No-Accounts: Families

When I was taking care of AIDS patients, I watched as families reacted. Some were accepting and helpful, but too often they rejected the patient and refused to have anything to do with him.

In No-Accounts, I portrayed both reactions in a single family. Peter, the gay protagonist dying of AIDS, at first conceals both his illness and his sexual orientation from his mother and father. Then, when he’s in the hospital and close to death, they come to visit him and he tells them the truth.

His mother, an alcoholic, refuses to believe him. She is sure he’s not gay and doesn’t have AIDS. She stalks out of the hospital in high dudgeon certain that Peter is lying to her for reasons she can’t imagine.

Peter’s father takes her home but returns the next day. He’s brought candy. He tells Peter that his mother collapsed after the visit and is now under the care of the Sisters of Charity. Then . . .

Roger gave him a weak smile. “All right if I sit down?”

“Sure.”

Roger pulled a chair to the side of the bed.

“I didn’t think you’d come back,” Peter said.

Roger tightened his lips and nodded.

“Didn’t expect to see you again,” Peter said.

“Guess not.”

“I thought I might never see you again.”

Roger clasped his hands. His throat made a grating noise. Tears dripped irregularly down his cheek to his chin and dropped into his lap.

“Peter?” he said in a strangled voice, without raising his head, “I’m sorry.”

“Dad—”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

Memorial Day Writers Project

I spent the bulk of yesterday, Memorial Day, joining with other veterans reading at the Memorial Day Writers Project on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Nearly all the readers—there were a dozen or so—were veterans, and those who weren’t read pieces about veterans.

Much that I heard moved me. Readers shared stories about warriors who lost their lives defending the country.  Those who follow this blog know that I grieve over soldiers and Marines who died in combat. Yesterday I heard from former soldiers, Marines, and airmen. It was familiar material, but it still hurt to listen to.

What impressed me the most was how much military ordeals shaped the veterans who offered their remembrances. I’ve written here before that my experiences in Vietnam changed me permanently. It was comforting to see that other veteran writers are just like me, transformed forever by what happened in combat.

When Breath Becomes Air

Last night I finished reading Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air (Random House, 2016). It is the most moving book I’ve read in a decade.

Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon in his thirties when he was diagnosed with incurable lung cancer. He made two decisions: first, to write a book about his confrontation with and ultimate defeat by death; and second, to become a father. He did both.

He was a remarkable man in several senses. He was strong, dedicated, hard-working, and loving. But he was also profoundly educated in the arts and literature as well as being a master in his field. When Breath Becomes Air is beautifully written and organized, shaped with a sure hand and marked by courage and a search for meaning.

I concede that I was so taken with the book for two reasons divorced from the text. First, I’m still recovering from lung cancer myself—I was close to death. Second, I read the book over Memorial Day weekend when thoughts of death are foremost.

We Americans are odd in our cultural distancing of both sex and death. I discovered as a young man that other cultures are much more open and accepting than we are. I earnestly hope that Kalanithi’s work will help us to learn to perceive death as part of life. As for sex . . . we’ll see.

Poppies

I interrupt my exploration of No-Accounts and its origins to talk about Memorial Day, a holiday more important to me than any other in the calendar. As I’ve reported earlier in this blog, I spent many years in Vietnam providing signals intelligence support to U.S. combat units, both army and Marine, during the war. Men fighting by my side died as I watched. I’ll grieve for them as long as I live.

Yesterday I joined other members of the American Legion Post 156 (of which I m a proud member) offering poppies to passersby who contributed to the charities that the Legion supports.

Two observations:

First, I was impressed with the generosity of ordinary people. I always asked contributors if they were veterans. The answer was almost always no, but they said, in various ways, that they recognized that veterans had sacrificed so that citizens could enjoy the freedom and liberty of the American way of life.

How different it was when I and the troops returning from Vietnam were met by crowds who called us “baby killers” and “butchers” and spat on us. U.S. consciousness has changed, especially in the past few years. Veterans, even those of us from Vietnam, are now honored.

Second, I remembered why we use the poppy as a symbol of those of us who have died in war. The practice is inspired by a poem that came from World War I:

In Flanders Fields by John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Written May 3, 1915

The Compassion of AIDS Patients

As I said yesterday, the novel No-Accounts resulted from the five years I spent taking care of AIDS patients. Each of my seven patients was different from all the others. And yet, I found in all of them a kindness and generosity that surprised me. They didn’t fit my stereotype of gay men as self-centered and mean-spirited. They expressed concern for my welfare and went out of their way to thank me for the help I gave them. But mostly they had great empathy for other men suffering from AIDS.

In No-Accounts, I tell of the intervention of Peter, the principal gay character dying from AIDS, to stop his friend Billy from leaping to his death from the Calvert Street Bridge in Washington, D.C. after Billy is diagnosed. Billy is on the bridge railing. Peter stops Martin, his buddy, from approaching Billy. Peter knows Billy will let go if Martin gets too close. Instead, Peter, who’s too weak to pull Billy from the rail, grabbles himself on the rail and tells Billy if he lets go, Peter will, too. Peter leans forward as if to hurl himself from the rail. Billy, horrified, stops him and in the process falls back onto the pavement of the bridge. Peter has saved him.

I witnessed events like that several times with my patients. And their caring for others was a common trait among them all. I concluded that their closeness to their own deaths relieved them of the focus on the self that is so natural for us human beings and gave them the grace to put others first.

No-Accounts: How It Came To Be Written

I wrote yesterday about how I turned to helping others as a means of coping with my Post-Traumatic Stress from Vietnam.

But there was another reason I was drawn specifically to helping AIDS patients. When the epidemic first hit, the population was terrified of the disease. We didn’t know how it was transmitted. People, including health care professionals, were afraid to go anywhere near a person sick with AIDS. Landlords wouldn’t rent to them. Hospitals wouldn’t accept them. Some doctors and nurses refused treat them. The result was that there were literally men dying on the street because no one would take them in.

I watched what was happening, and I couldn’t tolerate it. I wanted to volunteer to take care of AIDS patients. I told my wife that there was an unknown likelihood that I’d contract the disease. If I did, she would, too. She told me to go ahead.

For the next five years I was a buddy to AIDS patients. I did everything for them because they could do nothing for themselves. I fed them, bathed them, dressed and undressed them. I was often the only human being caring for them. They were abandoned except for me.

I came to love every one of them. And when they died, I grieved.

In five years, I went through seven patients. They were all gay, and they all died.

Just at the time when I decided I couldn’t face another death, medical science isolated the means of transmission—bodily fluids—and discovered medicines that ameliorated the conditions brought on by the disease to the point that the death rate began to decline. I ceased being a buddy. I worked for several years with the homeless, then spent seven years caring for the dying in the hospice system.

But my experiences with the men who died of AIDS changed my life and outlook. The result was the novel No-Accounts.

No-Accounts Wins Award

I received word yesterday that my novel No-Accounts was given an Honorable Mention in the 2017 Eric Hoffer General Fiction Awards. In a review cited by the Hoffer site, the US Review of Books calls No-Accounts “An engrossing portrayal . . . . Highly readable and emotionally intense, this gritty and truthful account is both raw and powerful.”

The award made me realize how little text I’ve devoted to No-Accounts in this blog. Some months back I wrote one post to explaining why I wrote the book. I was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) from my Vietnam experiences, and I turned to helping others as a way to quiet my psyche. I discovered that when I concentrated my attention on people who needed my help, my memories receded into the background. I learned that compassion heals.

More tomorrow