Beauty, Peace and the Grandeur of Death

’There were no human voices, no everyday sounds,’ she wrote.
‘There was only beauty, peace, and the grandeur of death.’”
From “Errand,” by Raymond Carver

My friend George died at 5:20 in the evening on Thursday December 3, 2009. He was sixty-three.

I met George when we were among the first group of volunteers for a hospice program at San Francisco General Hospital. It was early 1980.

We worked with people for whom economic circumstance made daily reality an uphill struggle. Our job was to help people through the system so their dying had some dignity. My first patient was a woman who was diagnosed with oat cell cancer just as she emerged from rehab.

At monthly support meetings we talked about our patients, exchanged ideas for how best to support them, and drew strength from each other. Death, we learned, was intimate, and we were privileged to be a part of that intimacy.

It was in this context that I became friends with George. A friendship forged in the intimacy of pausing to recognize that death has come and gone and a life has ended—what Raymond Carver refers to in his short story “Errand,” a story about Chekov’s death, as the “grandeur of death.”

Shortly after we began volunteering, what started as random articles on page fifteen of the San Francisco Chronicle about a strange trend in cancers found in young gay men, morphed into more alarming articles about a “gay cancer,” and then became the tsunami that was AIDS.

San Francisco and the General were ground zero for confronting the tsunami head on. While gay men died in shameful isolation in hospitals around the world, the General created an AIDS Ward that was revolutionary in the way it treated people who had terminal illnesses.

The room usually reserved for doctors and nurses became a place where patients and medical staff met over coffee. The emotional chasm between patient and physician or nursing staff did not exist on this ward. Since AIDS at that time was such a devastating disease, cut a swath through an otherwise young and healthy population, success was not measured in cure, but rather in how to maintain quality of life even as it was ebbing.

Staff did not draw away or reject patients as death drew near. They stayed close, opened their hearts. The system was set up to welcome compassion—including compassion for those who provided care.

The hospice program continued to serve all of the population at General as it integrated the AIDS patients, usually young, otherwise healthy men.

George was gay. As long as I knew him, he never tried to hide it. But I think that for him as well as a lot of gay men, being gay had to take on a new meaning of identity—the response to the disease was delayed because it was largely affecting gay men, who deserved to die because they committed acts that were an abomination against God.

I think it was that commitment to his sexuality as well as what he learned in those early years at General, that drew him to Maitri, first as a volunteer and then as a board member. He became the voice of conscience about who they needed to remember to serve: those who would otherwise not be served.

Perhaps because he was gay, George saw and embraced the beauty in women in a most unique way. My personal experience is this:

In the early nineties, while riding the California Street cable car he saw a woman and thought, I really like her energy. “As the car passed by her,” he said, “I realized it was you, Karen.”

For the first time in my life, I felt—desirable—not because he desired me, I knew he was gay, but because he recognized something in me that I thought was forbidden to be: a woman in charge of her own destiny.

I suspect that the reason gay men and strong independent women connect so well is that we have both had to overcome notions that our very beings were somehow a threat that might unravel social conventions and bring a society to its destruction.

Those notions are probably true. Our very beings do unravel those social conventions that bond people together through hatred for and fear of the other. By thriving, we are living proof that being authentic is more life affirming than is surrendering to hatred of yourself.

George and I kind of lost contact over the past few years. My move to Livermore put more of a physical distance between us and that seemed to also put a distance in our relationship.

In retrospect, I think my part in the distancing had to do with facing childhood demons—demons I thought I had dealt with during the thirty-four years I had been gone. These demons were not easily dissuaded. For those who followed my blog over the recent months, these were demons who were not happy about being written out of my story. Facing them was like running a gauntlet with them throwing old messages of fear and loathing at me.

My rage was fully engaged.

I have no idea how this affected my relationships. But I know that in August, 2008, when I met George for coffee shortly before he was due to check into the hospital for his hip replacement operation, I was depressed. Felt like a loser.

It was during his hospitalization for his hip replacement that George learned he had a sarcoma in his pelvis. Sarcoma, a soft tissue cancer is very nasty.

When he called to tell me his diagnosis, I asked, “How are you?”

I don’t remember his answer exactly, but it was clearly polite, designed to protect me.

“No,” I said, “How are you?”

He exploded in anger. “Oh, I can’t go there.”

He apologized for his outburst, but that kind of set the stage for our relationship over the following year. I spoke with him one other time, and he was angry with me then, too. I suspect that the awkwardness between us was born in the context of our initial friendship—a time of facing death head on.

I don’t think George was ready for that. And I could never find a way to meet him authentically while I was acutely feeling the prospect of losing him.

Finally, late this last summer, the chasm began to be bridged. But I was still on the periphery of his life. That felt peculiar to me, because of the intimacy we had had over the years.

It pained me. I feared that I had misread our relationship over the years—a fear that spilled over from the final year of my mother’s life.

George weighed heavily on my mind and heart. Then I remembered the story he had told me about being on the cable car, and wrote a draft of a poem that came out of that memory.

When I spoke to him the Friday before Thanksgiving, he seemed like the George I had known over the years. Whatever shield he had put up to cope with his illness and impending death had come down, as had my fear of misinterpreting our relationship.

We found a project to work on together—preparing for publication the blog he had posted that tracked his journey from diagnosis to search for wellness to acceptance that he would not recover from the illness to his preparation for death.

I prepared a design for the publication and sent it to him. The next time we talked, it was clear that he was starting to drift. “I know I haven’t been there for you, Karen,” he said.

I assured him that he had always been there for me.

It occurred to me that in this brief exchange, we had acknowledged the distance that had occurred between us and that it didn’t matter. What mattered was the connection, and that distance had not broken it, only covered it in the fog of everyday living.

I don’t regret the distance—our lives just took us in directions that created the fog. We each had to pay attention to what our lives demanded.

Maitri was home to George in his final days. His request was that following his death, he lie in repose there for three days. His request was based, as far as I know, on several traditions that believe that the soul stays connected to the body for three days after death.

I received the call about George’s passing on Thursday evening as we were having dinner with our friend, Rob. He had come over for dinner and to play music with Tom. The two (Tom on piano, Rob on saxaphone) played for me, their music carrying me through the first shock of grief and loss.

I woke on Friday and knew that it was important for me to sit with George.

The staff had prepared his body, washing it with water scented with cinnamon and vanilla. He looked very natural lying in the bed, a soft green comforter covering him. His mouth, as rigor set in, had formed the beginning of a smile. He looked as if he was at peace with himself.

Others had come to sit with him as well. As we spoke, I kept expecting him to open his eyes and join us, felt that in many ways he was there with us.

I will miss George. I want more. I want more of those times that George and I talked on the phone, met over dinner, went to the symphony together. We came away each time energized, with new insights about the course of our lives.

I want more.

One of the gifts George gave me was to help me send my demons scurrying. His dying forced me to see that life has an expiration date—and that it was time for me to embrace my life, instead of keeping it at arms length through guilt and shame. Without guilt and shame to nourish them, demons quickly fade away.

It feels strange to have someone who shared a particular moment in a time of my life gone. George was a touchstone. I fully expected that we would grow old together, sitting on the park bench like bookends.

I carry those memories of times we shared alone now.

I believe that, as a culture, if we can figure out how to have compassionate birth and compassionate death, that everything else will fall into place.

George did his part through his actions in life and his dying to show us what compassionate death means.

And on Friday, as I sat with George, there was only beauty, peace, and the grandeur of death.