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  • Writer's pictureHeather Austin

Awakening: A Tribute

(TW: bigotry, AIDS death, strong language)

We met in the early 90's, when I was a good little Christian girl who did home health care in my little brown Pinto with the Pat Buchanan for President and Amendment 2 bumper stickers on it. I had no idea what working with you was going to mean to me at the time, but you were one of my first "wake up sleepyhead" alarm clocks. I hit my snooze button a few times before I actually woke up, but I'm here now, and I'm grateful beyond words to you, Jay.

I knew very little about AIDS at the time, only that it was a fatal disease that a lot of gay men in other places were getting and dying from. There's a slim chance I'd watched some documentary or a benefit concert or something for a few minutes, but honestly, I doubt it. When the agency I worked for asked me if I'd be comfortable working some hospice shifts with an AIDS patient, I thought about it a bit, but decided that yeah, I'd do that. How hard could it be sitting with someone bedbound and helping them be comfortable? I remember that first night at his house, after he went to sleep but before my replacement had gotten there, I was bored and decided to scan his bookshelves for something interesting. I did find some very "interesting" art books and novels, browsed through them with a strange mix of arousal and guilt. I was a good Christian girl after all, and for one, such images weren't something I was "supposed to" be looking at, and also I was a professional guest in this home and shouldn't be nosy like that. So when my curiosity had at least had the edge taken off of it, I decided to spend some time with the Bible I found on a shelf reading and praying for this man I'd just met. Looking back on it, I was pouring healing energy and love energy toward him silently as I sat by his bed and watched him sleep. I quickly learned to bring a book with me to work when I was there. I never truly was that kind of devout in my faith. That night was a fluke.

I spent the last nine months of Jay's life taking care of him a few days a week. His friends came and went, and got to know me as well. I felt quite a bit of shame once I woke up about these things when I imagined of what they must have thought of me with my car blaring my bigotry for all to see parked in front of his house. I hope that they caught on that I didn't truly feel that way as they watched me interact with them and their beloved friend. How those messages I moved through the world with could have wounded them as they came to visit! We know that now as a microaggression, although I venture to say that "micro" doesn't truly cut it! From my side, I learned through getting to know him and his friends that LGBTQ people aren't the sex-crazed degenerates with no morals that the church tried to describe them as. These people were a constant presence in Jay's life. They'd bring him his favorite foods, watch tv with him, take him out to the patio to smoke with them, hold his hand and hug him, reminisce with him, just be with him and show him love. One day while I was there, his friend who was there the most (I truly don't know if they were more to each other or not. Could be, but I don't want to assume.) had a list of names and phone numbers that he took into a closed bedroom with him for a couple hours, and emerged looking wilted and drained and oh so sad. My heart aches for him as I write and remember this.

I wasn't there the night Jay died. I got the call that he'd passed but that his friends wanted us to still be there that day to help with the house details that needed to be attended to. I always wished I'd been able to say goodbye to him. He faded away as these kinds of deaths are often described, bit by bit becoming smaller and quieter and more internally focused. He didn't always make sense when he talked near the end, but I do hope that train ride was fantastic and full of friends in the car to welcome him.

One of the most unique compliments I ever got was when one of his friends told me after the memorial gathering that "Jay always called women 'cunts', but he never thought of you as that." I take comfort in that, knowing that he saw through the good little Christian girl trappings to my heart and core and knew that I was happy to be with him at the end, and I cared a great deal for him. This morning I got the nudge that he was one of my soul family, that we'd agreed before we came to this life to be this to each other. Jay opened my eyes, expanded my frame of reference, kicked off a passion for HIV and AIDS research and care, showed me what an honor and privilege it is to be part of someone's dying, and assisted in my coming to understand that I'm not and never have been heterosexual. He is with me when I watch "And The Band Played On" and weep for the utter tragedy I see there. He is part of my fascination for Queen and Freddie Mercury. And he is part of why I understand without a shadow of a doubt that people are people, regardless of labels and assumptions and prejudices.

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