"Everytime I try to fly, I fall
Without my wings, I feel so small
I guess I need you, baby
And everytime I see you in my dreams
I see your face, it's haunting me
I guess I need you, baby"
(Everytime, Britney Spears, 2004)
Once Doug was buried and gone, it seemed the only thing I had left was not knowing what we could have been, what should have been. I really believed I had nothing left to hold on to. As the drive to join him faded into yesterday, I had to discover just how to live again for today. It was not a matter of learning how to exist, but wanting to. It was hard to find reason to move on when my entire world was lost to those few moments when he decided to abandon it all. I had already been through so many changes in my life, but his suicide, that one leap, took what was left of my life as well.
For months, everytime I tried to spread my wings and soar past the pain, I was instantly reminded that I could not fly. I didn't even want to. I had abandoned God years before, claiming to hate and loathe the mere idea of a merciful Saviour, but this one act castrated any joy or hope left within me. It didn't help to make believe that Doug was sitting next to me, or right behind me, whispering that everything would be okay. I felt nothing would ever be okay again.
I was sure this was punishment; pure and unadulterated consequence from a decade of rejecting everything I had come to know about Grace and this greater Love. I still needed Doug, so I let him haunt me. His face was in every mirror, his voice sent with the wind. When the flames of once was turned to dust in my mind, I knew I had to find a way to carry on. I had to find a way to live for the promise I had made to my parents and to try to hang on. I had to find a way to make purpose from all this death. I knew I had to find a way for me to survive, to go on once again despite still needing him. When all good things come to an end, you have a choice. You either get on with living or you get on with dying. Either way, time will look after you regardless.
While throwing myself at the feet of Jesus seemed to do nothing but confirm he had abandoned me, as well, I was determined to find a way through all this. Once I took a few steps towards this living again, I wanted so badly to turn what was such a negative experience into something much more positive than how it had been. It was obvious that Doug was not able to aviate through his misery, his lack of feathers condemning him to a fall into darkness. I was bound to make things better. The only way I could ever soar was to take to flight in the hope of rising above.
I started to read, to study in hopes of understanding. I studied Durkheim, in an attempt to comprehend the reasons why Doug did what he did. I threw myself into Scripture, hunting for the God I believed was hiding within the pages of books and good news. Anything that spoke to me of God, Jesus or spiritual tranquility became my focus. I watched all the television shows on these topics I could get my hands on. I read it all, I studied even more, talking and listening and learning more than I ever could have imagined. The way through became my way, a sense of living that has never faded for me. At the age of 30, I began life all over again.
That first summer alone, I spent sticking myself with pricks, and not the kind most gay men would imagine. The Morphine and Demerol became my quick friends, then, with autumn, blew away as if fallen leaves. I tried to kill the homosexual demon within me through chemical warfare, instructed that God would make me acceptable if I asked for it bad enough. My repentance was true, but the demon remained in spite of all my fury against it. Still, I paid attention and started to realize that, to fly, you need wings. Most wings are like those worn by Icarus, melting in the sun. To truly find this flight into freedom, I would have to stop just studying and start experiencing.
Adam was 38 when, in 1989, he was infected with HIV during a casual sexual encounter. While the drugs of the time, like AZT, helped prolong his life, they did not hold a candle to the current cocktails which allow those infected to live a normal lifespan with little complication from AIDS. Unfortunately for Adam, he did not benefit from our modern medicine. By the time I met him, in October 1995, Kaposi's sarcoma, wasting disease and a destroyed immune system had taken everything from him but his last breath. You could tell from the condition of him that he was not long for this world.
I had volunteered with the AIDS Committee of London in an attempt to help those most affected by an uncaring God. I suppose, in some way, I wanted to reveal that God was better than what His "flock" claimed for Him. For years, good, loving Christians had delivered a message of God's unconditional love with cute, little sayings, such as "God hates fags" or "AIDS is God's punishment for homosexuals". This complete ignorance redefined the Christian faith for me and helped me see past the ridiculously sublime character of many who claim to follow Him.
I realized, for the first time, that if God was handing out punishment for how each one of us behaved, there would be endless lineups at the morgue. After all, it is the Christian claim that ALL fall short, not just those with some sin that we pick and choose to condemn. When it all comes down, maybe God is for everyone. When you look into the eyes of the dead, you see nothing but an empty place where life used to be. When you look in the eyes of the dying, you see fear and confusion and a need for hope, for something to bring comfort and something to soar on. Adam needed a way through, he needed wings to fly.
I spent the next few weeks learning how Adam coped with his end stage. I had witnessed death before, just a few months previous to this time when my grandfather died in July. I had seen death before, in February, as Doug lay frozen on that cold metal slab. Witnessing my new friend wither into nothing was one of the hardest things in the world for me to watch, yet it was revealing beyond compare. The process of death has so many faces. Some, like my mother, fade quickly into the light. Others linger, drawn out like a bad cartoon to which we all know the last scene. All the pain, all the suffering, and yet still I could not find a God of mercy.
On Friday, October 20th of 1995, I showed up at Adam's place mid-morning. I completed my tasks about his apartment, cleaning and straightening the little amount of clutter he managed to make. I helped him into his bath and read to him from Dickens' Great Expectations. Too weak to dry himself off, I carefully applied a towel. His epidermis was grey translucent. You could almost see under it. There was no substance to him whatsoever, he was, literally, all skin and bone. The thick hair I had seen in his pictures was ragged and thinning or missing. He had large welts all over his head and body, not pustules, but more like large misshaped moles, randomly spreading like some web of veins, all about and around his torso. There was no beauty in his manner.
He was weak, weak and exhausted. With each visit, he had grown worse than the one before. It was as if he was a distant sunset fading forever out of being, the light still here but melting into no more. In truth, he looked more like a Jewish Concentration Camp prisoner than a gay man in his early 40s. I guess I got used to his state of being, never fearing for my safety despite all the ignorant thinking of the time. Adam went from a method in my learning to live again, to a friend and role model I have never forgotten. He presented me with a lesson, not so much in how to live, but rather, in how to die. He was so fragile, in a physical sense, but so strong within himself.
Outside his apartment, this fall day brought sunshine and enough wind to scatter red and yellow across the canvas past his window. We sat and talked about this day and what this day could offer him. We discussed living in the moment even while dying at that moment. As the afternoon began to fade into evening, I left him with our novel at that window. He loved to sit in the twilight, watching children play in the park and old ladies walking their dogs. I went to the kitchen and I made some Earl Grey for the both of us. He sat quietly, for the longest time. He was in such pain, constantly drawn towards his own doom. He sat so still that I had to check that he wasn't still. There was nothing his medication, my presence, or, apparently, God could do for him now.
I never saw Adam again. The ravages of full-blown AIDS kept most coffins sealed back then. An open casket was just not a good idea. He died on Sunday, October 22nd, 1995 at approximately 11 a.m. It was a small funeral, scattered faces fixed with names I had never heard. The cremation was completed the next day and his ashes scattered in the park across from his home. I was told he died in his chair, sitting watching the world go by. I know he was waiting to fly.
When I went to leave the memorial, his mother, Carol, handed me a small envelope left by Adam on Saturday. I wasn't sure if I wanted to open it, so I headed back towards my life, tucking it in my coat pocket. I read it later.
"What a beautiful day" was all he wrote.
"What if we fly? What if we fly?
And dive off the edge of the end of the world as we know it
What if we fly?
Have faith enough to think fate might just know where we're going
What if the arms of the wind carry us to the place
We never could find?
Yes we might fall
But what if we fly?
I know we might fall
But what if we fly?"
(What If We Fly, Chely Wright, 2001)