Your grief, my grief, our grief

From 1991 to 1993 I volunteered at the AIDS Hospice on Mission Hill in Boston. Since volunteers were not medically trained, our work was more housekeeping than anything else. (Yes, I can change the sheets of your bed while you’re in it.) We were also privileged to sit with the patients, talking with them or simply being with them. We sat in their rooms or outdoors on the patio. We went walking with patients who could walk without danger, and we took others for walks in wheelchairs. We became friends with the patients even though we understood the short time we would be with them. One of the qualifications for being a volunteer was that one previously must have been with someone when they died. I met the qualification. And then I was with about a half dozen of the hospice patients when they died.

I became friends with the one straight man patient. He was from Lawrence, MA, and, in his working days, had been a pimp with a group of “girls” whose lives he basically controlled. He contracted AIDS from one of his “girls” who had contracted it from one of her clients. She was also in the hospice’s care. One day he and I were sitting on the patio and he said, “Promise me. Flowers.” I was puzzled, so he repeated, “Promise me flowers on my casket.” I promised him that I would speak with the chaplain about his request, which I did. About a week later I was sitting with him in his room. He was in and out of consciousness, but at one point he became fully alert and said, “You promised me flowers.” I said, “Yes, the chaplain says you will have flowers.” The next day when I arrived at the Hospice, he had died.

I write this today because Covid-19 has brought to my mind – no, not my mind, but my heart, my spirit – the grief I lived close to for those two years. I have some real sense of what a rampant disease can do to a community, my community. (Since about 1990 there have been far fewer gay men of my approximate age than of any other age group in the US.)

When the ranting and raving and politicking and other cruelties are over, hundreds of thousands of our friends and neighbors and families will be living in a world of grief made terrifying because it seems so unnatural and unnecessary. No matter who turns out to be right or wrong about any of the facts or fictions about Covid-19, our responsibility will be to care for those in grief. For thirty years I have carried in a small corner of my mind and heart grief for a man I knew for only a few weeks and whose life was so different from mine that it seems impossible that our paths could ever have crossed. Yet to this day, I try to find ways to keep my promise to him. Flowers.

For others.

And I barely knew him.

“This is a light-hearted look at my experience of getting old . . .”

01-parkland

Parkland, the new reigning architectural monarch of our neighborhood. (Photo: Harold Knight, Jan. 7, 2016)

. . . or that’s what the “about” tab above says.

Recently a friend of mine heard gunshots close to his home in San Bernardino, CA. His home of over 40 years is a long way from the scene of the terrorist attack, but hearing gunfire is hearing gunfire. He went outside just in time to see the police arrive and surround a young man who had been shot in the leg lying in his neighbor’s driveway.

Last year my friend was the victim of crime when a man who had been shot in a fight on the street behind his house broke into his house (he was not at home, fortunately) and used the bathroom to try to stop his bleeding. It took my friend days to clean up the blood splattered about his house.

My friend’s home is in what used to be a quiet but not upscale suburban neighborhood which has been annexed by the city of San Bernardino.

He no longer feels safe there. Obviously with some reason.

My apartment is not upscale. The building is the dowager queen of the neighborhood. Built in the ‘50s. Solid concrete, six floors. Somewhat decrepit. In a neighborhood that is coming back after many years of decline with the completion of the new Parkland Hospital, the construction of new apartment complexes, and an upgrade in the businesses coming into the mixed-use zone neighborhood.

My possessions and décor are of a piece with the building. Aging graduate-student eclectic, the kind of stuff I’ve had all my life. Even if I were part of “the 1%,” I would probably live here with my stuff that has sentimental value. The two chairs in my living room, for example. Not comfortable. Not beautiful. But one was my father’s desk chair and the other was his grandfather’s desk chair. Old (and not particularly valuable) wooden chairs in the living room and a portrait of Lincoln on the wall? How not gay-friendly! Hardly seems like I’m gay at all.

01-2016 birthday cake

My 71st Birthday Cake. (Photo: Harold Knight, Jan. 5, 2016)

So you’d think all the problems facing aging gay men would pass me by.

Not so. A prevalent problem facing older gay men and women is beginning to stare me in the face: living alone without a support system close by enough to be able to help me instantaneously in a crisis. Although I have fallen with unpleasant results (hip surgery and walking with a cane for nearly two years), I have been very lucky never to have been in that “help me―I’ve fallen and can’t get up” situation. And I’ve never been criminally attacked in any way.

The most difficulty I have is my daily (hourly?) problem of not being able to find my glasses. Or my shoes. (My organ-playing shoes have been missing for a week.)

Or forgetting to pay the rent.

That’s not the sort of problem that concerns me.

For the most part I am healthy (blood pressure yesterday 135 over 80). I take meds strong enough to kill a horse for seizures and mood swings. I asked my doctor if there’s a study on the long-term effects of Carbatrol―does it ruin the liver or kill brain cells or. . . . His answer, “You’re it!”

Not 100% reassuring.

Since my hip surgery I’ve been in the care of a PT and a trainer who have helped me strengthen my hips and legs. I’ve learned important practices that should help me stay upright and safe. (Old Folks take note!) I ALWAYS hold the handrail on stairs no matter how silly I feel. I NEVER get out of my car on one foot―I swing around on the seat and put both feet on the ground before I stand up. I always change positions from sitting to standing and vice versa as if I’m wearing a tight skirt (no, not drag).

I’m beginning to know how to be an old man safely.

I have a plan for maintaining my independence. I hope in the near future to move to a high-rise downtown where I will have people living close by and a concierge to keep at least minimal track of me.

I have ideas for many of the eventualities I can plan for.

However . . . .

If someone breaks into my apartment to clean up the blood of his wounds from a gunfight―or for any other reason; or if I am ever the direct the victim of gun or any other kind of violence; or if I develop Alzheimer’s disease, as happened to my mother, or any other chronic debilitating condition; it is not at all clear what I would do―or more likely what would be done to/with/for me.

Everyone my age thinks about these eventualities.

As a society we are not very good at taking care of people who cannot care for themselves. But we older Americans who are alone are in a precarious situation.

Without family or a strong “secondary” support to advocate for us, to make decisions for us, to carry out our wishes, we are at the mercy of a system, and often of people, who do not have our best interests in mind.

The plight of LGBT persons who are alone is almost certain to be exacerbated.

The reality is that both personal and institutional homophobia is still the rule rather than the exception, especially in places where poorly educated workers predominate (aids in nursing homes, for example). To assume that the 2012 firing of one homophobic nurse at the Dallas VA hospital has made a significant inroad into the problem is quixotic.

I have written letters of inquiry about moving to several retirement communities in Dallas. In each letter I made it clear that I am an out gay man and have no intention of going back into the closet to avoid discrimination from care givers.

NOT ONE OF THOSE FACILITIES EVER ANSWERED MY INQUIRY.

Friends have asked me why I thought it necessary to say I am gay. That none of those facilities even answered my inquiry is the reason. They do not want gays. If they were places I wanted to live, THEY would have asked, “Why did you think it necessary to say you are gay?”

And the fact that my friends asked me the question is an indication that they do not understand the situation of elder LGBT persons.

Would my friends move into a facility where they would be treated with less dignity than others simply because of who they are unless they hid who they are?

I doubt it.

Please watch the trailer and then find a way to see all of the film
Gen Silent.

01-apartment

30 years after graduate school still living in grad-school eclectic décor (Photo: Harold Knight, Jan. 7, 2016)

“This pressure you share is a misplaced hinge, a fantasy. . .” (Naomi Shihab Nye)

7993-07-child health careFrom the week I was born until May 30, 2010, my time was organized around Sunday mornings. My father was an American Baptist pastor. That Sunday morning was important goes without saying. By the time I was in junior high school I was a church organist. Except for four hiatuses of a few weeks between appointments, I held positions in churches for 50 years.

My father, who was conflicted about Social Security because it was a New Deal invention that he was not sure was Constitutional, insisted I open my account when I was in junior high school and was first paid by the church to play the organ. He had graduated from a Southern liberal arts college, highly-respected then and now, and his doubts about Social Security were academically well-founded questions, not 21st-century elitist Neo-Con “conservatism.” His father, however, was a Roosevelt Democrat, a union member, and a proponent of the New Deal in all of its manifestations.

Years later, when my parents retired, my father quietly jettisoned his doubts about Social Security—as, I’m sure, even the most die-hard so-called Libertarians do. I don’t know of anyone who refuses their check every month.

My time was organized around Sunday mornings. It was crucial.

The most important activities of the week were scheduled around preparations for Sunday mornings—choosing music for choirs and for myself, practicing the organ, meeting church bulletin printing deadlines, doing laundry for proper attire, making sure the car had enough gasoline to take me to the church, and all those other crucial details necessary for accomplishing my professional task. It’s amazing how much time and energy I spent on preparing for professional work.

For musicians the work itself is the tiniest part of a week’s activities.

And then on May 30, 2010, the church where I held my last position closed, and I discovered the truth.

No one perches dangerously on any cliff till you reply (Naomi Shihab Nye).

Almost nothing I’ve ever done was crucial for anyone’s well-being. No one has ever been perched dangerously on a cliff waiting for me to do something (to save them? help them? comfort them?). Hardly anyone would have noticed if I had worn the wrong shirt on Sunday morning, and absolutely no one would have cared.

Nothing I do could not be done by someone else. Except for thinking my thoughts and feeling my feelings. Someone else could probably be writing this. A joke used to circulate among English scholars (perhaps it still does) that if enough monkeys were seated at enough typewriters, eventually they would produce the works of Shakespeare.

My kitchen is not organized well enough for the Property Brothers (or anyone else on HGTV) to approve. It’s helter-skelter. Except for one area. I use one plate, one salad plate, one cereal bowl, one skillet, one baking dish . . . you get the point. Once in a while there are two of something. And when I finish with a dish or piece of flatware or cooking utensil, I wash it in one side of my double sink and put it in the dish drainer permanently housed in the other side. I don’t put one plate away so six hours later I have to get it out. It’s right there when I need it.

I never use the dishwasher. (An aside: if anyone says they’re worried about global warming or the California drought or oil companies using up all of our water for fracking, and I find out they use a dishwasher, I know all of their concern for the environment is a bunch of hot air.) For one plate, one salad plate, and one cereal bowl? Give me a break.

Well-meaning friends, relatives, and others (others?) come to my kitchen and try to be helpful. They wash dishes and put them away. And since there’s no obvious place to put my plastic 2-egg microwave egg poacher, they look around and find a cupboard with plastic refrigerator bowls and such and put it there.

Is it crucial to run the dishwasher?

Is it crucial to run the dishwasher?

The next morning after they’re gone and I’m fixing my breakfast, I have to open half the cupboard doors to find it.

This is obviously no BIG deal. It’s my silly example for today:

When they say “crucial”—well, maybe for them?

It seems to me that most often what we think is crucial is crucial for exactly—for exactly ourselves and no one else. It is not crucial that dishes be washed, dried, and put in cupboards—or that enormous amounts of water and energy be wasted on running dishwashers—especially for an old man living alone. It’s not crucial; it’s what most of us were taught from infancy the way things are done. Not crucial; inculcated.

Some things are crucial. Finding a way to feed the millions of food-insecure children in our nation. Providing health care to everyone. Educating teenagers so they understand making money is not the goal of education, but being able participate in critical thinking is the goal. To find a way to save our democracy (what’s left of it) from the oligarchy and theocracy that are destroying it. I think it’s crucial for LGBTQ people who want to be treated equally to start helping others (like those millions of food-insecure children) to find equality.

Hold your horses and your minutes and
your Hong Kong dollar coins in your pocket,
you are not a corner or a critical turning page.

The old man in me wants to say in my most irascible and crotchety voice, the one that will annoy you but that you will remember, “Fuck off!” unless you’re doing something that’s really crucial. Stop meddling and start helping.

“NEXT TIME ASK MORE QUESTIONS,” by NAOMI SHIHAB NYE (b. 1952)

Before jumping, remember
the span of time is long and gracious.

No one perches dangerously on any cliff
till you reply. Is there a pouch of rain

desperately thirsty people wait to drink from
when you say yes or no? I don’t think so.

Hold that thought. Hold everything.
When they say “crucial”—well, maybe for them?

Hold your horses and your minutes and
your Hong Kong dollar coins in your pocket,

you are not a corner or a critical turning page.
Wait. I’ll think about it.

This pressure you share is a misplaced hinge, a fantasy.
I am exactly where I wanted to be.

LGBTQ people: It's crucial to end child food-insecurity

LGBTQ people: It’s crucial to end child food-insecurity