Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Steep Learning Curve in Life and Death



I taught in Minneapolis from the mid-1970s until the mid-1980s. There were many things going on in the world then, but my life mostly revolved around my two young children and starting my teaching career. Emerson School was an incredible place where a young staff of dedicated but fun-loving educators worked to optimize the lives of severely handicapped students.
Our crew was mostly women, except for the obligatory older male wood shop teacher, the outdoors-type rock-climber guy, and a first year teacher who was a very handsome single man. The girls hung out together on the weekends, went to the lake together in the summer, and held wedding and baby showers for each other.
Bride And Groom Stock PhotoCathy was one of our home economics teachers. She was about twenty three when she became engaged to and then married a nice young man. I went to her shower and her wedding, and one time, about a year into her marriage, I attended a St. Patrick's Day party at her new home. It turned out to be a combination house warming party as well.
Strangely, her husband was not at home. Even though he had recently been diagnosed with what she described as some sort of skin cancer, he had gone out partying with some of his friends. She told us he would join us later...his long-time friends had an annual St.Patrick's Day celebration that he really wanted to attend. We proceeded without him, and had our usual fabulous time together, but by the time we were all ready to go home, her husband had still not arrived. As we filed out the door, she assured us she would properly chastise him for standing us up.
Cathy lost her young husband to the cancer about six months later. She was devastated, and although she knew she had all our love and support the whole time he was dying, Cathy declined all offers for visits or assistance. She became more and more isolated from even her closest friends. We were really at a loss as to how to comfort her, and then she suddenly asked for an extended unpaid leave for herself.
We worried about depression and even her sometimes suicidal references. She would only let one person inside her shell. It was the other home economics teacher, and she maintained strict confidentiality, as a best friend should, but it was so difficult for the rest of us who really wanted to try to help.
Six months later, Cathy was dead. It was the same cancer that killed her husband. Kaposi's sarcoma. This was the cancer that had just recently, in the early 1980s, become known to be associated with HIV/AIDS. We were stunned to learn all this. AIDS was so very new back then. Little reliable information was available and scary rumors abounded. We felt so helpless.
A dear friend was gone so young and it would have been so easy to "blame" her dead husband. He was, after all, the sneaky undeclared bisexual who had lied and cheated on his young bride, and who had spread this horrible disease to our innocent, unsuspecting Cathy.
This is how we COULD have felt, but it wasn't. There were reasons we were not seething with anger at all of this. First of all, we all had recently made a new friend...a new gay friend. Tim, our new handsome teacher I mentioned earlier, came out of the closet. This was such a brave move for him, but he trusted us and he had proven himself a loving and caring friend and teacher. He was completely accepted, as we all experienced a very steep learning cure in alternative lifestyles. Also, this gay stuff was so previously unknown to us. It appeared to have stolen one very special person from us, but it opened a new door at the same time. Lots of people began opening doors.
It was not long after this that a cousin of mine, very close to me in age, who had married and had children, divorced and came out of the closet. I already knew that one of my husband's brothers was gay. All the while, our society was becoming more and more educated about AIDS, and brave souls were putting real faces on the crisis. This had not been possible before, as our society had always struggled mightily to keep everyone silent, and in their closets. 
 When something awful happens, it is human nature to look for someone to blame. I have a problem with that. It is such a negative assignation. I think there is a better way to deal with "bad stuff". I believe God has a purpose in everything; God participates actively in all parts of our lives. Having said that, let me hasten to add that I don't believe He makes bad things happen, or allows them to happen, or can stop them from happening. He is with us. How? That's the mystery and the faith part. So, for Cathy's situation, let's start with the fact that it happened. 
"Shoulda, coulda, woulda" does not matter. It was sad, it was unfair, and at that point in the history of American gay culture, it was most likely unpreventable.  Her husband was who he was, but he was not aware of the deadly disease which was barely on the horizon of medicine at that time. He didn't know what hit him. The doctors most likely had no treatment for it and no way of knowing he had passed it along to Cathy. I believe Cathy figured out what had happened after she became ill, and kept us all at a distance to keep us safe from what was at that time an unknown killer. Back then, there were multiple myths about how HIV was spread.
Cathy and her husband were two of the very first AIDS casualties in Minneapolis. Since then, the rich, the poor, the famous, the unknown, the young, the old, the addicts, the tea-totalers, the straight, and the homosexual...they have all felt its effects. Our society has changed, embraced diversity, and moved forward (or backward in the minds of some).  Everyone has their opinion and I have mine. It changes slightly now and then, as God tugs me in one direction or another, but I do know this...love wins. Hate loses. We are all children of God, and God has a purpose in everything.