Saturday, June 23, 2012

For Lon, Who Loved Life


Lon was already a regular at the St. Paul AIDS clinic when I began volunteering there. Whenever he came for an appointment, we’d chat in an exam room while he waited to see the doctor. We talked about books and movies and often about perennials.
Lon gardened with a passion for beauty and design. To help me beautify my rather shaggy garden, he dug up a clump of Siberian iris and presented it to me at the clinic one Tuesday. 


Those purple flowers became the focal point of my garden. Following his advice and example, I began to take seriously the creating of an oasis of loveliness in my yard for myself and the neighborhood.
Another day, in the dimly lit back hall, he and I had a conversation I’ve never forgotten. It began when I asked Lon how he’d managed to live for over two years with his diagnosis: first of being HIV-positive and then of having AIDS. At that time most people lived less than eighteen months.
“Dee, the thing is I don’t let it define me. This disease. I don’t let it define me. I'm not AIDS. That's not what I concentrate on. What I talk about.”
“How do you define yourself?” I asked.
“Not by AIDS or being gay. I like to garden. To read. Movies. I’m a human being. That’s what defines me. I’m a human being who loves life. I just love living.”
We spoke then of other things and he asked me how I was coming along with my grieving for Dulcy. I admitted that the loss of the year before was still fresh.


“You’ve got to let go,” he said. “You’re missing today. Don't let yourself be stuck in the past.”
Lon died in August 1990 in a Minneapolis nursing home. It was a converted Richardsonian Romanesque mansion that may have been—I can’t remember—a hospice established for people dying of AIDS.  When I visited him in a dimly lit, cavernous, first-floor room, he lay on a cot, among many other men also on cots.
Months had passed since our conversation about definition, and AIDS was finally claiming Lon. His mouth showed the effects of candidiasis. Kaposi’s sarcoma had spread over his body. Dementia had set in and he did not know me. He lay on the bed—ravaged by the disease and yet still Lon with his shy smile.
During our final visit, I knelt on the floor by his cot and fed him broth. He raised his head for each spoonful, opening his mouth like a baby bird, trusting that food would be there. And so it was.


A few days later he died. Many of his friends attended his memorial service. Even though my voice has never truly been in tune, I sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” because Lon loved that song, as many gay men did. For all of us there, he was a gift to and from the Universe.
Three years after Lon’s death, Tony Kushner received the Pulitzer Prize for his play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. The following words from his play speak poignantly to me of Lon: “But still. Still bless me anyway. I want more life. I can’t help myself. I do.”


Photo of birds from FreeDigitalPhotos.net. 

40 comments:

  1. This is so tenderly and poignantly written. It makes me a little wistful that I ever got to know Lon personally, although he now lives on in your writing and in us as well. His philosophy about what defines us was spot on.

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    1. Dear Shelly, I'm glad you said that Lon lives on in my writing. He certainly lives on in my heart and so I'm gratified to know that now he lives for others too. Yes, like you, I think his philosophy of definition was "spot on." Peace.

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  2. Lately, the whole idea of how we define ourselves has come to the forefront of my thought. This is a beautifully written reminder to me of what those definitions mean and perhaps even a gentle reminder of letting go of all definitions.

    Thank you, Dee.

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    1. Dear Teresa, like you I've pondered what defines me. For many years it was work. And now, like you, I feel that I don't need a definition. There's something Walt Whitman said about this, but it eludes me right now. I'll have to find it on Goggle and come back and put it in another response to your comment. Peace.

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  3. Thank you, Lon, for coming alive again through Dee's writing. Living life to the fullest is an aspiration I also have, but one day I will be there, too, and wil introduce myself when we meet. I'll recognize you by your shy smile...

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    1. Dear DJan, oh, your comment brought tears to my eyes. You will surely recognize Lon for he shines like the farthest star. Peace.

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  4. Replies
    1. Dear Sally, thank you. Peace now and ever, Dee.

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  5. Lon is smiling down at all of us through you, Dee. What a wonderful man he was!!

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    1. Dear Fishducky, he was, indeed, a fine and wonderful man and he taught me a great deal about living as he was dying. Peace.

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  6. He was gracious to himself and a gift to you. And now we get to know hims too. After reading this and the book, Lon will live in my heart for as long as I'm alive.

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    1. Dear Inger, thank you for your openness to Lon's gift. I like that you see he was gracious to himself. Peace.

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  7. I'm not quite sure what to say, Dee, as I feel a catch in my throat that has drawn to my fingertips. Maybe just a thank you for the blessing you are and the words and thoughts you express here. Penny

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    1. Dear Penny, sometimes I think when we read of death and dying on someone's blog we must, as I've said often in my comments, take off our sandals like Moses before the holiness of the burning bush. The deep down humanity that unites us one to the other is in the burning of that bush. And it is that to which you are responding in Lon. Or so I think. Peace.

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  8. What a gift you've given us, Dee, by bringing Lon and his wisdom and joy in living back to life for us. Thank you so much! What a tender and lovely memory of a very special man.

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    1. Dear Kathy, I do have a tender and lovely memory of him and the words he said I've quote as nearly as I can. I think these may be his exact words. When he spoke them all those long years ago I knew I was listening to wisdom. Peace.

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  9. I would have loved to meet Lon. I am not my disease or my affliction can apply to so many people in so many circumstances. He was one of those shining souls! Just his living and being was enough.

    I saw the mini-series they made from that book several years ago and it was beautifully done. Makes me want to see it again.

    Bless you, Dee, for sharing Lon with us. :)

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    1. Dear Rita, like you, I saw the mini-series. Got it from the library and I think its time for me to see it again. And yes, it's so easy to let our disease or affliction define us. I did that for three or four years with Meniere's. I'm glad I've been able to move on and live with only the definition of one who loves life as Lon did. Peace.

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    1. Dear Janie, thank you and blessings on you. Peace.

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  11. Sounds like you met some really good people there. I am enjoying your stories a lot.

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    1. Dear Mimi, I'm glad you are enjoying these stories. Ultimately they will be part of a memoir I hope to write. The blog itself--coming home to myself--is meant to be an on-line memoir. Peace.

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  12. Your entire life, it seems to me, is a gift to others, Dee. There aren't many people I can say that to, quite frankly. And here it is more than 20 years since Lon died and we are thinking of him with compassion because you have told this story. He seems to have been a very dar man who loved life and taught you some valuable lessons about enjoying your life, even while he knew he was losing his. This has been a beautiful lesson in both living and giving of oneself. oxo Debra

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    1. Dear Debra, thank you for your kind words. You know one of the things I hesitated to say about Lon's memorial service is that I don't think his parents were there. I'm not sure because I went to so many of these but I don't think he really had any family to cherish him during this time. He was indeed a dear man. Peace.

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  13. It's not easy to keep a loud and demanding illness like Lon's from defining us, but it is a choice we can make. Sometimes we have to make that choice many times each day.

    I'm so glad you are telling your stories, Dee. They are treasures.
    Much love, Sandy

    (I tried to email, but the att.net address bounced back to me. If you would, shoot me an email so we can chat "off-line". My public address should be found by clicking my little icon.)

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    1. Dear Sandy, yes, many, many times a day. That's what I found with Meniere's and still it consumed my life. Thank you for your comment on my stories. I am enjoying telling them. I'll get in touch early this week and we can catch up. Peace.

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  14. There is an award for you on my blog:
    McGuffy's Reader
    http://mcguffysreader.blogspot.com/2012/06/june-awards.html

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    1. Dear McGuffy Ann, thank you for the award. I need to figure out just how to use it creatively!!!! Peace.

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  15. I love Lon's philosophy: don't let the illness define you.

    Will adopt this as my own.

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    1. Dear Susan, Lon's philosophy has been one that I've had to slowly integrate in my life. I think he was saying really that nothing we do--like have a disease or work--defines. Definition comes I think from attitude. And he so influenced me with his.
      Good luck with adopting his as your own. It's taken me years! Peace.

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    1. Dear Michelle, thank you. Peace.

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  17. The amazing people who enter our lives, if even briefly, and touch our souls, are in our hearts and minds forevermore. Lon's life, cut short, serves here through your story, as a tool to bring about understanding and compassion from those who might otherwise look away.

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    1. Dear Arleen, your reads ring so true for me. I'm met so many amazing people in my life. They raised me. Taught me. Befriended me. And they are always with me. It is so wonderful to have this blog and be able to share them with you and others. Peace.

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  18. The wisdom of his words say it all. And that iris in that purple is a favourite of mine.

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    1. Dear Heidrun, yes that wisdom has touched and influenced my life. I"m glad that you, too, love that particular iris. Peace.

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  19. I bet Lon is smiling from Heaven. This is an amazing post, about an amazing man.

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    1. Dear Elisa, a shy smile for sure but always a smile. Peace.

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  20. This is a lovely tribute to your friend, along with the lessons you learned from him and continue to practice in your life. I can only hope that his spirit is residing somewhere peaceful now and he finds you from time to time to grace you with his shy smile.

    Love.

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