by Sr. Kay McMullen, SNDdeN
In 1986, I joined the staff at Notre Dame’s House of Prayer and Villa Angelica in Carmel. At about the same time, Monterey County had its first diagnosed case of AIDS. In those days, we still weren’t really sure how HIV/AIDS was communicated; in fact, there was still disagreement about what it should be named. We knew painfully well, though, that people with HIV, infection with the virus, or AIDS, actually sick and diagnosed with the disease, were being fired from their jobs and cut off from their families. Some doctors wouldn’t treat them. We started hearing of people neglected in hospitals and nursing homes. Many churches launched a crusade about AIDS as just punishment for sin. People with HIV/AIDS were surely among the poor in the “most abandoned places,” even if that place was paradise – the beautiful Monterey Peninsula. When a priest friend joined those starting the Monterey County AIDS Project, I signed up for the first volunteer training. I felt that the one morning or afternoon I’d give a week surely wouldn’t take me away from my ministry at the House of Prayer, and it would be a fine opportunity to get to know other caring people in the area.
As the epidemic grew, so did my – and our Notre Dame – commitment. The images of our involvement have stayed with me: Sister Marilyn Smith, face lit by her candle, praying at the Interfaith Vigil at the Customs Plaza in Monterey; Sister Gertie Borracca so kindly asking me how it went after a hospital visit; volunteers laughing and singing carols at our first volunteer Christmas party at Villa Angelica; people with HIV/AIDS reading, journaling and praying on retreat at Villa Angelica. I remember Fr. Al knocking at our door, asking to use the phone. He had just found one of our men, a suicide, crushed on rocks hundreds of feet below Bixby Bridge down Hwy. 1. I remember memorial services under the pines overlooking Carmel Bay.
But this story isn’t just mine or even Notre Dame’s. The story is Mike’s and Steve’s, Marge’s and Diane’s, Bill’s and Max’s and Carrie’s. It belongs to those first volunteers like Betty and Joanne and Mary Elise, Joan and Don, and to Dr. Gerry, and Fr. Al. It’s the story of Jeanne and Bob, Betty and Bill and all the other parents and brothers and sisters. For eleven years, they were my teachers. Their story could be a book, but for now, this reflection is Steve’s.
Steve worked for the Pebble Beach post office. It was a good job, paid enough for a small walk-up apartment over a garage just a block from the beach in Pacific Grove, paid enough for occasional weekends in San Francisco, and a once-in-a-lifetime vacation in Hawaii. For a boy from Kansas this was doing well. Then, he tested positive for HIV and, in those early days, it was not many months before he became symptomatic and was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS. My journal for 1990 is filled with comments:
December 4: Visited Steve at Community Hospital today. He looks like something from one of those films we saw in our training. Scarecrow thin. Thought: “What am I doing here, telling a grown man the Roley and Poley bed-time stories my mother made up for me?”
February 3: Steve is at hospice. Fr. Al and I cleaned out his apartment today. Maybe 3 weeks, maybe a month.
February 11: Visited Steve. Plum tree in bloom outside the window. We sat and watched it. He said, “Kay, I’m not afraid of dying. It is just that this world is so beautiful.” I cried at the beauty as I drove home.
February 21: I stopped by to see Steve because someone called to say that he was having some bad times with AIDS dementia. When I got to Hospice some other friends were visiting with him, so I hesitated a moment, but he called me in. “I want to be baptized,” he said. Of course, this was no problem except that our chaplain was out of town, out of state, and hadn’t left his phone number. I told him that Father Al would be back the next week. Did he want to set a date? His reply was assertive, “I want to be baptized now.” People close to dying who have lived with awareness, often know when their death will come. I could not argue with the immediacy of his request. “Ok,” I said, “would you like me to find Father Jerry, or someone from St. Frances?” “No, I want you to baptize me,” was his unarguable reply. Everyone in the room joined in. Yes, they all wanted me to baptize Steve, now, and there was no arguing.
What we did was very simple – a made-up prayer for forgiveness, love, hope and life and I, the first, blessed his forehead with some of the water and said a few words to him, then invited each of the others to do the same. We lit a candle and placed on the table by his bed. Max sang his song, “The Greatest Gift” about the giving of ourselves being the greatest gift we can give. We all hugged Steve and hugged each other and laughed and cried. As everyone was leaving, a friend of one of our volunteers, a priest visiting from New York, came over to me. I hadn’t seen him standing in the doorway earlier. “Kay, if Steve wants, I can enroll him at the parish in Salinas.” I went back into the room to ask Steve if he would like this. He sat bolt lightning up in bed, “Oh, my God, Kay, I’m not a Catholic.”
March 1: Steve has earned the name “Resurrection Man.” He’s so much better that he gave the staff a thank-you party in his room. Made the invitations himself. Lots of glitter. Got it in his bed. Nurse met me to say, “Don’t ever give him glitter again. Have you ever tried to get glitter out of KS lesions?”
No, Steve was not a Catholic. He was a man of deep faith in the One who is love. What he needed and wanted was community, ritual and prayer to prepare him soul-deep for his death-journey. After his party, he entered a period of great peace and died quietly a few weeks later. Max, that creative artist, play-write, actor, director, composer and musician, died in mid-summer.
I am grateful that Steve and Max and so many, even hundreds, of other people with or affected by HIV/AIDS were my teachers for those eleven years – and that road chosen has made all the difference.
Steve Starr’s Teachings:
Do not fear death.
Know at every moment that this world is beautiful.
Don’t be afraid to do what the moment asks of you.
Ritual does not require ordination.
Faith is not the possession of any one church.
Have fun and make fun for others.
Don’t be afraid to make a mess with your glitter.