by Frederick Sandefur
Recently I marked thirty years since my elder brother Mark’s death. He died of A.I.D.S., or, more precisely, from the effects of an experimental treatment for A.I.D.S. He died alone, having dragged himself to the hospital from his apartment near Sunset Boulevard, unable to bear the side effects of his medication. He took the bus. Anyone with the least knowledge of life in Los Angeles knows what a long, lonely task that must have been late at night. His heart stopped in the early hours of a September night in the Nineties.
My father called me that day and sobbed. We had only seen Mark two weeks before, at a solemn procession outside my abbey’s church for Our Lady’s birthday. He was very sick: emaciated, weak, and without appetite. But he tried to put on a good face. Some of my confreres greeted us, but sheer exhaustion prevented Mark from staying long. He and my father, who had brought him, had to excuse themselves. Mark was not as I would like to remember him, with sunken eyes, twig-like limbs, and ill-fitting clothes. I am ashamed to say that at the time I was embarrassed. I didn’t have the strength to endure what I imagined others must be thinking. My inner resources were limited by an anxiety about appearances. His gentle and customary teasing of me—even as he felt so ill—eased my not entirely conscious concern for how his presence was being perceived. I was relieved to hug him goodbye. It was the last time I saw him alive.
Of course my worries about perceptions were mistaken. My superior insisted that all those in formation at the abbey go to his funeral. I tried to discourage this, but my superior simply didn’t notice my reluctance. In any case, the big West Hollywood crowd at the funeral of a thirty-three-year-old man (like so many others in those days) was not the sort of thing to which my confreres would have been accustomed. They were surrounded by a great many people with lives so different from theirs. I never asked anyone afterward what he thought about it.
Before the funeral, my father, an Episcopal priest, said a low Requiem for Mark in the side chapel where his body lay. I served for him, interpreting ecclesiastical discipline with a certain economy. This was about my family, and our grief, not about the Roman primacy. We were alone, just the three of us. The funeral followed directly; I read from the Lamentations of Jeremias: “Thy mercies are renewed each morning for great is thy faithfulness.”
The prophet’s reminder that there is still hope was repeated the next day when I went by Mark’s apartment with my father for the first time since his final departure. There we were met with a chorus. On a work table there was a large wooden cage and a number of smaller cages. They all held cicadas, chirping loudly. There was also more wood for the construction of more cages in which each cicada could sing alone. This was Mark’s last project. The insects were chirping as though Mark had never left, and might return soon. I imagine he was going to sell them, or give them as gifts, or perhaps was supplying them for a party. It matters little. The cicadas showed us that, even in the midst of his fatigue, Mark still had a creative fire. There were several other objects in the apartment. I kept only two. One was an El Greco album which I had given him some years before. The other was a little wooden statue of the Child Jesus—more on that later.
Thirteen years before, Mark had made an announcement to our family. I was, to put it mildly, opposed to the life he was undertaking. My father made light of my warnings about dangers to Mark’s soul, and was all acceptance and sympathy. He warned me not to be judgemental. I didn’t think I was, now or then. My mother kept silent, although she grieved. Mark was her firstborn and in a way her favorite. To Mark, I marshalled what arguments I had, all plausible, but not convincing. He did agree when I insisted that his choice was not a necessary one for his happiness. Still, he said he preferred this life. When I was younger he told me about his experiences with women in some detail. He clearly enjoyed himself and had genuine relationships with them. But that was not what he wanted now. I was worried he would soon find disaster, and he did. He entered out into that open, rough sea right at the most dangerous point. Within a few years he was diagnosed with A.I.D.S., right at the beginning of the plague’s bitter work.
Mark’s would become a world of sexual exploits and drug use, bars, bathhouses, and resorts. He treated me with amused and sometimes kindly condescension. He seemed to like and even to respect my choice of celibate monastic life. Unlike so many others in his community, he was not one to accuse critics of his lifestyle of speaking in bad faith, probably being closeted themselves, or at the very least being repressed and frightened of life. He could have easily done so. After all, had I not chosen a life permanently devoted to a community of my own sex? His friends sometimes had this attitude, but he quashed it if they ever tried to impute it to me. He teased, but he never shamed me, nor I him.
Mark might have chosen another life. He might have had a family of his own children by his own wife and not have lost anything but a few sexual practices and the anxiety about eternal youth and identity which plagues his fellows to this day. He need not in all this have abandoned the possibility of real and intimate friendships with other men, even those similarly inclined. He would have been chaste and truly free. And he might still be alive on this earth.
But for this he would have needed support, mentoring, and mental clarity. I do not mean that he needed some kind of conversion therapy. That stuff is often clearly underwritten by a kind of dishonesty. Living chastely always means living against the inclinations of a fallen nature. Engendering sexual attraction for new objects of desire is not the therapy of Christian morality. The moral norm of chastity is always to act as a man or a woman, whatever one’s struggles or temptations may be; it is not to deny one’s own subjective preferences, but to weigh them serenely in the light of one’s own humanity. Mark did not have mentors who could help him in this by the time he “came out.”
Now, thankfully, we have the opportunity and the freedom not afforded us thirty years ago for guidance. But this mentoring cannot follow the thinking of current advocates of the integration of nebulous secular concepts into Catholic pastoral and moral life. Such a position is no answer to our present needs. It is a capitulation to the prevailing culture and strangely accepting of its ever-shifting categories and social arrangements, without any critique or examination. A tradition as ancient as ours should be able to find answers from its own resources. What is needed is a response that is fully in line with the Church’s teaching about human sexuality and provides possibilities of Christian life together that have not been practiced or formally recognized in recent history, although they are part of the tradition of the Christian states of life.
I hold out great hope for my brother, and for all like him. But we have to do something to proclaim and kindle this hope. And now, as I promised above, we will return to the Child Jesus in Mark’s room, by way of Paris.
About a year before his death, I found myself dining with Father de Rostand, a venerable but still spry Jesuit. (“Nage de poisson,” he said. “And if there is mustard in the sauce, then, please no sauce.” I ordered less austerely, but with a certain reserve out of respect for the old man’s evident and habitual restraint.) The little restaurant, which claims to be the oldest in Paris, was right by the famous Jesuit house on rue de Grenelle, and had been the scene of several of our annual meetings on my way to or from Rome. I had met him in Urbe some years before. We became friends and managed to meet each year for almost twenty years, in the States, or in Rome, or there by the Seine. Father de Rostand, with the methodical intensity of his formation, meant these encounters to be friendly, but productive. Each of us was expected to arrive with a list of questions of a practical or speculative nature to discuss with the other. The discussion was over lunch or supper, humane and sweet the conversation, always ending with the elder giving a blessing to the younger.
This year the discussion centered on the care given to the dying. I had words ready, but Father de Rostand offered some concrete advice based on his long and persistent experience: “When you have a relative or some other person close to you who does not believe, ask him if you may have ten or thirty minutes or an hour of his time. Offer to present the principal truths of the Gospel, tailored to the time agreed upon, simply, without discussion. Just ask him to listen, without interruption or objection, and make it clear that you ask for no response or even another such meeting. Ask it as a personal favor, so that he understands that it is an expression of your love for him, with no expectation on your part, but only gratitude for being given the opportunity to do what you, as a priest, will most long to do for him. Then pray for him often and trust that his guardian angel will bring these truths to mind when he most needs them.”
I returned to Los Angeles, and had a few days of home visit, as the vacations of religious are carefully called. Mark was in the hospital, the cavernous and daunting County General by the Five Freeway. I was asked to go pick him up and bring him home to his apartment, since he was supposed to be released. In the early days of the A.I.D.S. crisis, many of the sick accepted free experimental treatment. These men in a true sense sacrificed their lives for those who were to come after, clinging to a hope that the brutal chemical attempts to kill the virus might help them to live. Many died more swiftly on account of these efforts. This was to be Mark’s fate. It was such a paradox—perhaps a saving one—riveting pain and discomfort for the sake of those to come after, preceded by the reckless pursuit of some delightful experiences. Little had changed from Adam to Mark.
Mark was in a ward with several beds. Things moved slowly in this hospital, and the doctors were not ready to discharge him. I sat on the edge of the bed, since there was no chair. I had brought with me a little carving of the Infant Jesus from Südtirol, which was fixed in its own tiny shrine with two small doors. I gave it to Mark, and asked him to keep it with him. Mark closed the doors on the shrine, which then had the appearance of a pointed cylinder. Mark called it “a little torpedo, a torpedo for my heart.” He aimed it at his chest and brought it close.
Just then a woman came over to me. She came from behind the curtain drawn around the bed directly across from Mark. “Pastor, my son is about to go, will you pray over him?” she asked. Mark looked at me with amazement, not used to his my quasi-clerical status, and gestured to say, “Go ahead.” As I went over, Mark slipped out of bed, and stretched out, as if to hear better what would happen. Inside the curtain was a young black man, utterly wizened and gasping for air, with his eyes open and roaming from side to side. There were two other black matrons there, dressed as if for church. Not expecting this, I reviewed what I should say. I was not yet a priest, but I was in clerical dress. I bent over the man. The mother said, “His name is Lawrence, Larry, my boy, and he’s going, Pastor, he’s going.” I said, from what source I knew not, “Lawrence, Larry, my son, Jesus is here to take you home, but before you go with Him, He wants to talk to you.” The mother gripped my arm, and the ladies murmured, “Yes, Larry, Jesus is here, He’s here, come to take you home, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”
I leaned close to Larry’s ear, and said, “Jesus, I know you love me, and I love you. I thank You for my mother here and her friends. I am sorry for all my sins. I forgive, and I ask forgiveness. I believe all You have said. I hope in your precious promises. I love you, Jesus, my God who came to earth to save me and take me home.” The murmured prayers of the matrons became like a chant. They didn’t look at Larry, or at me. Their eyes were closed and they swayed and held each other gently. Larry heaved a sigh, looked straight ahead, eyes fixed at some point beyond the veil. He let out a little sound, and fell quiet, no longer gasping, no longer struggling. His mother said, “Thank you, Pastor, now I’ve gotta call the nurse, since it’s all over, and they’ll want to move him out of here.”
I walked back to Mark’s bed. My brother had listened intently and heard it all. This was clear from his agitation. “If they’re not going to let me leave now, I want a shower,” he said. He grabbed his hospital gown behind him with one hand, and a little towel and a bar of soap in the other and went from the hall into a small single shower room. I overheard the nurse’s useless attempt to stop him, shouting after him, since the shower was not for general use. “He hasn’t been very cooperative,” one of them said to me. “For him everything’s a drama.” “Well, maybe it is,” I replied.
When Mark died in the middle of the night, in the same hospital a year later, he was alone. He had come in for side effects of his treatment, and his heart stopped. When I came with our father to go over his things in his apartment, there was the little Infant torpedo by his bed, doors closed, pointed, and aimed.
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