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Archive for December, 2012

Sunsets and Cemeteries

It may seem odd to the reader that a blog entry is about the end of life.  However, if one deals with their end, it is easier to get a grasp on the speed with which life moves and to make the best of it while it is speeding along.

Our town had a population of only 2,000 but its cemetery has five thousand of its former citizens resting within its black iron fences.  The cemetery dominates Church Street, halfway between the hundred-year old brick Presbyterian Church and the Nickel Plate Railroad.  The main funeral home is just north of the cemetery, so funeral processions are short and don’t obstruct the traffic up on Main Street.

Back when we were children we used the cemetery as if it were a unique park.  We were always respectful while playing there, avoiding stepping on the mounds that marked final resting places.  We knew where all the unusual monuments were located.  One huge, white monument was made of marble and was hollow.  The young and the brave would shout through the small grate on the end and feign terror as they heard Satan echo back from Hades.  Near the main gate was a cast memorial of a beagle.  The hound sat in a captain’s chair, his head worn smooth from the pats of children’s hands.

The old folks in town still say Decoration Day when referring to Memorial Day.  And decorate they do!  Small flags are placed on the veterans’ graves, while cut flowers and geraniums are used as remembrances for family or friend.  The town’s holiday parades always terminated at the pointed monolith erected by the wealthy Culbertson family.  Here some politician would deliver a short, but rousing, speech.  Ten old vets from the American Legion would fire a salute with their M-1 rifles.  The roar of the rifles and the pungent odor of gun smoke sent visions through our heads of John Wayne charging up Iwo Jima beach.  Respectfully we would listen to the haunting bugler, sounding taps for those resting beneath the flags.  Then we would scramble for the empty cartridges.

The cemetery was landscaped with a variety of ancient trees, but was dominated by tall, old hemlocks.  Some of those erect and proud trees reminded me of the guards at Arlington.  These green soldiers performed their guard duty well during the Halloween season.  The wind moaned when it passed through their branches, and the moon cast ominous and eerie shadows on the ground beneath their limbs.  This kept vandalism at a minimum.

Autumn was the kid’s favorite season.  Back in the older section were a number of horse chestnut trees.  Their inedible brown nuts were fashioned into long necklaces to be worn on Halloween.  Early winter would soon roll around and the cemetery would be abandoned to the squirrels for a short time.  When snow fell, however, the gang was back because the best hill in town for sledding rose in back of the cemetery.  We whooshed bright eyed and bushytailed close to those icy white marble monuments in our winter playground.  We were usually silent when passing through in winter.  The ominous silence of a forest of stone markers and the snowy whiteness of death overcame our exuberance as we headed for an afternoon of merriment.

So I will be satisfied with a nice pine box here, since it will be empty on That Day anyhow. But on returning to this earlier playground, I received a new message from those trees and monuments.  They now seemed to whisper, “We watched you laugh and play here; we’ve observed you grieve beneath our ancient arms.  We’ll guard you someday when you rest here.”  Then the pines and maples arched their backs as though having a good laugh.  The granite and marble teeth grinned at me like a Chesire cat, mocking and hissing, “Mortal, mortal, mortal.”  The old cemetery was teaching another lesson.

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About 1989 our church in Covina received a call from a local couple about their son who of necessity was moving back with them from Seattle.  Brent had contracted HIV and was in a mid-stage of AIDS, at the time incurable.  Brent was about 29 years old and had grown up in a conservative church family.  From the short story we got from the mother, he had become involved with another man in Seattle who had recently died from the same plague.  Much of Brent’s health problem, for example his devastated liver, was caused by a long indulgence in crystal meth.

Brent’s family was rightly concerned that their alienated son would be living in this rather tight community without friends nor other relatives, unable to work, lacking transportation and purpose.  Our church had been his family’s when he was very young and they hoped that we could take him under our wing, providing friendships and perhaps some spiritual guidance.  The assistant pastor and I agreed to meet with Brent and his parents when he arrived.

Brent was a bit emaciated and obviously in a fragile health situation.  His gums showed signs of being severely irritated.  Being a bit flighty and excitable, he was a portrait of someone that would tire you out just listening to him!  But he was also likeable.  He laughed at everything and always had a line of baloney to hand out in conversation.  Brent began to attend church and participate just as though he had only left weeks instead of years ago.  Singing was something he loved and in casual Sunday evening services he would do some special singing with some of the other church talent.

Over the next few months Brent was in and out of the hospital fairly regularly.  Often he would receive a blood transfusion as there was little else that medicine could provide for his health in 1989.  Somehow he always maintained a determination to fight off this virus that had overwhelmed his system.  The toll also began to show on his fairly elderly parents as they dealt with one emergency after another, Brent’s many physical and emotional needs and the disturbing knowledge that soon this would all crash down around them.  Brent raised the congregation’s knowledge about the AIDS crisis and the struggles encountered by those who were being faced with the cemetery long before they could enjoy an average lifespan.  During this time we found a few others who were living with the same challenge and actually had a rather informal support group for them.  Dealing with such a misunderstood and politically charged disease, accompanied by a few funerals, was a bit more than many of us were able to handle emotionally or spiritually.  We weren’t monks or saints, we just tried to react in a decent and humane manner with what we hoped would soon be a thing of the past.

Making a Difficult Decision

During this time I had sold a condo that had been owned by a friend and I when he moved away.  I was meanwhile renting an apartment.  The economy wasn’t the best and the condo I owned and rented in the desert was rented too seldom to be financially viable.  Instead of giving it up, I decided I would move there and commute up to my work a couple times a week, and use motels on some evenings, which was still better than paying the mortgage on an empty condo.

Simultaneously, Brent’s mother was told by her doctors that she could no longer handle the stress of having her ill son in the same house and that he would need to move out.  I was about to move and couldn’t think of anyone I would less want to have living with me than Brent.  After a long discussion about alternatives with our pastor, and against my better judgment, we didn’t see any alternatives other than having Brent move to the desert with me, at least for right now.  With all his health problems, it was a major concern about how he would handle being there by himself when I was away working.  It was truly one of those times when you just figure that in spite of the feeling of an impending disaster, it was in God’s hands and the mess had been dumped on my plate.

I put my stuff in storage, as the desert condo was furnished at the time.  Brent and I visited a friend who  had us over for some greasy pizza, and we headed out on the 80 mile drive into our murky future.  We got our clothes into the place, watched a little TV and hit the sack.  Someplace in the middle of the night I was awakened by a pounding on the wall and heard Brent calling.  I jumped up and went to his room in time to find him throwing up into a waste basket.  Remember that at this time it was still a bit of a mystery about how one would contract the HIV virus, so everyone was just extra careful around infected persons.  Brent got cleaned up a bit and we sat in the living room for a while.  He enjoyed watching this ridiculous woman with the big hair on the 24 hour Christian television channel, so we watched her carry on for awhile.  When he felt better we went back to bed.

In the morning we started to figure out what we needed in the way of groceries, Tums, etc.  Brent had also called his doctor to get a prescription for some stomach medication.  While I was pulling things together and he sat on the sofa watching TV, at one point I came out of my room and saw Brent in some kind of seizure.  I called 911, realized that he was in major trauma, ran to the neighbor’s to have him meet the ambulance and within minutes help had arrived.  I of course warned them about his HIV status.  He was loaded on a gurney, wheeled down the sidewalk and away.  Medics advised me they were going to Desert Hospital and where that was located.

I phoned Brent’s parents and our church.  The church told me that our pastor and assistant pastor were actually also down in the desert at the same hospital, where one of our members had been admitted overnight with chest pains while at a conference.  On arrival at Desert Hospital the emergency room staff told me that Brent had arrived already deceased.  They asked if I wanted to see him and I declined.  I wanted to remember him as he was.  I went upstairs to where my church leadership was doing their contact, advised them of what had transpired and we all stood there a bit dumfounded about how quickly this journey had come to a conclusion.

I had learned that sometimes when one thinks they are about to step off a cliff, it is useless to consider whether flying lessons are needed, the good Lord will either pick you up when you crash or teach you how to fly without wings.  You either trust yourself to Providence or you run away.  Brent was one in a million and will be long remembered.

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