Life Lessons from Spring Daffodils and AIDS

EmilyUncategorized2 Comments

@TinCanvas

I have always loved spring. The sweet dewy scents that hang in the crisp fresh air, the vibrant new blades of grass, and the sweet and promising warmth of the spring sunshine on my skin. These are just a few or the reasons I cherish the onset of the new season.

In college, I worked as an in-home healthcare aid, to many wonderful souls who touched me and forever left their mark.  Perhaps the biggest reason I love spring, is the way all the smells and sounds, swiftly fill my mind with the bittersweet memories of a man that forever changed my life.

I vividly remember the fear and dread I felt on the day I was told my new client would be a man in his early 40s with AIDS. I was given clear directions on how to protect myself and offered a meager gesture of comfort that my duties would be limited to meal preparation, assistance with medications and walking his dog. Nothing could have prepared me for the way he would humble me with his spirit, strength of mind and general outlook on life… or how crushed I would be to loose him.  His story is so big, with so many poignant moments that impacted me. I couldn’t possibly cover all of them in one post. So today I want to introduce you to *Jon and tell you the story of the Daffodils.

Spring 2003

Ashamed of my own ignorant fear, yet genuinely concerned with the risk of working in such close proximity with a client with full blown, late stage AIDS, I coached myself to not let it show as I hesitantly knocked on his door.  A weak and husky voice called for me to come in.  Upon entering the small, narrow hallway, I was overtaken by a ball of hair and tongue the size of a small horse.  I would come to know this gentle giant as Gus, Jon’s loving and loyal companion – his dog.  Once I had satisfied Gus’s inspection and his desire to bathe me in slobber, he retreated to Jon’s side on the couch.

I timidly progressed into the living room to find a thin, fragile frame of a man lying on the couch. To this day I can remember the way he laid there with the curtains drawn back, bathing in the spring sunshine that poured into his tiny studio apartment. I stuck out my hand to formally introduce myself.  Without looking at me he snarked, “aren’t you afraid of getting AIDS? Or perhaps they didn’t tell you that you would be charged with wiping the ass for of a full grown man with Full Blown AIDS”.

Bemused and disarmed by his snarky dismissal of my protruding hand, I came back at him with, “They told me all about you and that would be why I have a can of Lysol in my back pocket. However, they did forget to tell me you were a mean old bastard who would reject my out stretched hand.” His head snapped around scanning me for the can of Lysol, his scowl melting into a menacing grin.  He reached up and shook my hand. “Cruel of them to send such a beautiful healthy young woman to take care of a diseased and dying man don’t you think?”

“Perhaps,” I smirked, “Maybe they just sent someone who could call your BS.” With this, his face lit up with a full-blown smile.  He began to tell me all the reasons I should not be here to care for him; however, I didn’t hear much of it. I was too preoccupied by the glimmer of life and what I suspected to be spunk behind his vibrant blue eyes. These characteristics seemed so out of place in the gaunt face of this thin and fragile man. I could see he had stories and life left in him and I was intrigued. He must have caught an expression on my face, he stopped talking and looked back at me silent for a while before saying, “You’re not buying any of my scare tactics are you? Well then, this set up just may work. I think you are the first caretaker to ever look at me without pity or disgust… perhaps you will last longer than they did. ”

I looked away, in hopes he wouldn’t see the tears of shame brimming over. Just 10 minutes ago, I was “one of those care takers.” Collecting myself, I turned back and smiled at him, I said I would stick around as long as he promised to entertain me with his sharp wit and share the stories he must have behind those feisty eyes of his. From that point on, he was no longer my “client” or “obligatory duty” to earn a paycheck.  He was my friend, one whom I looked forward to seeing twice a day, every day.

With Jon, there were good days and bad days. I would come to find that the days I was beckoned to enter, by a raspy and distant voice, like my first day, were bad days for Jon.  He didn’t have the stamina or energy to get off the couch let alone chatting.  He would not call these bad days; however, he would apologies for not getting up to answer the door, explaining that today was one where he was required to a make up for all the extra living he had done in his “pre-disease life.” I would open the curtains, so he could bath in the new life that only the spring sunshine could offer – the first lesson he taught me.  I knew him well enough now to afford him dignity by keeping our talk short, set up his medications next to him and quietly prepare him the steak or salmon dinner he always requested. I would leash up Old Gus and take him out for a walk in the crisp spring air. Upon our return Jon would wrap is weak and fragile arms around the fury beast and inhale and say, “you always remember to bring me back the fresh spring scent when I am to week to go out on my own – don’t you old boy,” just before drifting of to sleep again.

On the good days, Jon would beat me to the door and swing it wide open before I could even knock. Typically with a vodka crane on ice jingling in the clasps of his theft hand. “Today, is a day to take in a little more life,” he would declare. On these days, we would set out on an adventure. He would share stories of his life that confirmed my initial suspicion of mischief behind his glimmering blue eyes. He would take me to new places that I had not yet explored in this sleepy college town. Beautiful hills tucked behind an apartment complex from which you could see the whole valley, watch the sunset, and see the community gardens that he had help start up to feed the poor. The only rule of the garden posted on a small placard by the entrance, “Eat my friends and be full, all I ask is that you pull the weeds when you see them and water the plants when you can.”  Even when Jon was not up for leaving the house, I would always be sure to swing by and ensure the soil was moist and the gardens free of trash.

On one of our most memorable days, Jon beat me to the door, he was ready to go, two backpacks in hand and a look of mischief in his eyes, “are you willing to borrow a bit of beauty at the risk of pissing of ‘the man’,” he asked…I had no idea what he was talking about, but I was eager to join him on this adventure. He took me to a field of daffodils planted by the University, they were hidden behind a row of hideous evergreen bushes, and I had never seen them before.

As we stood in the stunning and fragrant field of yellow flowers there was a light mist of pending rain in the air. Jon asked if I wanted to know how he got AIDS. I can honestly say it had never occurred to me to question how. I took health in school; I knew it was a sexually transmitted disease… I wasn’t sure it mattered how he got it. I was wrong, there was power in the story behind how and why he had contracted AIDS. A story that could evoke a heated debate on wright or wrong, selfless or selfish, a debate I have no interest engaging in. However, I would like to share the power of his words and story.

Jon snipped a bundle of Daffodils and drew the bundle to his face, deeply inhaled and with menacing look he said, “I presume you think I contracted AIDS from homosexual intercourse and I deserve what I got.”

“Nope,” I replied frankly, “I assume you contracted AIDS from unprotected sex. You should know me better by now. I don’t hold judgment for one lifestyle over another. I just hope it was a meaningful and loving encounter that left you with rich and fulfilling memories to draw on, during your time where ‘life requires you to make up for the extra living’ you did.”

His eyes brimmed with tears before he turned away from me and began to tell his story:

“My wife, she loved daffodils, I made sure her room was filled with them at all times so that her last breath would be full of the sweet aroma of spring that she so adored. I spent thousands ordering them in the off-season.

Fortunately, her last breath held the aroma of the daffodils that we had planted in our own spring garden. Ones she and I had picked together in the gentle warmth of the spring sunshine…her last spring sunshine. You see my wife died of AIDS.  I contracted it from her.

You will probably think I am crazy, but I did so knowingly. I married her knowing she had AIDS. She had been faithfully married for 10 years with three beautiful children. Unfortunately, her husband was not so faithful and in his extramarital gallivants; he contracted aids and passed it on to her.

She told me about her HIV status on our first date. She was so charismatic, driven and I could tell she was full of spunk. I couldn’t help but fall in love with her.  She was adamant about precautionary measures, and refused my first three marriage proposals…she thought it was unfair to me to never consummate our marriage without protection. Can you imagine, here is this stunningly strong, wicked smart woman, who I adored and her children who I had come to love as my own, and she thought that it would be a concern (he shook his head solemnly as tears now broke free from his eyes and trailed down his hollow cheeks).

I finally convinced her to marry me, he said with a wry smile. We had 18 beautiful years as a family. I never fathered children of my own…but, never was there a moment in my heart, where those three were not my own.

In the latter stages of her decline, I convinced her to lay with me…without protection, a radical decision, I know but I had never loved anyone so fully as I had loved her. I wanted to be together in the most complete way and saw no value in living a long life into my 90’s without her. The kids were all grown and out on their own, living their own lives now, and I knew my time with her was limited.  I will never regret holding her in my arms so completely, one with each other. It is a moment I call upon often, on my more somber days. My only heartache is how the kids took it.

You may have noticed I never have visitors. The kids still very angry, they feel my decision was selfish.  They suffered a great deal, loosing their mother and their birth father never reached out to them once he left their mom. They felt that I had betrayed them. They told me that I had come into their lives, allowed them to all fall in-love with me in a chaotic life, where the adults where ripped from them without any choice in the matter. They saw my choice as stealing yet another parent from their lives.

They told me in a family meeting, the last time I saw them…they would not willingly suffer, watching me die the same way their mother had. (At this point, his shoulders rocked with the heart aching sobs that escaped his chest. I tried to place my hand on his back as I asked if he tried to explain his decisions to them. He sharply shrugged me off).

I knew that their mother was my soul mate and a life with out her was not one I wanted to indulge in. They are right it was a selfish choice. Forgiving me was not their burden to bear. Their pain and anger was the price of my dedication to their mother…and though it aches, I accept it.

They still send me a picture every year. At first it was the three of them in a field of daffodils much like this one. But more recently of three small ones…he trailed of. I assume they are my grandbabies. (He managed to say between choked sobs. He took another deep breath of the yellow bundle he now clutched to his chest). No note or insight into their life. I suppose it is a gesture of the familiar love they cannot turn off. I look forward to the arrival of the painfully beautiful portraits arriving each spring. Somehow it confirms the greatest love story of my former life was real.

I don’t even know why I am telling you all this, I don’t want your pity or empathy! It was selfish of me to make that choice. I know I deserve where I am today…because I would do it all over again. I loved her, I still love her, I am glad my days without her are numbered.

I could no longer stand the pain that wracked his weak and slumping frame. I grasped his tear-streaked face in both hands:

“Look at me,” I demanded. “You shared this with me because it was the defining moment of your life, you stood with conviction, devotion and your priorities were clear. Don’t apologies for the choices that define you. It won’t matter what was right or wrong in the minds of others when it is you who will draw your last breath with nothing more than the memories of a life you built for yourself. In the end, conviction and memories is all we have left! So, no more tears for the things you can no longer change. If I have learned anything from you, it is that life is short, there will be plenty of grey moments, so seize the beauty of the current moment and fill your bank to draw upon in the grey moments.”

Tears still streaming down his face, he wrapped his fragile arms around me and cried…”I do not believe in a God, but I do believe you were meant to be with me at the end. You will remind me of the beauty that will go on in the world and help me find joy and peace in my final days.” I stood silent, fighting back tears and unsure of what to say. Fortunately, he did not give me a chance to choke out any menial words that could have never reflected the magnitude of that moment.

He shook of the ach that had overwhelmed him moments before and braved a smile – standing amidst the field of flowers his wife had loved so much.

“It’s a real shame isn’t it, all this beauty and no one can see them. Today we will free as many of them as we can and bring them home where they can be appreciated they way they deserve to be,” he proclaimed as he pulled out a pair of scissors and bundle of rubber bands from each bag and held them over his head.

We dove in, seizing the moment and gathering clusters of fragrant daffodils, gently bundling them and placing the “contraband” in our backpacks. We spent hours methodically harvested our treasures. We were sure to ensure there would not be a noticeable absence in the field of yellow. We arrived at his home, hours after my shift had technically ended and filled every vase, glass or empty container we could with our stolen bundles of sunshine. I left that night with Jon sitting amongst hundreds of sweet and fragrant Yellow Daffodils. He had such a warm smile on his face and rosy flush filling his cheeks. He radiated so much life and joy in that moment, I almost couldn’t remember the pale grey fragile man I had first met.

I saw Jon only a handful of times after this outing, before I left for my summer job. Each time I was sure to bring a new bundle of daffodils to replace the ones that had began to wilt. I thought of him often that summer, each time a fragrant breeze of cherry blossoms would waft through the hot summer night, or when I found myself staring at the brilliance of the stars, cutting through the black night sky, I could hear his voice, “seize the moments of beauty and fill your bank.”

When I returned from my summer job, eager to share my bank of beautiful moments with Jon… I was heart broken to find out he had passed a few weeks after I left. There was no service. No gracious speeches about his character…he simply requested his ashes to be spread where his wife’s had been.

He taught me how to capture life, to remember the beautiful moments and not dwell in the dark ones. Each spring, I place a vase full of daffodils in my widow and I remember:

There is no such thing as fair in this life and that’s okay!

Relish the relationships you have and treat them with care. Make your choices with conviction and you will find meaning and purpose in your life.

Regrets are worthless! Change, action, devotion and seeking the beauty of the moment… these are the things you will never regret.

 

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2 Comments on “Life Lessons from Spring Daffodils and AIDS”

  1. May we always remember this wonderful man!
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