Judge not

My cousin’s birthday is tomorrow. She won’t be around to celebrate it, because she died in a car accident in 2001 at the tender age of 25. Her father called my mother today and sobbed on the telephone as he remembered. Even 13 years later, the wounds haven’t healed.

I remember Tammy’s funeral. People wept and talked in hushed tones as expected, but this one felt much different from other memorials. Most were quite obvious in their belief that Tammy didn’t go to heaven. Some were so convinced of this they dared to say it out loud. You see, Tammy was reared in a strict Pentecostal home, and she wasn’t living according to those standards the morning she wrecked on an ice-covered road.

Years later another young person I knew passed away. Like Tammy, they had left the faith of their childhood and weren’t living what you might call a “righteous” life. This time, however, things were much different. The same people who judged Tammy clung to hope that this particular person had gotten right with God in the final moments of their life, and the funeral was filled with admonishments about letting God be the final judge. There’s nothing at all wrong with that line of thought, but I wonder why Tammy was treated so differently?

If God is truly love and if God truly loves us more than we can possibly love each other, why would he cast a young person into Hell before they even have a chance to figure things out? I can’t think of anyone who deserves an eternity of torment, nor can I reason what it would accomplish. Even the worst criminal is given a shot at redemption.

I saw Tammy in a dream a few years ago. She looked lovely, and we walked together for a while as I wept. It was probably just a meaningless creation in my sleeping mind, but I treasure it. I prefer to think of her happy and at peace. I just wish those who call themselves “Christian” would give her the same courtesy.

Happy Birthday, Tammy. I remember your lovely smile and your wonderful sense of humor. I remember the fun we had driving with the windows down and the music turned up loud. I hope I made you feel even half as loved as you always made me feel. Maybe I’ll get a chance to see you again one day. Until then I’ll see you in my dreams.

Gay or straight: Thank you for being a friend

Honey and I have very few gay friends. This weekend, if all goes as planned, we will travel to watch two of them get married. We were at their commitment ceremony a few years ago, but since they have moved to a state that recently recognized gay marriage, they will make it official this Saturday.

I am not sure why we don’t have more gay friends. We don’t typically visit places where gay men congregate, and the few gay people we have met at church usually offer nothing more than a courteous hello.

Although it is unfair to paint everyone with the same brush, most of us gay men are downright nasty to each other when we first cross paths. It isn’t unusual to get a judgmental sneer or some side-eye. Whatever the reasons, I suspect it has to do with male aggression and competitiveness. Much like a lion defending his pride because of reproductive rights, we don’t want any interested parties sniffing around. Relationships are hard, but because gay relationships have even more challenges to face, it stands to reason that we don’t want to invite trouble.

Although it would be nice to have a few more gay friends who personally understand all the issues that gay people face on a day-to-day basis, genuine friendship from anyone is the ultimate goal. And, frankly, I have wonderful straight friends who are supportive, accepting, and understanding without being judgmental.

True friends are priceless, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Turning 40

Yesterday I celebrated my fortieth birthday. Forty trips around the sun. Forty years of trying to figure out who I am and what I believe.

I had originally planned to write a post about being more aware of my mortality, accepting the reality that I will never have children, and how something on my body hurts almost every single day, but after gathering with a large group of friends Saturday evening to ring in my fifth decade, I realized I am far too blessed to be complaining about the little things.

My mother planned a birthday lunch for me on Friday, where I joined my sister, niece, nephews, and grandmother for pizza, cake, and ice cream.

Honey worked very hard to pull off a surprise party for me at one of my favorite restaurants on Saturday. I thought we were only meeting 3 or 4 people for dinner, so it was wonderful to walk in and see a long table filled with friends with big smiles on their faces! We talked and laughed throughout the meal, and then traveled to Betty’s for cake and ice cream.

Sunday brought a lunch with church friends, tons of text messages with birthday wishes, and visits from family. More celebrating will come tonight when we visit another friend’s house for dinner. I will probably have gained 10 pounds by the time the festivities conclude.

I truly have so much to be grateful for. I am happy with my career, my home, and my partner. Not only was it the week to celebrate my birthday, it has also been 9 years since I met the love of my life. I can’t imagine living without him, and I hope I never have to.

At the risk of raising the ire of the universe, I am content. Here’s to another forty trips around the sun…

No guarantees

One of the main worries I have had over not having children is that there very well might not be anyone to take care of me when I’m old. Most of us rely on our children or grandchildren to make important decisions regarding our health and well being when we are physically or mentally unable to do it ourselves. This is the best case scenario, and like everything else in life, things don’t always go as planned.

I have written about Mrs. J’s son a couple of times over the past few years. He wasn’t exactly my favorite person when he moved in with her several years ago, but I have learned to like the old fart over time. He’s grouchy, selfish, and lazy, but he also has an excellent sense of humor and good math skills. Surely that counts for something!

My cell phone rang last Friday afternoon, but I didn’t answer since I didn’t recognize the number. I googled it a few minutes later to see if it was someone familiar. It turned out to be some medical alert company, so we immediately suspected Tommy was in trouble. Honey started trying to get him on the phone to no avail, so we jumped in the car and sped towards his home, which is only a few miles away. I called the alert company back and confirmed that they were indeed calling because Tommy had pressed the button on his necklace, and soon Honey and I were flying down the highway at over 80 mph with our flashers on.

As we turned into Tommy’s driveway in the quiet little subdivision that we moved out of a few years ago and jumped out of the car, I was startled to hear, “Keep your hands where I can see them! And, you, come here!” I glanced over my shoulder to see a state police car sitting behind us in the driveway, and a uniformed officer glaring at us with one hand on his gun.

It only took a split second for me to get angry. They say no good deed goes unpunished, but it should have been pretty clear that someone up to mischief wouldn’t be driving around with their hazard lights on. I yelled back that we had a medical emergency, while Honey tried to explain why we were there.

“What are you, a medical professional?” the cop sneered. “No,” Honey explained, “but for all we know, there could be a dead man inside this house right now.”

It finally seemed to register with the police officer that we needed to go inside, so he followed us through the door where we found Tommy slumped in the floor, bleeding and incoherent. Honey picked him up, then we carefully walked him to his recliner where he collapsed like dead weight. The officer went outside to call an ambulance while we tried to assess the situation.

When paramedics finally arrived, they checked his blood sugar. It was high. They checked his blood pressure and couldn’t even get a reading it was so low. His mouth was drooping on one side and his speech was slurred, so they began having him raise his arms and legs. It was very evident that something was wrong with the left side of his body.

Because none of Tommy’s four sons live in this part of the country, his wife is dead, and his mother is in the nursing home, there was no one to go with him to the hospital except us. We drove to the emergency room and sat for the next several hours while they ran a multitude of tests. When they finally got him into a room upstairs, it was nearing 10 o’clock and we were tired and hungry. I was also still fuming over our incident with the cop, even though he did apologize to Honey before he left, explaining that we “exited the vehicle in a manner consistent with suspicious behavior.” Whatever the hell that means.

I had called two of Tommy’s sons on the way to the hospital. One didn’t answer, so I informed the one who did of the situation with their father and asked him to call his other brothers to let them know. Another son called my phone for an update while we were in the emergency room. I explained that he was very sick with poor vital signs and was exhibiting symptoms of a stroke. He said he would call back the next day.

Although Tommy’s blood pressure and oxygen levels improved over the weekend, by Sunday evening he was moved into the Cardiac Care Unit due to a very fast heart rate. The doctors also think there is a blood clot in his left leg, and because he is having problems with mobility, they want to send him to the same nursing home his mother entered last year. Despite all of this, all four of his sons are still nowhere around.

So, what I have learned from this whole experience is that having children is no guarantee you won’t be left to the kindness of strangers in your old age. And I’m sure when I’m old and decrepit, cops will still be assholes.

Making the best of it

Mrs. J was placed in a nursing home while we were on vacation in New York City a few months ago. Her mental state was very poor when we left, so we didn’t know if she would even fully realize what was happening. Her son made a seemingly rash decision to admit her because he said he couldn’t follow her around every minute of the day to prevent her from getting into things.

Because she kept describing her mental state as confused and disoriented, we had wondered aloud to her son if she might have been mixing up her medicine. Anyone would expect a 93-year-old to need some assistance with organizing numerous small pills from hard-to-read bottles, but he didn’t seem to care enough to help. He said he had decided to go ahead and put her in the nursing home, and if she improved he would bring her back home.

We were very surprised to find her memory perfectly fine when we visited her after returning from vacation. The nursing home is administering her pills as prescribed, so I believe our previous assumption about medicine being the root of the problem was accurate.

Mrs. J has now been in the nursing home for several weeks. She became quite depressed initially and lost her appetite (and forty pounds along with it), but as she adapted to her new living arrangements she began to see that things could be much worse. She now enjoys visits from various animals (including a skunk), playing bingo, and attending short services that various local churches hold in the lobby.

Although we were unhappy that she had to leave her home and move into a facility, we are comforted by the fact she is getting cared for properly. She is getting fed regularly, taking physical therapy, and even receiving better medical care. This nursing home is also a huge improvement over the one she was in while recuperating from hip surgery. The decor is welcoming, the nurses are very nice, and you don’t get slapped in the face by the smell of urine when you walk through the front door.

This evening we checked Mrs. J out of the nursing home for a few hours and took her to dinner. Three other friends joined us, then we all met up at another spot for dessert. After all she has been through over the past couple of months, it was great to see her smiling and enjoying herself again.

I guess if there’s a lesson to learn from this ordeal, it would be one about persistence. Mrs. J gets down and out sometimes, but she never ever gives up.

Mrs. J

Several evenings ago, we cooked dinner and took it over to share with Mrs. J and her son. I am very thankful we did, because we had no idea how different things would be within a few days. We went back to visit her on Good Friday and were shocked to see the change that had taken place.

Mrs. J can no longer remembers basic things, like the number of grandchildren she has or that her siblings have passed away. She sits and rubs or smacks her head while trying to get her thoughts together. She keeps asking what she is supposed to be doing, getting up to go to another room and then sitting down again, and trying to pay us for coming to see her. It is heartbreaking to watch.

Mrs. J has always told us that she wants to die before going in a nursing home, so you can imagine what we felt when her son told us he had already been communicating with a local facility about taking her. Apparently Medicare will only kick in some money if she is placed in a home within a month of leaving the hospital, so she must be admitted by April 18th.

Honey was so devastated after our visit on Friday that he began asking if he could bring her to live with us. I didn’t know what to say, but knew he didn’t have a clue of what he would be getting himself into. After he talked it over with some of our other friends and we went for another visit with her yesterday, he began to realize a nursing home might be the best option at this point.

Mrs. J seemed normal enough when we arrived yesterday, probably because she had just gotten up from a nap. She quickly returned to a confused state, and wound up going back to bed before we left. It is obvious that her son is weary from worrying about what she is doing every minute of the day. He had to take over her medication several days ago, because he noticed she had incorrectly placed it in her pill organizer. She has even been asking about the handgun that she normally kept hidden under her mattress, but he has been unable to find it.

Although it is very painful to watch her decline, I know she has had a long, happy life. She is months away from her 94th birthday, and she has outlived her husband, all of her brothers and sisters, and many of her friends. We have done our best to make her elderly years as comfortable and enjoyable as possible, even though much of what happens to her is out of our control. Honey recently sat with her all night, every night while she was in the hospital for almost two weeks. I know he will cherish that time spent together for the rest of his life.

We have tried to make every birthday in recent years as special as possible, often taking her out for a meal at a restaurant and surrounding her with gifts, balloons, and friends. Her last birthday celebration was slightly more subdued, but we still had pizza, cake, and presents galore. We have spent many evenings with her over dinner, watching movies, or sitting in the emergency room while she gets checked out after a fall. During her nursing home stay after hip surgery a few years ago, we sat with her almost every evening for three months.

None of this is being recounted to make us appear like saints. We weren’t always happy to visit the nursing home with its various unpleasant smells and scenes. We didn’t enjoy checking her water meter every few weeks for a leak that never materialized. We might have even grumbled when we had to take her to the emergency room after a fall. But we did those things because it’s what you do when you love someone.

Mrs. J isn’t just a friend, she’s family. She always tells hospital staff that we are her grandsons. She often explains how she loves us so much that her real grandsons get a little jealous. She is more accepting and loving than many of my own relatives.

It would be easy to let this situation become overwhelming and depressing. I’m going to try to focus on the many wonderful memories we have accumulated over the past 15 years. How happy she was while working outside in her flowers. The awesome fried chicken she used to make. The smiles, the hugs, even the tears. The way she loves so fully and unconditionally.

Yes, life is cruel, but it can also be excruciatingly beautiful. Even as Mrs. J is robbed of her own memories, I will still look at her, remember that beautiful smile, and thank God for allowing our paths to meet.

Catching up

We have been very busy over the past month. It all started when our former neighbor, Mrs. J, went in the hospital a few weeks ago. We went to see her as soon as we found out, and Honey wound up spending the next 10 or 11 nights with her. No one else in her family was able or willing to do it, but he knew her well enough to know she couldn’t be left alone. She had to have constant help getting up to use the restroom, she was disoriented and didn’t know where she was, and she even yanked out her IV and tried to leave the room.

A few days before Mrs. J was dismissed from the hospital, my grandmother was admitted to a hospital about 20 minutes away. Her older brother was already in the same hospital recovering from a heart attack, so family members were able to visit both siblings quite easily. He passed away on the evening of the day she was allowed to go home.

My grandmother and her older sister are now the only living siblings. She lives near Indianapolis, IN, but was unable to get down here in time to see her brother before he died. My sister helped get her here for the funeral, then Honey and I drove her home this past weekend.

Great-Aunt Frances is such a hoot. A gentle, loving soul who never stops talking. I swear she talked for the entire trip home (several hours). She seemed most excited about her new accommodations – a assisted-living facility she moved into late last year. She had lived alone until falling, and her children decided she needed to be somewhere safer. She raved about the food, the building, the gardens, and the company. I think she probably likes having companionship and someone to talk to more than anything.

When we arrived to drop her off, she wanted us to come in so we could see her new living quarters. The place was quite beautiful, but had a depressing feeling about it. A nursing home was right next door, and she explained that residents of her facility are usually moved over there at some point. The beautiful main entrance was decorated with flowers from the funeral of a resident who had just passed away. Aunt Frances noticed them, but quickly ushered us into the elevator and onto the third floor to see her apartment.

Her apartment turned out to be more like a small hotel room. It had a kitchenette and a bathroom attached to a main sleeping area. Although she moved in this past November, she still doesn’t have a bed and has been sleeping on a sofa. It was quite depressing to see how all the contents of her home had been reduced down to what she could manage to fit into the small space. She has an overhead photo of her previous home hanging on the wall, which I am sure is a constant reminder of the happy years she spent there with her deceased husband. She also has a photo of herself looking like a Hollywood star when she was around 20 years old.

She wanted to take us out to dinner as thanks for bringing her home, but decided to introduce us to one of the other residents first. The lady we met was using a walker due to a recent fall, but quickly invited herself after finding out where we were going to eat. We got her in the car before figuring out her walker wouldn’t fit in the trunk, but she insisted she wouldn’t need it at the restaurant. She was wrong.

We had to walk on either side of her to and from the restaurant in order to keep her from falling, but there were a couple of times when she almost went over. We were tired and ready to start the return trip home, but realized how much simply getting out of the facility meant to these women. After taking them back to their home and saying our goodbyes, I tearfully realized it could be the last time I saw my aunt alive.

Aunt Frances is Catholic, even though most of her family is protestant. My grandmother’s mother died when the children were very young and their father died a few years later. The kids were passed around from family to family – often separated – until Aunt Frances wound up with a Catholic family that she adored. She decided to convert and has lived the rest of her life devoted to her faith.

Even though she is a devout member of a very conservative denomination and 82 years old, Aunt Frances never judges people. She is ordained and able to give communion during services, and she recounted how people who technically weren’t supposed to receive communion would choose to receive communion from her instead of the priest who was imparting the sacrament next to her. “Who am I to refuse those people?” she asked, “I don’t have the right to judge anyone.”

On the way to Indianapolis, as Honey slept in the back seat, she turned to me and asked how long we have been together.

“Seven years next month,” I said.

She smiled. “I told Tiny (Grandmama) you must really love that boy. And I know he loves you too.”