He was younger than I was, late 20’s, early 30’s. At least it seemed that way. A vivacious personality, quick with a joke, sarcastic in a funny way. Too young, though, it would seem, to be in a nursing home.
Decades ago, as a young Chaplain, I was part of the team that spearheaded a program to accept HIV positive Residents into our inner city nursing home. There was, sadly, a need in the 90’s for such services as the advanced meds that hold HIV at bay today didn’t exist. You don’t have to be old to be in a nursing home, just over 18 with a need for continual care, and our facility just south of downtown Minneapolis cared for everyone from young men paralyzed by gunfire to seniors living with mental illnesses, and Russell, our first known HIV positive.
And he brought a certain kind of life to the place. He was ambulatory, verbal, bright, witty, and more peer than Resident in many ways. Perhaps because he was living with death he wanted to make the most of the days. Perhaps it was just his personality. But I remember Russell as at least having a fairly bright public face even as he came to us for all the usual reasons people eventually live in nursing homes, being ill and being broke.
I also remember a certain sadness about him. He had the purple blotches of sarcoma, a symptom of AIDS, he tried to hide. The face is the hardest and even makeup fails to undo what has been done. I was told there were times when he would, in unguarded moments, weep as he recalled how the man who claimed he loved him, wanted him, needed him, also betrayed him, given him the illness that was taking his life. Whatever promise was to be had for the future erased and, in the quiet moments, that hurt could not be concealed.
My hope is Russell is with God now and at rest. He was a candle in the wind, but most candles in the wind are not like the lyrics of a glamorous pop song as the winds that extinguish can be very cruel and HIV was, and still can be, very bitter. There’s no judgement either, each of us has a path made up of things we do and things done to us and that synergy is our life. Every sin destroys each of us in its own particular way even as every little bit of goodness gives us life and, looking back, I’m reminded that Jesus is the only antidote for us all.
Still, I remember Russell and the others who came to us in those days. I hope we did well by them and gave them some comfort. I hope in our own way we became a kind of Jesus to them providing oil and wine for the many wounds. I hope they all, eventually, found the love they were craving, not in the passing sensual, moment but rather in the arms of God where all who seek the truest love, no matter who we may think we are, find it.