Friday, September 5, 2008

Joe E. M., Requiescat in Pace

Yesterday, I felt low-spirited all day. I attributed this to malaise with the damnfoolery of our national political “discussions,” the willingness of people to lie brazenly and then dare us to have the intelligence or integrity to call them to accountability for their lies. Stupidity wears on me. But venality does so even more, I think.

Today, however, I happened to look at the little diary I keep of dates of birth and death of family members and friends. And when I did so, I discovered that yesterday was the anniversary of my school friend Joe M.’s death in 1994.

I’ve spoken before about my intent concern to remember those whose lives come and go and seem all too easily forgotten. I myself am first among those capable of forgetting. I challenge myself to remember that every human life is a story, and every story is worth hearing.

It grieves me tremendously that social structures of denigration and exclusion prevent our hearing the stories of many significant lives. One of the themes explored constantly in the art of those tracking the AIDS crisis of the latter part of the 20th century was the extinction of one life after another due to AIDS—an extinction that robbed us of many talented, loving human beings long before we expected to lose these members of our families and of our circles of friends—and with the extinction of so many so quickly, the challenge not to forget.

Joe’s was one of those lives. From the time I was 9 or 10 up through the end of high school, Joe was my best friend, my inseparable companion. We shared a Sunday School class. We both sang in the church youth choir, and spent every Wednesday afternoon after school wandering the streets of town with our friend John as we whiled away the hours up to choir practice.

We had a route, a routine, that never varied. We headed first to the downtown pharmacy with its old wooden and glass cases, its marble counter at which one could sit on rotating red stools and enjoy a sundae or a hamburger.

Our standing order was a Dr. Pepper into which we dipped sticks of soft peppermint candy until it became pocked with the sweet dark liquid. We then ate the candy greedily and followed it with swallows of cold Dr. Pepper. The combination of mint and prune-flavored soft drink shocked the palate, in a way we deemed delicious, so narrow was the society we inhabited.

After visiting John’s father’s secretary Mrs. Shuff, and vaulting up and down the exterior, glass-enclosed staircase of his father’s office building, we headed to a hamburger grill near our church, where we also had a standing order. Here, it was hamburgers served with grilled onions and mayonnaise.

Some Wednesday evenings, we popped over to a newsstand nearby, to peruse magazines not to be found in our three church-dominated homes. Chief among these were muscle-men journals, at which we laughed—the ridiculous poses, the bulging pecs and arms, the skimpy bathing suits. Three young teens who had no clue in the world that we were all gay, who had no access at all to any kind of gay “literature” other than those magazines, which Joe confessed to me years later, shockingly me profoundly, that he sometimes carefully rolled up and hid in his umbrella case, to sneak them out for closer scrutiny in the privacy of his own home.

(So we did have a clue, though we lived in total denial—really, total ignorance—or who we were, because we had no vocabulary at all to name our experience of life.) What must the store owner have thought of us? I seem to recall semi-affectionate, semi-ironic glances from him that troubled me at bit, because I could only half guess at their significance. How many other upstanding citizens of our church-ridden town came to his store daily to enliven and extend their experience of life beyond Sunday School and choir practice?

As high school went on, Joe and I became closer each year, sharing almost all of our classes, since we were in an “accelerated” track in English, science, and math, and took four years of Latin together, as well. We competed fiercely, inventing insanely esoteric quizzes about obscure literary figures, books, quotations, to administer to each other in the study periods that occurred throughout the day. Our mothers competed vicariously in their own Sunday School class, where my mother was once furious at Joe’s mother for noting that her son read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca much more quickly than my mother’s son did.

Then we went to college, and everything changed. I was at Loyola in New Orleans, Joe at Tulane. Even though the schools were side by side, we seldom saw each other. I transferred my adolescent Sunday School fervor to the Catholic church, its rituals, its theology.

Joe moved along a different path. He found he was gay and came out of the closet. He told me this in a way that I persistently identified as shocking in later conversations with him—though I would no doubt have been shocked at the revelation under any circumstances. Especially since I was not permitting myself to be conscious of a similar narrative in my own life, totally inexperienced though I was with any sexual activity at all.

In our junior years, Joe went off to a year in England, and then decided he belonged there. He did all he could to stay longer than that year abroad. My memory of the circumstances is fuzzy: I think he stayed several years and then could not obtain permission to extend his visa.

He went to New York, studying film there and obtaining a graduate degree in film-making. By this time, I had met Steve, and our lives were engrossed in church work—and in our relationship with each other, which was clearly a gay one, but which we chose then to see as one of temporary experimentation with a sexual expression neither of us had tasted before, as “good” little Catholic boys.

Joe and I grew further and further apart. I was in the closet, and not even aware that there was a closet, since I was in total self-denial about the reality that needed to be shut away—even while living in a committed, intimate relationship of love that was the very center of my emotional and spiritual life.

Then Joe told me that he was HIV+. By this point, I think I had already begun to come out to myself, and then to my family and friends, and I had either told Joe of my own gayness before he told me of his medical diagnosis, or I told him this shortly after he told me he was positive.

Joe’s struggle with AIDS—a harsh one, as with so many young men who had AIDS in that early period of the crisis—did not really bring us closer. We had grown apart for too long. The religion to which I clung—still, bafflingly, since there was little comfort or consolation in the Catholic church for gay people in those years (and there is not now)—separated Joe and me. He had repudiated the childhood faith that was even more the center of his life and his family’s than had been the case for me and my family.

And he had no choice except to do so. His parents bought him an apartment in New York, and were generous in supporting him when he was unable to keep a job. But they also made it very plain to him that he need not come home, need not let our town know who he was and the life he had been leading. It is out of respect for their privacy, though I am not sure they are still living, that I do not use my friend's full name in this memoir.

I learned of Joe’s death from a friend of his, a Louisiana acquaintance, who had been with him and his parents as he died. The friend told me that Joe had died looking at the sun set over the Hudson—a scene he always loved. He had left a request for his ashes to be taken to England and scattered in a place he felt was his place more than any in the world. The friend knew the spot, and was to take Joe’s ashes there.

Someone later—I forget who; the friend, I think—sent me the funeral program from Joe’s funeral in our Arkansas hometown. The front cover had a scripture verse splayed across the top: “The wages of sin is death.” I think I filed it away somewhere. I have not wanted to look at it after reading the scripture verse his family chose for the funeral.

Like every life lost too soon, like every life lived in such straitened circumstances that the person living the life has too little time and energy to make her or his contribution to the world, Joe’s life counted. It was valuable. It was important.

We have lost immeasurably much by losing Joe M. before he could give us all he was capable of giving. We lose immeasurably much each day that we permit our social and ecclesial structures to give any human the impression that she or he does not count.

I am obliged to remember my friend. I am proud to do so. I have no doubt at all, knowing Joe, that he would find much to criticize in this eulogy and in my blog as a whole. Joe was far wiser than I have ever been about holding his tongue.

Nonetheless, warts and all, I want to remember this friend whom I miss very much, on the day following his death fourteen years ago. Joe E. M., rest in peace.