fbpx

To Heal a Mocking Bird

By Randevyn Pierre



Stories from Silent Survivors of Divine Punishment:

Faith and Loomy Juice (Pt. 2)

These are a collection of first-person narratives taken from anonymous lived experiences; names have been substituted.

 

Option None

 

When I was younger, it seemed the only thing worse than being a black gay man in the South was being a black gay man known (or even suspected) of being HIV positive. For many of us, the depth of this stigma seemed to compromise the strength of long-standing community ties, friendships, and even the quality of family relationships.

 

Back in Birmingham, Sam’s father always seemed to hold himself at an arm’s length from his son. At this point in Sam’s life, his father had remarried and seemed to be building a life independent of his identity as a father—almost like it was a distant memory from a past life. He never seemed to invest much energy into understanding Sam. I always thought he might be avoiding the potential embarrassment that may rise from a conversation about Sam’s tacit sexuality by simply co-existing without any real connection. Despite the huge gap between Sam and his father, filled with the unspoken, he was the only family Sam had; his mother passed when he was just an adolescent. 

 

I knew Sam spoke with his father occasionally, but their conversations would amount mostly to small talk. Sam’s impending move to Atlanta, plans to land another job, their extended family, and memories of Birmingham were the main hollow points of the conversation—from what I would occasionally overhear. The piercing awkwardness of avoidance always took the stage during their conversations, and it was a constant reminder for me of how different we all were in the eyes of our “loved ones.” There had been no conversation around a plan to address his declining heath. The silence was literally killing him, and I didn’t think he would have the strength to break that silence.

 

The Call

 

That morning, I took a deep breath and got into character before dialing the number I found in Sam’s phone’s contact list belonging to his father. I didn’t even know what I would say when he answered, but I knew I had to make it clear that Sam needed him desperately. 

 

I could barely believe it myself, but somehow, I managed to convince Sam’s father to come to Atlanta. The morning he arrived to pick him up, he’d been lying around the apartment more quietly than usual. I could feel his disappointment to be leaving the city he’d fallen in love with—where he fully expected the best version of his life to rise to meet him. I could also feel his fear of what would happen to him—wondering if he’d be able to recover from the sickness that was claiming more of his body every single day.

 

I got a call from Mr. Williams after he’d arrived in the parking lot. He asked me to let Sam know he could come downstairs. It was in this moment that I realized Sam’s dad had no idea how much his health had declined. When we spoke over the phone, I tried to explain the situation in the best words I had, but they didn’t seem to land. Sam could barely stand up, let alone gather his belongings, walk down a hallway, get into an elevator, out to a parking lot and into a vehicle. 

 

Over the previous days, I’d been gathering up Sam’s things between my work shifts in case Mr. Williams arrived while I was away. I knew it would make things easier for everyone to get things moving in case Mr. Williams came alone. Even though I’d been doing my best, I didn’t fully understand what it meant to be a caregiver, and it was obvious; neither did Sam’s father. Before, I’d assumed that regardless to age, a child’s parent would naturally jump into swift action in taking good care of their sick child. Suddenly, I quietly worried if Sam was in good hands. I didn’t know what to do; there seemed to be no options. 

 

See You Downstairs

 

I wrapped my friend’s right arm over my head and pushed my back up under his chest. We took one step at a time until we reached the front of the building, 15 minutes later. By this time, Mr. Williams was waiting for us at the front door. After I walked up nearly carrying Sam, I noticed, strangely, that Mr. Williams’ expression never changed. He dutifully grabbed the other side of Sam’s body and helped me put him inside the car—limb by limb. 

 

Mr. Williams’ body language was stoic and indifferent; he didn’t say much to Sam. Sam looked up at me, as if he were hoping for something—but words escaped me.

 

I waited until the car disappeared into the traffic on Peachtree Street to allow my heart to react to what might have been the last time I saw Sam. When I got back up to my apartment and locked the door, the silence in my heart was palpable.

 

Weeks later, I heard the old choir in Birmingham would be getting back together to sing, and I was excited! Although I was working too often to drive down for rehearsals, I was going to make it my business to be front and center the night of the concert!

 

That night, I was greeted by a ton of familiar faces in the large, open cathedral, but I wasn’t prepared to see Sam. He was rolled into the sanctuary in a wheelchair. He looked like he’d aged a bit and was significantly smaller. Still, there was some part of his light that I recognized. Sam was still the friend I’d come to know and love behind his seemingly enlarged eyes and teeth. When Sam’s wheelchair locked on the front row, he couldn’t hide his excitement to be out among his community again.

 

Still, my joy was a little interrupted. I knew how people responded to those who were rumored to be HIV positive, and I felt a sense of shame for Sam. Then,l I noticed the immutable joy in his eyes. He seemed to be suspended in a unique freedom where didn’t care what others thought. In that moment, the music had completely raptured him.  

 

No Juice – Just Joy

 

I’ve heard people say the story of our lives is best told in the snapshot of those who show up for our funeral. Final services for members of the LGBTQ+ community in the South are often layered with stigma and controversy. Due to grief (and sometimes denial), families often eulogize the person in a way that is more reflective of who they wish the person was (rather than who they actually were at the time of their passing).

 

The next time Sam and I were in church together, I would be seated in the back row, staring at his remains in a generic box provided by the funeral home. There was a sterile silence; no flowers, no memorable music from the bellowing choirs he loved so much, and no words on Sam’s behalf from friends or family. There was a single picture of him propped up near the front of the altar. His father sat quietly and didn’t stray far from the stoic demeanor he always carried when he was in Sam’s presence. Sam’s friends left the service feeling cheated out of an opportunity to celebrate his memory in way that felt planned with the forethought and consideration he deserved. As hard as I tried to put Sam’s colorful reminiscence to rest, flashbacks of our friendship continued to loom.

 

On the ride home, I turned on the radio, hoping to distract myself from the heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach with a noisy pop song. Instead, the song Sam and I sang together in the choir as young adults came fading in just as the tenor section began to take their part. At that very moment I knew that somewhere—Sam had been reunited with his joy.  

 

Total Recall

 

Months later, a phone call took me by surprise.

 

Me: “Hello?”

 

[silence]

 

Mr. Williams: “Hey. This is Mr. Williams. I wanted to thank you for taking care of Sam. I’m so glad he had—good friends in his life.”

 

[silent sobs]

 

“I regret….that I wasn’t there for him the way I needed to be. I’m so sorry and thank you.”

 

Me: “Thanks for the call, Mr. Williams.”

 

As a parent with the assumed responsibility of lending life-long emotional support to a son or daughter, it was hard for me to understand how Mr. Williams was so incredibly distant and nonresponsive all those years. Then again, I was glad to finally see that he actually did care all along—even if it was too late.

 

 These stories are a collection of first person narratives taken from anonymous lived experiences; names have been substituted.

 

 

References:

 

AIDSvu.org

 

Dovepress.com

 

Essence.com

 

National Institute of Health

 

Psychology Today

 

Youtube.com

 

WebMD.com

 

Photo Credit: Princeton Theological Seminary

Option None

 

When I was younger, it seemed the only thing worse than being a black gay man in the South was being a black gay man known (or even suspected) of being HIV positive. For many of us, the depth of this stigma seemed to compromise the strength of long-standing community ties, friendships, and even the quality of family relationships.

 

Back in Birmingham, Sam’s father always seemed to hold himself at an arm’s length from his son. At this point in Sam’s life, his father had remarried and seemed to be building a life independent of his identity as a father—almost like it was a distant memory from a past life. He never seemed to invest much energy into understanding Sam. I always thought he might be avoiding the potential embarrassment that may rise from a conversation about Sam’s tacit sexuality by simply co-existing without any real connection. Despite the huge gap between Sam and his father, filled with the unspoken, he was the only family Sam had; his mother passed when he was just an adolescent. 

 

I knew Sam spoke with his father occasionally, but their conversations would amount mostly to small talk. Sam’s impending move to Atlanta, plans to land another job, their extended family, and memories of Birmingham were the main hollow points of the conversation—from what I would occasionally overhear. The piercing awkwardness of avoidance always took the stage during their conversations, and it was a constant reminder for me of how different we all were in the eyes of our “loved ones.” There had been no conversation around a plan to address his declining heath. The silence was literally killing him, and I didn’t think he would have the strength to break that silence.

 

The Call

 

That morning, I took a deep breath and got into character before dialing the number I found in Sam’s phone’s contact list belonging to his father. I didn’t even know what I would say when he answered, but I knew I had to make it clear that Sam needed him desperately. 

 

I could barely believe it myself, but somehow, I managed to convince Sam’s father to come to Atlanta. The morning he arrived to pick him up, he’d been lying around the apartment more quietly than usual. I could feel his disappointment to be leaving the city he’d fallen in love with—where he fully expected the best version of his life to rise to meet him. I could also feel his fear of what would happen to him—wondering if he’d be able to recover from the sickness that was claiming more of his body every single day.

 

I got a call from Mr. Williams after he’d arrived in the parking lot. He asked me to let Sam know he could come downstairs. It was in this moment that I realized Sam’s dad had no idea how much his health had declined. When we spoke over the phone, I tried to explain the situation in the best words I had, but they didn’t seem to land. Sam could barely stand up, let alone gather his belongings, walk down a hallway, get into an elevator, out to a parking lot and into a vehicle. 

 

Over the previous days, I’d been gathering up Sam’s things between my work shifts in case Mr. Williams arrived while I was away. I knew it would make things easier for everyone to get things moving in case Mr. Williams came alone. Even though I’d been doing my best, I didn’t fully understand what it meant to be a caregiver, and it was obvious; neither did Sam’s father. Before, I’d assumed that regardless to age, a child’s parent would naturally jump into swift action in taking good care of their sick child. Suddenly, I quietly worried if Sam was in good hands. I didn’t know what to do; there seemed to be no options. 

 

See You Downstairs

 

I wrapped my friend’s right arm over my head and pushed my back up under his chest. We took one step at a time until we reached the front of the building, 15 minutes later. By this time, Mr. Williams was waiting for us at the front door. After I walked up nearly carrying Sam, I noticed, strangely, that Mr. Williams’ expression never changed. He dutifully grabbed the other side of Sam’s body and helped me put him inside the car—limb by limb. 

 

Mr. Williams’ body language was stoic and indifferent; he didn’t say much to Sam. Sam looked up at me, as if he were hoping for something—but words escaped me.

 

I waited until the car disappeared into the traffic on Peachtree Street to allow my heart to react to what might have been the last time I saw Sam. When I got back up to my apartment and locked the door, the silence in my heart was palpable.

 

Weeks later, I heard the old choir in Birmingham would be getting back together to sing, and I was excited! Although I was working too often to drive down for rehearsals, I was going to make it my business to be front and center the night of the concert!

 

That night, I was greeted by a ton of familiar faces in the large, open cathedral, but I wasn’t prepared to see Sam. He was rolled into the sanctuary in a wheelchair. He looked like he’d aged a bit and was significantly smaller. Still, there was some part of his light that I recognized. Sam was still the friend I’d come to know and love behind his seemingly enlarged eyes and teeth. When Sam’s wheelchair locked on the front row, he couldn’t hide his excitement to be out among his community again.

 

Still, my joy was a little interrupted. I knew how people responded to those who were rumored to be HIV positive, and I felt a sense of shame for Sam. Then,l I noticed the immutable joy in his eyes. He seemed to be suspended in a unique freedom where didn’t care what others thought. In that moment, the music had completely raptured him.  

 

No Juice – Just Joy

 

I’ve heard people say the story of our lives is best told in the snapshot of those who show up for our funeral. Final services for members of the LGBTQ+ community in the South are often layered with stigma and controversy. Due to grief (and sometimes denial), families often eulogize the person in a way that is more reflective of who they wish the person was (rather than who they actually were at the time of their passing).

 

The next time Sam and I were in church together, I would be seated in the back row, staring at his remains in a generic box provided by the funeral home. There was a sterile silence; no flowers, no memorable music from the bellowing choirs he loved so much, and no words on Sam’s behalf from friends or family. There was a single picture of him propped up near the front of the altar. His father sat quietly and didn’t stray far from the stoic demeanor he always carried when he was in Sam’s presence. Sam’s friends left the service feeling cheated out of an opportunity to celebrate his memory in way that felt planned with the forethought and consideration he deserved. As hard as I tried to put Sam’s colorful reminiscence to rest, flashbacks of our friendship continued to loom.

 

On the ride home, I turned on the radio, hoping to distract myself from the heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach with a noisy pop song. Instead, the song Sam and I sang together in the choir as young adults came fading in just as the tenor section began to take their part. At that very moment I knew that somewhere—Sam had been reunited with his joy.  

 

Total Recall

 

Months later, a phone call took me by surprise.

 

Me: “Hello?”

 

[silence]

 

Mr. Williams: “Hey. This is Mr. Williams. I wanted to thank you for taking care of Sam. I’m so glad he had—good friends in his life.”

 

[silent sobs]

 

“I regret….that I wasn’t there for him the way I needed to be. I’m so sorry and thank you.”

 

Me: “Thanks for the call, Mr. Williams.”

 

As a parent with the assumed responsibility of lending life-long emotional support to a son or daughter, it was hard for me to understand how Mr. Williams was so incredibly distant and nonresponsive all those years. Then again, I was glad to finally see that he actually did care all along—even if it was too late.

 

 

References:

 

AIDSvu.org

 

Dovepress.com

 

Essence.com

 

National Institute of Health

 

Psychology Today

 

Youtube.com

 

WebMD.com

 

Photo Credit: Princeton Theological Seminary

 

Like what you read?

More from Randevyn Pierre here.

Print