I spent many hours today watching a man come closer and closer to his dying. I saw Michael's* eyes roll almost all the way up into his head, the lids frozen open, a third of his pupils still visible. I saw his neck arch back and his shoulders twist, his lungs filling more and more with fluid and the infection blazing throughout his body. I saw the sheen of greasy sweat glazing his cheeks, his wattled neck, his bony chest and shoulders where the pale blue gown kept slipping down.
I met Michael a few months ago at the hospice for low-income AIDS patients I serve at a few days a week. I would sit with him at lunch or outside in the smoking patio. He liked me to bring him glass after glass of the off-brand fruit punch the kitchen had on offer, with lots and lots of crushed ice. We talked about his cats, who he missed terribly. We talked about what was for dessert. We sat and didn't talk at all sometimes, and I watched his cigarette smoke trail up and disappear, and I thought about a Yehuda Amichai poem in which he compares that to our burning souls. His husband was around a few times I had a shift, and Joe said maybe five words to me before today. He was generally taciturn, but he also hated religion and religious people. Hated. And understandably so: Both Michael and he had been brutalized--physically, emotionally, spiritually--by Christians for being gay. Regardless of how friendly Michael and I were, Joe wanted nothing to do with me.
I had seen Michael last almost a week ago. Over the weekend, he developed respiratory problems, and soon after being admitted to a hospital, the infection the hospice staff had been keeping at bay just exploded. This isn't in some ways surprising: Michael's viral load was very, very high, and he had been struggling with depression.
By the time I learned where Michael was and made it to him, Joe had decided he would receive only comfort care and to let Michael go. When I walked into the room, Joe was folding a blanket he'd used for cover while sleeping in a chair pressed right up against Michael's bed. He was singing in a breathy, wobbly tenor some sort of nonsense song, the lyrics punctuated by "sweetie" and "honey". Michael's face was turned toward Joe, his neck stretching, but I didn't see anything in Michael's eyes that let me believe he was there. "And you're the honey, yes you are" is the only lyric I can recall.And over the next several hours, until I had to return to the friary, I watched Michael come closer and closer to his dying.
But more than anything what I saw is the holiness of the love between these two men. One going into the Mystery and the other harrowed and hollowed out by that going. I saw Joe fall back into his chair and sob but without being able to produce tears. When two are one, what happens when the beloved dies? It is a ravening of the self, which hadn't been only itself for decades.
And yet, Joe sweetly, urgently, tenderly told Michael over and over to let go. That it was time. To shut his eyes and just go. "Come on, baby, we got a plane to catch," he whispered once as he stroked Michael's cheek. "You need to get a move on, honey." He asked Michael to give him the pain of losing him entirely in exchange for the relief of Michael's own suffering. And I believe he allowed me to be there for so many hours today because, despite the torment he suffered at the hands of so-called Christians, and what I represent to him, he hoped maybe I could do something for Michael.
I don't know if Michael will be alive when I return to the hospital tomorrow morning. I don't know if I will ever see Joe again. But I know that what I witnessed today is a sacrament, in the fullest sense of the term: an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. Joe's kisses on Michael's face, his long fingers stroking Michael's arm, his pleading whispers, his long silences spent simply staring into eyes that will not ever again look back into his--these are the elements of this sacrament.
The love that brought these men to this place of sorrow and depthless loss can only be holy. This love is of God, because God's nature is to love openly, vulnerably, and to embrace agony for the sake of the Other. Where there is this kind of love, there is God, no matter the beliefs, or lack of beliefs, of those involved in that loving. As Saint John reminds us:
My dear people,
let us love one another
since love comes from God
and everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. . . .
No one has ever seen God
but as long as we love one another
God will live in us. (1 John 4:7, 12 Jerusalem Bible)
*All names are pseudonyms.