Updated: Jun 24, 2020
“We care about each of our clients in different ways, but this one is hitting you hard. I wonder why.” My therapist's comment was delivered with her usual straight-forwardness, yet the tilt of her head and the tear in her eye showed she was perhaps thinking of one of her own clients. As I watched, her unwavering professionalism wiped the droplets of sorrow from her eyes and she refocused on me.
Why was Sam’s hospitalization catching in my throat? I mean, of course having an HIV+ client receive a diagnosis of cancer for a third time was devastating. I hadn't acknowledged how it was affecting me, that is, until now, when I sat on the other side of the client-therapist couch. As a gay man who had grown up in the shadow of the AIDS pandemic, I felt Sam's situation on a gut level.
“Have you ever had a client face death before?”
“Of course.” My reply came a bit too quickly and had a scorpion’s sting on the end. She adeptly dodged the lashing but raised an eyebrow to indicate she had noticed. Otherwise her expression remained soft and open.
“And does Sam’s feel familiar to any other?” Her words came with deceiving tenderness. Not from lack of compassion, but because they were sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel. I closed my eyes and tilted my head back a bit. I allowed my mind to free-associate, knowing it would follow the trail of acrid crumbs back to their source. When, moments later, I stumbled into a set of black, old-school Converse high tops with orange laces, my eyes snapped open.
“What came up?”
“His name was Jamie.” I said, wiping a small tear from the corner of my eye. I tried to ignore the rush of memories pouring from the crack in the damn I had just unwittingly made. “He was one of my first clients in private practice, but he had also gone to the same high school as me. We were on the JV basketball team together.”
My therapist gave a slight nod, her eyes widening a bit in a knowing way. Her bottom lip protruded forward almost undetectably. I was grateful to have a witness as I realized the connection between Jamie and Sam; two humans no one else on the planet would associate with one another.
“Tell me about him.” Her words were unnecessary as I had fallen into the memory of Jamie, wading into its depths, unsure of what I would find. Although the waters were murky--a mixture of separate memories decades apart and churned together--my blind groping produced a picture of Jamie’s face.
“He had breath-taking eyes, the kind you were jealous of as a girl.” These were the words of another classmate, uttered when recalling what little was known about this scrawny boy who was a few years younger than she and I. People used to say this about him I suppose, but when I began working with him in his 30s, all light had drained from them. As if on cue, his picture faded from the bright-eyed, high top wearing skinny teen to an ashy skinned, sunken eyed dying man, fighting the ravaging effects of AIDS.
“He was referred to me by his Hospice worker because he wanted to clear his conscience before he died. Neither of us realized we had previously known each other until his intake session.” My voice trailed off as more fragments bubbled to the surface.
I had asked him if our going to the same small high school in the middle of nowhere would bother him. Although I was 3 years older than him, there were less than 300 students in our 7th through 12th grade school. It was the kind of town where the school secretary would call the mothers who would then call each other as their kids came home from school. News traveled faster than buses, and the town prided itself on the efficiency of its gossip chain.
“No,” he had assured me, “it’s actually better this way. Now I don’t have to explain who Mr. Minick (the librarian) was or how living 2 blocks away meant I could run home after school to avoid J.P. (the biggest bully in the school).”
And so, for the final weeks of Jamie’s life, I listened to a man unfettering himself from the carnal grit of his past. My time with him was, to this day, one of the most conflicting experiences I’ve endured.
I was glad to hold space for him, allowing him to leave years of baggage on this side of the grave, to watch the specters of the past rise-up with haunting chills and then find peace. Their resurrections and release left Jamie feeling weightless. On the other hand I struggled to keep his unleashed burdens separate from my own. Inevitably, some of our stories overlapped, and got crammed under my memories’ bed – food for those monsters I hadn’t yet faced.
I wasn’t informed of his death, or what his burial arrangements were. He simply stopped coming. When I called, his hospice worker told me he’d died alone in his small apartment. The people responsible for his affects had come and claimed everything already and his records were kept private. It was as if our work together over the past two months were a figment of my imagination.
“So, you haven’t ever processed Jamie’s death and how it impacted you, have you?”
I didn’t need to answer her. It was written on my face. I could barely breathe, the flood of unprocessed emotion was rising rapidly around me, released from the icy grave where I had banished it years ago. Don’t look at her or you’ll lose it. I told myself. I knew I still had to drive home after I left her office in a few minutes.
I almost made it to the car before the dam broke entirely and I was carried away by a wave of grief. I stayed in my seat and left the windows closed despite the sweltering heat. I didn’t care who could see me. I allowed the sorrow to flood my space until it almost pulled me under. I let it the pain seep from my skin, at least it was outside of me now.
After the sorrow came a wave of shame. I was supposed to be above all of this. I was a professional, and I should know how to deal with a client’s death. Hell, I had walked through death with several already — Suicide, overdose, cancer, AIDS-related complications.
I was also ashamed by my silence I had kept as a young, gay man. I had dug myself so deep into the closet when I was a teenager, I thought myself safe from the plague that swept a generation of carefree men from the Earth. As the self-righteous watched their just “god” wash the dens of iniquity clean of the love they could only see as lasciviousness, I stood behind them, a scared little sissy too terrified to make a sound. Although it was far from safe for me to have come out in my small town, I still huddled in my closet when I left for college.
When I became a Resident Assistant at Penn State in the early 90s, we had to take a cultural sensitivity course. During one of the exams, I hesitated over a question which still rings in my ears today — Do you see AIDS as a judgement from God? I had been so brainwashed, I had believed I was always just one tiny thought away from being condemned to hell anyway, so, yes, AIDS was a judgement from God. But I also thought everything, including catching a cold or failing an exam, was a judgement from God. They didn’t seem to be looking for this answer though. So, I lied and circled “No.”
I stayed buried in the closet until I was 35 years old. I have let layers of guilt, shame, and pain go since then. I have dealt with a lot of the skeletons in my closet which kept me cowered there in fear. There are still more, and I never know when one will spill out into my life, knocking the wind out of me. My client Sam’s admission to the hospital and diagnosis of cancer’s return triggered this one.
Ever since I came out, I have marched down the street in our city’s annual Pride Fest. At first, I was timid, afraid people from my past would be there to jeer and fling hatred. Now, I am much bolder. Most years I march in pride for what our community has done, for who we are. Last year, I marched for Jamie. I’ll allowed myself to air out the last murky corners of the cesspool where I buried his memories. He lived his life fully and unloaded his burdens before dying. I didn’t need to keep them and so I allowed them to fly free into the light.