Visitors 2

“... twice as many stars...”


    After years at work on “Mulberry” in The Gathered Words, I became “story-teller.” Giving visitors a glimpse of background became my satisfaction, but in fact I wanted more. Early, Lou had asked, “Who will read this story?” Inspired by Proust, I would use the experiences of my life to create a “work of art,” and in art, find “meaning.”  (Okay, lighten up.)


    I’d seen him first, 6-foot-4, center of attention with R__ beside him, captivated. Later they were dancing at the Roundup, something I’d never imagined two men doing. Gradually more: Reared the son of a Methodist minister in West Texas, ordained a minister himself, married, abused and compromised by a bishop, HIV-positive, “non-symptomatic,” not in ministry, marginally employed. 

n a rainy evening at a restaurant in Dallas one member of a departing party paused at our table and addressed me, “I guess you know you’re having dinner with one of the most attractive men in this town,” and blinked at my reply: “Not on the outside only, but on the inside too.” I wanted Woody to be the man I wanted to write about. He gave me access to his journals and midnight doubts. This access began one cold Saturday afternoon in Mulberry which I expected to spend alone, reading. Woody appeared unannounced at my kitchen door.

    There was never anything “sexual” about the time we spent together, though once he let me unfasten the straps on his tall biker boots. He said, distressed on another occasion when we were at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, “Gregory, I can’t be the person you want me to be.” By that time, in truth, I could reply, “And who do you think that is?” So I drove myself to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, stayed a while in the deep silence, and returned to the Ranch as a huge full-moon lit the red-earth landscape all the way.

    The year before we’d spent a week at Estes Park in Colorado, and on a mountain drive high above the trees, Woody wanted to walk off the track to a certain ridge  where, facing into a cold wind, he said it was an anniversary of R__’s death and his realization that he would go on living. I was a good listener.

    When the plane brought us back to Dallas and we were driving into the city, he said, “I assume we’re parting now.” “Of course,” I replied, “I’ll soon be back at the farm.” Woody had gone seriously into body-building at this time. On another occasion, he explained, “I’m not going to spend time with people who are not my equal.” “In what way?” I asked right back.

    Eventually Woody tried to return to a specialized ministerial role in hospitals, submitting an essay he’d asked me to help him think about. I suggested he look again at Henri J. M. Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer, and especially at Nouwen’s use of “four words” in Life of the Beloved: Taken, Blessed, Broken, Given. He did this, and wrote also “a Reflection on Hospitality and Compassion,” including:

In my life’s experience, I wonder if there is meaning to all that I feel and think. Where I decide to spend my time, and where I invest in activities - this “where” tells me I search for hospitality and compassion. I seek it both from within myself and from other persons because I am just as human as everyone else.... I want to seek out places of hospitality, and in those spaces... imagine what it means to be compassionate. In that safe space, I will come to acknowledge what it means to rid myself of attitudes and behaviors that are unhealthy or destructive. In my life’s journey, my brokenness, my healing, my peak experiences of joy - all of their unique ways - become my callings to express hospitality and compassion.

But Woody was not accepted into the program, and gradually cut himself off from the people who’d introduced us. Word came that he was in hospital with a massive brain tumor. Within a day or two the doctors tried a radiation procedure and Woody died in course of it. I didn’t go in time.

“It was nothing to do with charity....”

    Earlier I received some training in Grayson County to be a “buddy” in an AIDS-related program. Yes, I could sit with J__ in hospital. A warning was posted on the door; nurses entered only with white masks over their faces. Maybe J__ was thirty years old. Very thin and weak. He said he’d been a florist and was partial to pink roses which I could say were blooming in my garden. Then red jello came and I fed spoons into his mouth. About ten days later, could I come again, not in hospital but to the home of a couple in Sherman who’d taken J__; they were attending a family funeral. Arriving, I found every room crammed full of dusty items of every sort on chairs, stacks of magazines, everywhere. J__ was weaker, lying on a cot. I was able to pull up a chair, had brought a pink rose. Too tired to talk. His wrists were dry. I rubbed them with an ointment lying near, made just the sign of a kiss; he nodded gravely. I went to the kitchen for water in his glass with a straw. Unwashed dishes were stacked in the sink, all along the cabinet top; inch-long cock roaches were disturbed. When the people returned I left as soon as possible. Looking east down the street I saw the spire of Winn Chapel at Austin College where I’d worked in another age. Who there could I have told? tell now?

    E__’s mother, of course, was with him every day, first in hospital then in a nursing home along Highway 82. That’s where I returned a second time to relieve her for some urgent business. E__ recognized me and seemed more alert. Before long he asked me to bring a box containing picture postcards from all over the country. And he wanted to tell me where he’d been or who sent a card, until his attention drifted away. And I could only take in so much. He lay back on his pillow, raised a little, extended one bare foot from under a sheet and asked, “Isn’t that the most beautiful foot?” About a week later he died.

    D__ had been a skilled auto mechanic. Then, someone said, he was powerfully built, with forearms anyone would notice. The man who serviced my car was like that, but he had a wife who worked in the outer office, and they were so proud of their four sons, with athletic trophies. D__ had been active in the community too, supporting charities; he came from a large family. I remember his sister especially who sat so calmly on the porch in Denison, following every word to be sure I said nothing upsetting, to be sure I knew how to act under the circumstances.

    But one Sunday afternoon D__ and some of his friends were about to go to a house nearby, and I was invited to come along. The house must always have been distinctive, retaining art-deco details, now accentuated by furnishings. The occasion was to meet a man visiting from California, someone I’ve come to call a queenly sort of person. He was taking the entire length of the sofa, answering questions with an occasional reference to someone who may have once been local. Some of the people went off down the hall to see a room with chains, but I didn’t do this.

    A day came when D__’s sister would not be able to drive him to Parkland Hospital in Dallas for tests and a treatment he could still get there, despite not being a resident of that county. It may have been a Monday; I could do it. I was careful not to talk too much, driving down, to find places to stop when we needed to. Arriving at Parkland, we entered a large space with a row of stations and dentist-like chairs. D__ was taken to one. Looking about I wanted to say, “We don’t belong. D__ isn’t here yet,” but D__ had been here before. Eventually a doctor came. It was essential that he enter the hospital at once; his vision could deteriorate rapidly. Did he agree? Consult with family? No...just a driver; wanted to say “a friend.” D__ would not agree to stay. Another wait. Still he would not agree. We drove back to Denison, stopping on the way at a Mexican restaurant. D__ couldn’t eat much. He tried to converse. He’d helped people with money and support; he liked to  remember that.

    Two weeks later it was arranged that I should drive D__ to Parkland again. I’m almost certain it was a Monday. When I got to his house the front door was open behind the screen, but nobody answered. I sat in a porch swing and waited. Called out again; finally I entered and walked through the sparsely furnished house, clean as a pin, everything in order. D__’s narrow bed was made, his boots sat polished at the end. He may have been watching till I left. I didn’t know anybody to call. Driving away was what I needed to do. Nobody called me when D__ died. That was alright. 


from The Solace of Fierce Landscapes by Belden C. Lane:

    I know why Francis of Assisi had to kiss the leper, why Mother Teresa reached out to those dying on the streets of Calcutta.... It was nothing to do with charity. It’s a concern to touch—and to be touched by—the hidden Christ, the one found nowhere else so clearly....

    On that first day in the nursing home, as my mother lay dying, we waited together, as if something or someone were coming for both of us. I adjusted uneasily to my vulnerability.... Reading Laura Gilpin’s poem “The Two-Headed Calf” would later bring an unusual sense of recognition. ... I’d almost grasped (or was it remembered?) what it meant for myself to be born into brokenness.

    Perhaps we all live in such a short span of time, knowing ourselves broken, yet content for now to be alive. start at the point where every other possibility ends. ...Prayer without words can only begin where loss is reckoned as total.

    I never met a leper, though I saw and visited the Nuns’ home for them in Iran. That was the day we passed the man beating a fallen, dying horse. For sure, not confident about touching a hidden Christ, but I know something about mothers in nursing homes and what I’ve seen: “twice as many.”

“The Two-Headed Calf”

by Laura Gilpin:

Tomorrow when the farm boys find this

freak of nature, they will wrap his body

in newspaper and carry him to the museum.

But tonight he is alive and in the north

field with his mother. It is a perfect

summer evening: the moon rising over

the orchard, the wind in the grass. And

as he stares into the sky, there are

twice as many stars as usual.