Tuesday, June 06, 2006

My first AIDS funeral was a lesson in marriage.

They were an old married couple who lived in a small rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. At least that's what they reminded me of. They bickered. They sniped. They muttered and groused. They laughed and knew each others habits and mannerisms better than their own. And they loved each other in a way that comes with familiarity and longevity.

I was a middle-year seminarian in my early twenties who knew everything and knew nothing. When I entered General Seminary, no one ever heard of AIDS. When I left, three years later it was as if we were all dying of AIDS.

To learn the ins-and-outs of day to day parish ministry and to do some community organizing in apartments and single-room-occupancy hotels that would soon become condos, I went into the neighborhood. And I met these two men. They were okay church goers. Not active, but not too absent either.

They really hated the "new" prayer book. They weren't at all sure about ordained women. They still thought of church in terms of canticles and prayers not bread and wine.

They were partnered a long time, since the late 1940's or early 1950's. Oh, how I wish I could remember their names! I had no idea then how they would still be speaking to me twenty five years later. During my occaisional visits, one became very ill. At first, he was not so sick. He went to the VA for a routine, minor surgery. But then he became very sick.

There was by this time--1981--already many stories of a disease ripping through the gay community. Gay men were dying and no one seemed to know why. When you are only in a church two or three days a week, and time is measured in marking periods, it seemed to me that people were healthy and alive one week and dead before we knew it. During that school year, John Lennon was murdered right around the corner--next to my subway station! It felt as if our who neighborhood was under siege, if not by madmen then by plague.

So one of the men came home from the hospital and soon became very sick, and before the end of the spring semester, I carried a cross at his funeral. No one knew how he, of all people, together with this one man for so many years got this disease. It was frightening.

Of course, we know now it was not in a bathhouse or a bar, but very probably in the hospital or doctors office. There were no vows broken. This is important, because the moment I recall most vividly was the one when the dying man told his spouse that he was sorry, and asked his forgiveness for being sick, and promising him that there was never anyone else. Not ever.
They wept and held each other. I imagine that this was how they met death together.

God, it was so scary! God, we were so frightened then! There was so much then that we did not know. We did not know about universal precautions then. We did not know about reverse isolation. We only knew that people got sick and died.

The faces of this couple, along with the dozens of other gay men I got to know as a priest and chaplain in those dreadful early years of AIDS, stay with me even today. When someone asked me three years ago how I could even possibly think of supporting the consecration of an open and affirming partnered gay man as a bishop, all I could and can say is that I see too many faces, held too many hands, sat too many vigils at too many bedsides.

When people ask me about what I think about "gay" marriage, I think of this old married couple on the upper west side in their little rent controlled apartment. I don't think of them as anything but what they were in fact. Even if the words were not spoken in a church or by a judge, they were what they were: they were married.

Their love looked and still looks the same to me. And so did their grief.

Too many couples tried to do what couples need to do at the hard and terrible moments. At least with these two men, this first AIDS funeral I went to, were parted by death and not by scandalized families and shamed communities. Too many other couple I know, were kept apart precisely because of their love and so died a double death.

Twenty five years ago this week, the CDC put out a bulletin describing a disease that everyone in that church knew about (while at the same time knowing nothing). Today we see politicians and preachers rant and rail about the "sanctity of marriage" and like the prophets of doom and friends of Job back then, all I can say is that until you met couples like these men who were at their very best when they were at their very worst, then you have not seen marriage.

I saw the sanctity of marriage. It was alive and it was powerful and it was full of grace and truth and overcame death. Twenty five years ago, in a rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side. I saw it in a hospital room. I saw it in a funeral.

Even today, when I stand in front of altar with a loving and eager and awestuck couple between me and the people of God, I see the faces of these two men. When I witness a couple say the promise and vow to each other, "until we are parted by death," these are two of the faces I recall.

Anyone who has been married long enough knows what the sancity of marriage is when they see it, and I saw it in a rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side. I saw it in my first AIDS funeral.

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