This is a story about love, illness, death and life after death, and God’s presence in the midst of it all.
Los Angeles, California 1992
It was early 1992. My lover, Donald was in the 2-year old AIDS ward at the Los Angeles County USC Medical Center. He was suffering from a detached retina in one eye. The surgeons were going to try to save the retina in the other eye with a relatively new surgery that would fill the socket behind his eye with a substance that would keep his retina from dislodging and deteriorating. Because of his significantly compromised immune system this would be a life-threatening operation.
Donald was scared. Though, he would rather die than be completely blind. He was a very visually oriented man. He looked at and touched everything that was legal to do so. He liked the pictures in magazines more than the words. And I wasn’t quite ready to lose him yet.
I prayed to God to let him survive the operation. I made promises. Donald survived.
Both his white and red blood cells were so depleted, after the operation, that he had to take injections daily of expensive drugs to elevate both their levels.
It was that November that Donald died. We were back in the AIDS Ward at County USC Medical Center. I don’t even remember what went wrong this time. He had been there for several days. A volunteer had given him a sponge bath and a shave. Donald was weak but still joking around.
I had to go put money in the meter for the car. When I returned, a nurse was waiting outside Donald’s door crying. She wrapped her arms around me and told me he was gone. They let me go in and spend a little time with what was left. I knew that this was Donald’s way of sparing me the pain I would live with of watching him take his last breath.
Somewhere in between his eye surgery and that day in November, I had a dream. I don’t have a vivid memory of any dreams but this one. I had this dream the same night after Donald asked me, “If there is a Heaven, do you think I’ll go there?”
I was in the atrium of a hospice care ward. The rooms were in a circle around a nurse’s station. There was a relatively big shaggy dog (like the one in My Three Sons). The dog was trying to see me. It knew I was there, but I was behind the veil – I was dead. Donald was alive in a bed in one of the rooms. I went over into his room and stood there just watching him sick and alone.
Suddenly, as can only happen in dreams, I was in a vast room with a 3-story high ceiling. There were no windows, just a single door. It was near the ceiling along the wall to my left at the top of a long narrow staircase built like a fire escape, with small landings every so often.
Someone would come, every once in a while, and call out some names. People would respond and climb the stairs and be escorted through the door. I understood the door to be the entrance to the next life. After a while, I was called. I spoke to the attendant and told him I wanted to wait until Donald got there because I didn’t want to lose him.
That dream relieved my fears and abated my grief after Donald’s passing. I recognized God’s hand in comforting me. I recognized God’s hand in helping Donald survive his surgery too. And, I recognized God’s hand in letting Donald die in the time of his choosing.
I don’t know why someone as kind, generous and full of love died and I got to live on. I’ve reasoned that God had stuff for me to do. I think I’ve done most of that stuff now. I found love again. It’s different, like it should be. It’s a good and nurturing love. Every day is a gift. God still takes good care of me and shows up in just the right places. I’ve been HIV positive for at least 53 years now. My viral load remained negligible for 51 of those years. With a little medication it’s negligible again. I’ve participated in studies working toward an HIV vaccine and a Hepatitis B vaccine. The Hep B vaccine has been on the market awhile now.
I took in 3 teenage boys, fostered one of them until he was 18, was able to return another to his family after a year, and kept the third one until he got through community college and went out on his own. Interestingly, the third boy, now a man, was born twenty-eight days after Donald died.
My five close friends didn’t think I would survive Donald’s death. And it actually did take me years to recover. I spent 3 months just going to work and sheltering in place. Then I spent the next year or so crying every Monday morning as soon as I woke up. Slowly I began to heal the loss of that part of me. I found ways to find life after love until I loved again. There was always someone waiting to comfort me. I know God had a hand in that too.
Thank you for listening to my story. Until next time, may God continue to bless you too. Stay safe.