I gave the pulpit message today at church. Rather than write a long post, here’s the text of my remarks…
Most of you know that I am a physician. I still sometimes find that a little hard to believe, even after nearly forty years in the field, but I did graduate from medical school and pass some board exams so I get to carry around a little piece of paper in my wallet that says I am a licensed quote physician and surgeon unquote in the state of Alabama. I have another one that says California on it but as I’m not there very often, it’s of no real consequence. I kept that one current initially as I never planned on making Alabama my home. I came here for what I assumed would be a temporary job, lasting maybe five years before I went back west to where I was supposed to be. Boy did life have a few surprises lined up for me and here I am, nearly twenty five years later. I now keep it current out of habit.
I’m always amused that my license says surgeon on it. You don’t want me anywhere near you with a scalpel. Back in medical school, when I had to do my required surgery rotation, the surgeons and I took one look at each other and it was mutual loathing. My wide open way of approaching problems and lack of concern for technical minutia did not sit well with them. Their ridiculous morning hours and ingrained narcissism did not sit well with me.
We parted ways at the end of eight weeks with my receiving perhaps the most scathing review I will ever have. I keep it still and every time a medical student comes to me sobbing about how they are a failure as they did badly on a test or in a class, I pull it out and let them read it. It helps them understand that, in the story of their life, this little blip that seems all consuming really doesn’t matter. The surgical staff of the mid-1980s at University Hospital in Seattle didn’t get to complete my story, heck, they didn’t even cause it to turn the least little bit. I went into that rotation knowing that surgery wasn’t going to be for me and that it was just a hoop that had to be jumped through. I jumped. They passed me as my work was good, even though we were never going to see eye to eye.
I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up other than not a surgeon. Even in medical school, I was completely unsure. A lot of that was because of the very peculiar time period in which I went through my education. I did my undergraduate studies at Stanford University in the San Francisco Bay Area. I arrived there in the fall of 1980, hoping to major in biochemistry. They didn’t have a biochemistry undergraduate degree, so I did the next best thing. I majored in biology and in chemistry… and spent all my free time doing theater. If Stanford had had minors, mine would have been in drama. During my sophomore year, the first whispers of a new disease hitting gay men up in the city arrived on campus. I was well aware of my sexuality but I was also firmly closeted. I hadn’t yet figured out how to reconcile being gay and achieving what I hoped to achieve in life. It was the Reagan era. The world wasn’t very kind to those who were different. My crazy schedule of class in the mornings, work in the afternoons, rehearsal in the evenings and lock myself in the library on the weekends to catch up kept me away from too much temptation and trouble and, in hindsight, likely saved my life. By the time I graduated, in the spring of 1984, HIV had gone from embers to conflagration up in the city due to governmental inaction in the public health sector as the disease was seen as being confined to expendable types of people.
I entered medical school that fall. Medical circles were all abuzz about this new disease but it still hadn’t really entered general public consciousness yet. That wouldn’t happen until the summer between my first and second years of medical school when Rock Hudson announced that he had the disease and soon AIDS and AIDS fear mongering were everywhere. Ideas were floated that gay people shouldn’t be allowed to deliver health services, shouldn’t be allowed to teach, should be ostracized and ghettoized. My closet door slammed even tighter. As the disease spread and I saw more and more peers sicken and die, I internalized the idea that this would happen to me as well. I figured I wouldn’t make it much past the age of 35. I wouldn’t have time. My story would be left unfinished, cut short. The only thing I knew how to do was pack as much living as I could into the short time I would be allotted. I carried this idea with me through the remainder of my medical school years and into my internship – don’t get attached, don’t let them see the real you because it will be used against you, stay in your lane but do as much as you can within it so you won’t regret the things undone when your turn comes. I sat by the beds of a lot of young men as they died alone, unvisited and unloved in the hospital. I wasn’t afraid – I figured my turn was coming and everyone deserves someone to hold their hand as they died. Too many lives cut short. Too many unfinished stories. I did my first few experiments with writing at this time, mainly in the form of letters to friends. I found that writing what I was thinking and feeling, as it forced me to carefully choose words and formalize ideas, was soothing. The internet was not yet a big thing and the world wide web had yet to be invented. I bought fun stationary and colored pens and began quite the correspondence with various people in my life.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my life was to undergo a tectonic shift in early February of 1989. I was halfway through my internship. This was in the years before residency hours were limited so I was working 80-100 hours a week and was incredibly sleep deprived. I remember very little of that year because of those conditions, but one thing I do remember was a chance encounter with a somewhat older man on a park bench which led to a dinner invitation and an exchange of phone numbers. I say somewhat older. He was forty to my twenty six but there was something about him in terms of his force of personality and zest for life that intrigued me. He was all the things I was not. Extroverted, quick with his emotions, not in the least bit afraid to be open with the world about his sexuality. He didn’t read especially effeminate or stereotypical but you knew within a few minutes of meeting him that he was definitely unconventional. Steve had grown up in Los Angeles, close to the studios in the San Fernando valley. He came out at the age of fourteen in 1962 when such things were just not done and defied the world not to take him as he was. As an out young man in Los Angeles of the 60s and 70s, he went everywhere and met everyone. He started off originally as a window display artist and then gravitating into property management (so he could retire to the beach in his 30s as he used to say) and eventually went to UCLA as a returning student for a history degree and paralegal training. HIV crashed into his world in the mid-80s completely upending his life. He lost his partner, most of his friends, all of his social supports. His mother lived outside of Sacramento in the little town of Lodi and, when she became ill with cancer, he used that to springboard himself out of the carnage of LA for something a little less traumatic, being a caregiver. A year later, we met.
There was something about the oil and water of our natures that solidified into a glue which quickly brought the two of us together into partnership. I was still very much closeted and, after a few months, Steve made it very clear that if we were going to be together as partners, that would have to change. I knew it too. Steve was not the sort of person you could hide. It wasn’t long before I found myself out to my family, my friends, and at work. No one was shocked. The general response was ‘I’ve known for years… I was just waiting for you to say something’.
Steve and I had thirteen years together. It encompassed a decade in California and then a sudden and somewhat traumatic move to Alabama for professional reasons. Within a year of that relocation, Steve became ill with the pulmonary disease that would kill him. When he knew his time was short, he didn’t withdraw, he used his remaining energies to create beautiful artworks, to engage with new communities, to make sure that I would be OK without him. He may not have been able to finish his story, but he did well with his last completed chapters. He was the happiest I had ever known him as we settled into a quiet life of medicine for me and art for him. And the UU Church of Birmingham, which he found and dragged me to, became a focal point in our lives.
I had nearly two years between the time Steve became ill and the time he died, time to finish up some business between us, even if we were leaving our life together incomplete. I wasn’t quite so lucky the next time around. Tommy, whom I met about a year and a half after Steve’s death and with whom I spent the next sixteen years, went from his usual overactive and over stuffed life to death in just under six weeks. His life was truly an unfinished story. He was expected to recover enough from his heart issues to be discharged from the hospital and slowly get back to usual activity. During our last conversations we discussed his thoughts about going back to school (again) for a degree in church music, his plans for the children’s music program, and the designs for wigs for the summer shows he was contracted to do. None of that was ever to be.
One of my reactions to Tommy’s untimely death was to plunge myself back into writing. Getting those words to line up in such a way so as to begin expressing grief, despair, and a slow rebuilding of self into something without him. I made my journalistic writings public. People started to write back about how much they enjoyed my storytelling and perspective. I obviously missed that piece of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets about the dangers of journals that write back to you and kept it up. A year and a half later, a mutant coronavirus arose in Wuhan, China and we all know what happened next.
I found myself, as a physician, and someone with a keen interest in culture, history, literature, and the like, writing about this new disease, soon to become known as covid and its impact on my life and what I could see about what it was doing to our society. The writings started as essays, became a plague diary, and eventually became a book. That first book was about the failure of our government to protect us, due to the chaos and priorities of the previous administration. I assumed it was going to be a one off, a finished story, but I continued to write as things weren’t progressing the way I had thought. Rather than lining up for our vaccines and having the virus retreat, the failure of government spread until we had a full blown failure of society with a third of the population embracing fact free propaganda and rhetoric and the virus was able to use this to march on and mutate into new strains with new public health issues arising. It was clear the story wasn’t finished and, voila, there was a Volume II, picking up where the first book left off. But even that hasn’t been enough to really finish the story of the pandemic and a Volume III is forthcoming. It will be the last and will cover up through this past fall when things began to change enough for society to have a different approach to Covid, no longer an acute phase reaction but rather more of an endemic disease we have to learn to live with. Covid is by no means a finished story, but I think the piece of it worthy of a plague diary may be and it’s time for me to move on to other projects.
The books are finished, the pandemic recedes into the background. People ask me all the time ‘What’s next? Or ‘How has the pandemic changed us?’. I think the answers to that question are the true unfinished story of our current time. The last viral pandemic of the scope of Covid was the flu epidemic of 1918-1919. In hindsight, it was one of the factors responsible for ending World War I, and upending society enough to sweep away Victorian/Edwardian social and political norms in favor of something new. The society of Titanic and the society of The Great Gatsby are just over ten years apart. I think we’re poised on the edge of another massive shift fueled by Covid and our reactions to it. It’s happening so fast and so completely that our brains can’t really comprehend it and we won’t really be able to interpret it for another decade or so when historians start putting the narrative pieces together into a story our brains can actually understand. I catch glimpses of it here and there. The health care system is becoming more and more dysfunctional. By the end of the decade we’re going to be short about 50,000 providers and half a million nurses -Covid denialism has turned a significant portion of the population against medical science leading to a loss of societal respect. The need for health care workers to put themselves in harms way has become an obstacle as it was shown over and over again that a for profit system will fail to protect its employees. The older generation has departed for retirement earlier than they had anticipated. There is no way to replace that loss of expertise and system based knowledge. The educational system is not gearing up to produce new workers as that would be an expensive proposition that no one wants to pay for. Senior care is a disaster everywhere you look. Those industries were built on a low wage pink collar work force that now has other options. There is no nursing home, care agency, senior living facility, or senior social service that has anything approaching adequate staffing. This is happening as the early Baby Boomers are rapidly hurtling towards their eighties. Of course the Boom, as a generation, has always conceived of itself as eternally youthful and they are certain they shall never need such things. Public education is under attack on all sides. Right leaning individuals are using issues of race and sexuality to push for narrowed world views and privatization. Left leaning individuals push new ways of thinking and models for instruction without thought as to how they might be perceived by those outside of their bubbles and react negatively to constructive criticism. The virus itself remains with us. There are thousands of people in the hospital and hundreds of deaths every day in the US from Covid but it has been pushed off the front pages by newer click bait headlines.
The pandemic is an unfinished story. I may be done with publishing books about it, (Volume III is in the editing process and should be finished this summer), but I’ll continue to keep my antennae up and see what’s going on out there. Our societal response to Covid is an unfinished story. The dominoes continue to fall in our politics, our economics, our health care system, our educational system, and elsewhere and those macro forces are beyond anyone’s control. But most of all, I remain an unfinished story. I’m still here, plugging away at my job at UAB, having fun at my night job as a jack of all trades performer, writing a bit of this and that. And when I, like Steve and Tommy, have to get on that train that takes us who knows where, I hope I’m still an unfinished story – that I leave behind questions and unknowns, and enough of an imprint in the lives of others that the marks of my passing remain signposts even though I am no longer here.
One thought on “April 2, 2023”
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