Crashing the God Party
Jesse could really warm a heart. An old timer at the AIDS clinic, Jesse embraced the hospital-green, basement-dampened corridor that was the waiting room and squeezed laughter out of it. One morning he would be found in front of the television loudly taking sides with one of Oprah’s guests, “Honey, let your sister have the old bastard.” Another afternoon, he would present a basket of brightly colored condoms to a grandmother, instructing her to chose one to give to her grandson when he emerged from the treatment rooms, suggesting that he may need something fun to think about.
When Jesse wasn’t making mirth, he might be found manufacturing courage by offering a heartening word to those showing up for their first, scary appointments. Or, he would boast, to someone with the big, black splotches that come with AIDS-related Kaposi’s sarcoma, that their lesions looked like specks compared to the ones he once wore: “Sugar, I caused a Dalmatian to drop dead of envy.”
When Jesse’s symptoms finally took hold, he was referred to our hospice program. Among the hospice community, the joy of his presence grew in proportion to his dying. The volunteer assigned to him, a medical student, couldn’t get enough of his company. She told me that her time with Jesse, like no other part of her training, had confirmed her decision to be a doctor. At the clinical team meetings, Jesse’s “case,” when it came up, usually took too much time. He was a trill of light in a symphony of darkness, which we liked to play repeatedly.
I sometimes felt that a few of the people we cared for would actually dupe death, outlast, explode, or extinguish it. Jesse was one of those I imagined might pull it off. But he did not. Furthermore, his dying painted a burning question mark across the hospice team’s heart, the first brush stroke of which was made at the team meeting a few weeks before Jesse’s death.
The social worker presented Jesse’s plans for his dying. He would go back to his rural, South Georgia home, with the stipulation from his mom and dad that he meet two conditions. Once there, he would be baptized in the conservative church of his youth in order to over the sins of what his family considered, and he was now calling, his promiscuous life. He would be buried in straight clothes, a suit, something he did not own, being the rather extravagant and quite glamorous drag queen that he was.
The hospice team was confused and miffed. There was nothing in Jesse’s life among us that needed redeeming; indeed, on more than one occasion, the grace of his presence had saved us from gloom. And, Jesse was loved by enough people in Atlanta to ensure a comfortable death, with lots of company, within the confines of his authentic self. We wondered if Jesse had experienced a change of heart, or whether he was morphing back to the manner of his clan in order to have a bed among them in which to die. Possibly both. We would never know.
I spent a good part of my life as a Lutheran. Lutherans hang on, with pride, to a section of the Apostles’ Creed at which most folks look askance, the part that says, “He descended into Hell.” Lutherans don’t worry too much about the sentence’s lack of biblical weight, or it’s wilting before ratio, reason. There is just too much good grace to be had in the image of Jesus, “the intenerate Jewish peasant with an attitude,” spending Holy Saturday storming hell, springing the locks on the cells in which every alienated, cast aside, invisible, forgotten, violated person and community have been imprisoned along with their isolating experiences and fits of estrangement.
I like to ponder the fate of Jesse’s final days in a Lutheran sort of way: Jesse, on the deathbed of his roots, with more grace than any code could contain. Jesse’s precious self persisting against clan’s praises of and pronouncements about the accouterment of his deathbed conversion. Jesse, spending the Holy Saturday of his end time grabbing a good acre or two for heaven’s reign in one of Hell’s righteous regions.
I like to imagine Jesse cryptically cleansing the baptism pool into which he was dunked to de-breed what the deacons decried as dirtiness. I like to imagine Jesse showing up on his parent’s terms as a gift for them, an offering, knowing, as he did, that they would never “get” the way he really was.
Whatever the character of his incarnations of grace in “God’s country,” I know there were manifestations of some degree and kind. The Jesse we knew would make a difference in the darkness.
- Bill Blaine-Wallace, College Chaplain
Excerpt from William Blaine-Wallace, Water in the Wastelands: The Sacrament of Shared Suffering (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2002 [www.cowley.org]). Used by permission.
- home -
ŠOUTfront 2006 | design by jemufo