Fourth message from the Quilt comes from an anonymous panel:

“This disease is hell.”

I occasionally hear someone observe that such-and-such a person with AIDS “died for us,” died to bring us insight or appreciation or retrospective understanding. That always makes me furious. We who will live a little longer must never romanticize or paint over or perfume the suffering and pain that give rise to the generous grace I just described. There has been too much agony, the wisdom has been far too costly, for us to cash it in cheaply and admire smiley Polaroids of the saintly departed. Glenn King’s panel reminds us,

They said, “Friends will die.”
I cringed.
They said, “Warriors fight best.”
I changed.
They said, “Some will be wounded.”
I bled.
They said, “To die is glorious.”
They lied.

Jeff McMullen’s panel has a similar message for us:

You see a little chip on my shoulder,
I’m surprised it isn’t a boulder.
If a tear could possibly fall
it would turn to solid ice.
I work hard to be cordial
so don’t expect me to be nice.
Just Don’t Hate Me!
I won’t ask you to join in my fight
or expect to see you in this war.
Alone. . . still curse
the day I was born.

Susan’s panel makes the point more poignantly:

The summer I first developed “symptoms”
I began what I called my “June Cleaver psychosis”
On good days, inviting a multitude of kids in
For sandwiches and cookies
Tempted to believe that
A shirtwaist dress and apron and the preparation of food
Might ward off the virus like a cross does a vampire.
At Hanukah the following winter
As blood counts dwindled and surgery loomed closer
I invited a family of six, at the last minute, for potato latkes
Relishing the anxiety of not being able to grate enough potatoes in time
I magically produced the golden latkes
A good stand-in for the blood platelets I was unable to maintain.
This week, when a friend was sick and dying,
And my own fear filled me with helplessness
At seven one morning
I prepared a pot of chicken soup to deliver
Believing that it contained the healing rituals passed on to me
By my mother and grandmother
The joy of feeding so genetically a part of me
More potent than any stress-management activity.
I have an ongoing fantasy
That someday the New England Journal of Medicine
Will publish an article about “phase 3 testing”
Showing “promising results” both anti-viral and immune boosting
From warm chocolate chip cookies
Fresh out of the oven
Chocolate melting on the tongue like holy-wafers
Out performing AZT and pentamadine
Brimming with non-toxicity and sweetness and joy
And “irrefutable clinical evidence”
That these cookies can immobilize the virus
And restore T-cell counts to normal levels.

Many who have died with AIDS have had the great grace to share with us some blessings they found along the way, but there’s a big difference between receiving a gift from a dying friend, and presuming to say that our friends “died for us,” that their deaths have meaning because they enrich our lives. Jerry didn’t die for me; he died because, twelve years into a lethal epidemic, the most medically-sophisticated culture in the world was still only beginning to study treatments for a condition that goes on infecting a greater and greater portion of the world’s people. David’s life doesn’t “have meaning” because he left a message that would change my life; his life has meaning because he knew love, he shared that love with others, and he reached out to a society that shunned him and his brothers, and offered it a gift of beauty and wisdom. Fourth message from the Quilt: We, the heirs of our friends and loved ones, remember their names, cherish their lives, and we will not diminish Jerry and David by fashioning their suffering into a cheap consolation for us who survive. Our insights are too small, and their deaths too costly; if we say, “they died for us,” we either inflate our own importance or we cheapen their deaths.

The fifth message comes from Doug’s panel:

[AIDS] cannot cripple love
It cannot shatter hope
It cannot corrode faith
It cannot eat away peace
It cannot destroy confidence
It cannot kill freindship [sic]

It cannot shout out memories
It cannot silence courage
It cannot reduce eternal life
It cannot quench the spirit
It cannot invade the soul or the love we have for you

Faith, hope, love, peace, confidence, friendship, memories, courage; everything depends on sustaining these graces, in our own lives and especially in the lives of our brothers and sisters who have HIV or AIDS. Illness and death can only triumph if we relinquish faith, hope, and love; so long as we persevere in trusting, in hoping, in loving one another in this life and beyond it, illness has won no victory, and death has simply deferred a reunion that will ultimately transcend the horizons of mortality.

Sixth message: Fred Riehm and Bob Folkman say this:

Here We Sleep • Beneath These Covers • But We Are Not At Rest • Contained Within This Quilt Is A Packet of Our Ashes. • Let It Serve As A Reminder To You, The Living, That Your Work Is Not Yet Done. • We Urge You This: Find The Cure. And When You Do, Come Back To This Panel And Set Us Free.

Fred and Bob are not free so long as any of our sisters and brothers are at risk for infection. Fred and Bob are not yet free, and so long as Fred and Bob aren’t free, we are not free: our hearts are bound in obligation to our loved ones who have died. We are not free to shrug off their lives. We are not free simply to miss them without taking action on behalf of others. Protease inhibitors and three-drug cocktails are wonderful, but they do not release us; they’re available only to relatively few people, most of them in this land of privilege; they do not cure those who rely on them, and in an uncomfortable number of cases even this best course of medication fails. We are not free until all our sisters and brothers are free. That’s one reason we gather here today; not everyone is a research biochemist or pharmacologist, not everyone can send money or lean on a politician, some of us can and must to these things, and the rest of us, indeed, we all can show our commitment to Fred Riehm and Bob Folkman in the ways we live, in the people we help, in the gifts we give and the help we offer. Italo Tulipano entreats us: “Pray Always.” We who have been changed by the AIDS crisis can’t just pretend it never happened; we can’t keep from speaking out, from speaking up, and some of us can’t keep from acting up when our friends and lovers and sisters and brothers are at risk of being forgotten. We can’t stop praying. We are people who remember their names — and we are not free to let the world forget, we are not free to let the rich and powerful rest easy, we are committed to testifying to their precious lives, their bruised souls, to their sacred trust in us.

The seventh, and final, message — from the panel for Charles Engstrand:

8:30 AM
(Yes honey).
I’m hearing beautiful music. . .
(Do you, honey lamb?)
(What else, my love?)
“Yes. . . Red ones . . . Green ones . . . Yellow ones.”
(That’s wonderful honey—walk toward the light)
8:56 AM
(I will wait to see you again.)

This is why we are not free — because we are waiting to see our loved ones again, and we want to be able to look Charles and Doug and Glenn and Jeff and Fred and Bob in the eyes when we say, “We’ve been praying for you; we’ve been waiting for you; we’ve remembered your name. ” Or when we say together the words of Bill Devino & John Wiggs’s panel: “Love conquers all, and with our prayers, Love will triumph over this plague. We will keep the love alive.”

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