What was my "qualifier" for disaster chaplaincy? The AIDS pandemic.
I returned to active ministry through hospital chaplaincy in 1994. I trained at NY-Cornell, MSKCC, and NY Methodist Hospitals, and, was hired by Cabrini Medical Center, in part, because I was a Board Certified Chaplain who also happened to be gay and "out" and could actively support patients who had been abused by religion and disowned by their families and loved ones because they were gay and also had AIDS. It was not unusual to celebrate Christmas in July at that time because there would be no December.
I loved Cabrini, now closed, because a core group of dedicated elderly Italian and other Catholic nuns, were one of the first hospitals to admit AIDS patients even before the world knew what it was. This was a time of not touching door handles or using public water fountains. In those first years, thousands would die in New York hospitals, including Cabrini, before protease inhibitors delayed and started to save so may infected with HIV. It was also a time for staff support groups who were dealing with the emotional impact of daily fatalities and 'failure to thrive'. It was not unusual to hear Donna Summer played at a memorial service. Oftentimes, the professional intersected the personal, as sometimes I would walk into a room and recognize the patient as someone I knew. I met my husband through a couple who were living with HIV/AIDS who are alive today through treatment advances and life-saving research. I also came out at a time when sex could mean death. And, I remember the dead, and perpetual grief.
I miss Tommy Carraway.
I watched HBO's The Normal Heart and, like so many others, it brought so much back from that time. Tommy died in 1991 after working as a professional photographer in New York City. Tommy was from Warren, Arkansas, the pink tomato capital of the world. Tommy's mother, Manette, would FedEx tomatoes to him and at least half of them would survive whole and the other's would immediately go into a Vodka sauce. On one of his last hospitalizations at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and started singing "We're just two little girls from Little Rock", from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and those assembled would all crack up with laughter.
Tommy's late friend, Stewart Greenspan, was the Editor of Art and Auction, and would send Tommy on assignment to photograph art world stars like David Hockney and gave us press passes that got me into museums all over the world as well as the Venice Film Festival. I wish someone would make a book of those photographs to help others discover the artist and creative genius that was Tommy Carraway. I miss Stewart, too.
Tommy would share a house on Fire Island every summer with Bill Wingfield, Eileen Lapsansky, and Linda from "L'Oreal". Bill was famous for his annual Texas birthday party in the Village (with commemorative T-shirts), Eileen was the fashion director for Mademoiselle magazine, and Linda was a big deal in fragrances and beauty products for the USA. Work hard, play hard. Next year's big things were planned the summer before there. You needed to be someone, or know someone. Creative decisions and contracts were made there. It was a safe place, so to speak, to be. Isolated and beautiful. For some, Eden. And, then there was Tommy from Arkansas who could understand what it was like to be Earl from Missouri. In The Pines and Cherry Grove, renters and owners started to die, and, houses sold, and each summer would end with a huge dance on the beach and then sadness.
I didn't realize that Tommy was sick. I really couldn't imagine anyone who was such a close friend, good person, informed and intelligent was infected. Yes, my florist had died, and, my barber, too, and, every week the Times had the obituary of someone famous that had died of pneumonia or lung cancer. But, that was understandable as a way for the families and loved ones to 'save face' from the stigma of acquiring and dying of HIV/AIDS. And, they were other people. One afternoon I saw medicine bottles under Tommy's nightstand and I finally got it. It was still extremely difficult to talk about because there were all these complex feelings about not giving up hope and the overwhelming reality that he might soon die.
So, last Sunday night, a reminder of a missing generation, a time compared to wartime, a time to hide or to fight, to remain silent and die, or become visible and identify that all members of every family in all communities and every nation, small towns, big cities, those with much time and those with very little time left, those that defied families and secrecy, and diplomacy, implications, and short vision. People were dying and that was a fact. It was also factual that that was okay because the dead happened to be gay or black or immigrants and really did not have power. It was there that The Normal Heart and Larry Kramer reminded us living today: Act Up. Fight AIDS. Questioning authority evolved into challenge authority.
Some would say that that activism translated into Fight Breast Cancer,or, Autism. Fight for the cure. To painfully understand that those who said they cared, really didn't care, and, that it was up to you finding and uniting with other kindred spirits who had come to the same understanding.
Hospitals came into being through religious groups, who believed in the mission to care, heal, nourish, and comfort the sick and dying. Have mercy on those in need, and work for justice, social justice, in this case, for those who died before a treatment, vaccine, or cure could be found. Think about what they could have contributed to benefit all mankind and the quality of life and collected wisdom for all of us. Tommy was such a beautiful soul; I miss him, and his generous spirit that keeps his memory whole. Just because you're dead, doesn't mean you're not here.