I volunteered to help AIDS patients in part because I couldn’t stand to watch men dying alone on the streets and in part to help me cope with my own Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). The experience changed me. While acting as a buddy helped me deal with my own unbearable memories, it also inflicted its own psychic wound. Just as I had turned to writing to get me through my struggle with PTSI, I did the same to cope with the shock and grief of seeing so many AIDS patients die. The result was my novel, No-Accounts, the story of a straight man caring for a gay man dying of AIDS.
The book has been honored over the years by the Eric Hoffer Awards and the Indie Book Awards. It was at the time my only novel not about Vietnam. Some readers tell me it is my best book.
As the AIDS crisis wound down and I was no longer needed as a buddy, I moved on to other charitable causes. I worked for less than a year as a volunteer visiting men dying in a VA hospital. Then I discovered hospice, a system of palliative rather than restorative care. Hospice volunteers visited with dying patients, befriended them, ran errands for them, comforted their loved ones. I worked as a hospice volunteer for seven years. I only dealt with one patient at a time, but before I ceased my volunteering, I had handled over twenty patients. As with the AIDS patients, I loved each and every one of them and mourned when they died.
I am a better man for having been an AIDS buddy and a hospice volunteer. But my willingness to face death squarely makes me an unusual American. One of the peculiarities of our culture is that we avoid mentioning or talking about both sex and death. Those are taboo subjects to Americans. We banish them from our consciousness and try to pretend they don’t exist. In other cultures I’ve lived and worked in, physical loving and dying are openly spoken of and are accepted as aspects of living. So I don’t feel that I deserve credit for working with the dying. It’s what people everywhere do.
Except in the United States of America.