Early morning, April 25, 2007


A prompt this week to write about something in a health-care context brought out this story which, despite having been told over and over in my head, had heretofore not made it down in writing.

It wasn’t quite 5:30 am and Janice was already waiting for me on the main floor of Union Station. Her husband Randy, who drove her in from Ancaster, needed to get to work but first back to his parents who had been drafted to baby-sit the two kids.

Janice and I hugged, exchanging exasperated greetings, then continued the conversation from late the previous night.

Our brother Craig had been walking to his home in Montréal’s Le Plateau neighbourhood, arms weighed down with food and other birthday party necessities for Claude, his partner of sixteen years who turned 54 that 24th of April 2007.

As Craig approached their three-storey stone walk-up, he tripped and fell, almost instantly smashing his head on the sidewalk. The owner of a small store directly across the narrow street saw Craig go down and rushed to his assistance. He was clearly unconscious, his head bleeding profusely. She called 9-1-1 and eventually Craig was taken to the city’s well-known Neurological Institute (think “I smell toast, Dr. Penfield!”)

Claude was contacted at St. Luc Hospital, where he worked, and he rushed to the Neuro calling my sister Lynn in New Brunswick on the way. Janice phoned me after hearing the grim news from Lynn. They decided that Janice and I should go and stay with Mom at this critical time; that having seen Craig and Claude just a couple of weeks earlier over Easter she would be upset enough without rushing to Montréal. So Janice and I took the train to Kingston and then a taxi the eighty kilometres or so to Perth. Janice phoned Mom from Kingston, gently breaking the news and giving Mom a bit of time to absorb some of the shock before we got there.

I couldn’t believe it. Craig and I had both survived HIV/AIDS since the early 1980s, watching many loved ones die. But not like this!

Over the next few days Lynn kept us up-to-date on Craig’s condition which was critical at best. When our uncle told us he had to be in Montréal over the weekend, and offered to take any of us along, Janice and I decided to go.

The drive up the steep hill of University Street from the Ville-Marie Expressway seemed to take an eternity, not that traffic was especially bad but because of the pits of anticipation in our stomachs.

George dropped us off at the front door and Janice and I found our way to the Reception area of the Critical Care Unit. The hospital screamed, “Demolish me!” with its cracked interior walls and historic odours. Lynn stepped out of Craig’s room.

“I just want to prepare you as best I can for how you’re going to see Craig,” she said. “Whatever descriptions I’ve been able to give you over the phone this week really don’t count for much in person.”

She was right and, one at a time, Janice and I found out.

I went in first, Claude walking over in tears with a big hug and kisses on both cheeks. He made small talk in his broken English until I asked a few questions.

One of the first things I noticed about Craig was how the swelling of his brain had inflated his face to a preposterous size. His eyes were wide open and couldn’t shut even if he wanted them to. There was a large flap of gauze on one side of his skull, taped at the top but left unattached at the bottom to let the emergency surgery to relieve swelling of the brain do its work.

The most telling piece of equipment in the room, which was expanding his chest and belly the way his brain swelled his face, was the respirator and its associated oxygen pump, which rhythmically forced air in and out of Craig’s chest because he could, and ultimately would, not breathe on his own.

The artificial breathing made up in noise what the strained but quiet breathing of Claude and I did not.

Claude stood closer to Craig and shouted the news that Janice and I had arrived, at which point he gave the “thumbs up” sign. I eventually saw that to be his only method of communicating, and I now wonder if it wasn’t just some involuntary impulse of the brain.

Claude and Lynn reviewed what doctors had told them. Craig was in no pain, and no pain relief was necessary. They could tell this by the fact that he wasn’t restless at all. It almost went without saying that pain sensors in his brain were damaged, if not destroyed. Even in their earliest assessments, the doctors had told Claude and Lynn that if Craig survived he would not be the same person.

Janice and I stayed for an hour or so and then we all walked back to Claude’s (and Craig’s) place on de Grand-Pré. It was a cathartic walk, one which we would repeat, through the edge of the McGill campus, around Molson Stadium, and up Park Avenue, cutting across Fletcher’s Field to avenue Mont-Royal and Boulevard St-Joseph.

When Janice and I again visited Craig the next day before our ride back to Perth, I had a very tearful intuition, if not realization, that this would be the last time I saw Craig.

One attempt to see if he could breathe on his own had already failed. Staff hoped to try, or at least Lynn and Claude were certainly going to encourage another try, in the next few days. We were all in agreement, as much as feelings can be, to accept the results.

Ultimately the attempt failed and, while Lynn and Claude were out of the room having lunch, Craig died on May 9, 2007 – six days shy of his fifty-second birthday which that year also happened to fall on Mother’s Day.

That unimaginable Sunday was spent travelling to Montreal with Mom for the funeral service the following day. Then on Tuesday it was back in to two cars for the drive to Perth where a sunset burial was held at Scotch Line Cemetery next to the plot owned by Mom and Dad.

Later that spring, Claude bought a headstone with Craig’s birth and death dates as well as Claude’s birth date. The inscription described Claude as Craig’s “compagnon de vie”, the first openly gay – and surely among the first bilingual – grave-markers in the town’s three or four cemeteries.

Chaplin Craig et Claude

Shaun Fryday, whose faith community emulates his personal hospitality, to be this year’s recipient of the Craig Chaplin Memorial Award


Rev Shaun Fryday has been selected by Montreal’s United Theological College to receive the award, established by my late brother, at the UTC Convocation on May 8th, 2013. Fittingly, the ceremonies will take place in Shaun’s congregation of Beaconsfield United Church.

When he received the news, Shaun is said to have been deeply moved, recalling Craig as one of his closest friends and how the award makes Craig seem “very present”.

Craig died on May 9, 2007 as the result of a fall fifteen days earlier which caused traumatic brain injuries. Like me, he had been retired since the mid-1990s when the stress and fatigue of living with HIV had become too much to bear in his capacity as a United Church minister in west-end Montreal. It was shortly thereafter that he first made plans to establish the award, which would follow his death.

In a letter to the college, in which he outlined terms of reference for the award, Craig wrote:

“…it is my intention and desire that this award be presented in recognition of the particular ministries of gay and lesbian people both within the formal, organized structures of the Christian Church and without…to honour those whose life’s work has been particularly distinguished in its clear embodiment of such central Gospel values as personal courage and integrity, life-affirming faith and spirituality, an unswerving commitment to social justice and a sustainable environment and solidarity with those who are poor or marginalized.

“The conditions of eligibility for potential recipients of this award are intentionally and necessarily exclusive in one important respect – the person being honoured must be able and willing to be publicly recognized as a lesbian or gay man. I am sadly aware of the fact that because of the current climate within some churches and certain elements of our society, this condition effectively excludes a good many competent and highly gifted people who are eminently deserving but who do not feel they can risk coming out of the closet at this time. I am all too aware of the oppression many of them suffer and the peculiar irony in the fact that I am creating an award for which I myself would not have been eligible for most of my professional career in the Church because of my own inability during those years to be safely and publicly self-declared as a gay man.”

Craig went on to say that he believed the award would have the potential to create positive, visible role models for gay and lesbian Christians. He poignantly recalled the United Church’s much-debated decision in 1988 to no longer exclude LGBT persons from consideration as ministers. The final decision was made at a Church-wide council meeting in Victoria, which Craig attended with much trepidation, referring to LGBT members in the third person.

Much has, thankfully, changed since then – the Church evenly electing an openly gay man as Moderator last August!

In nominating Shaun, his congregation cited his vision and commitment to numerous social justice initiatives, from guiding the parish in becoming an LGBT-affirming congregation to the creation two years ago of an LGBTQ Youth Centre, a first for Montreal’s West Island (and for any church!). The centre has more recently expanded its outreach to family members of the LGBTQ community as well as to LGBT adults seeking to break out of isolation.

A couple of paragraphs from a congregation member’s supporting letter speak volumes:

“…after working at the front lines of the African AIDS epidemic I needed solace and community…Shaun was not only open about his sexuality, he was willing to explore the injustices the world visited on LGBTQ people and explore how the experience of being ‘different’ in the world might offer us all opportunity to live more compassionately and justly…

“But I also would like to make clear that Reverend Fryday does not confine his zeal for social justice in ministry merely to issues directly impacting the LGBTQ population and their families. He has been a fierce advocate for the indigenous people of the Philippines, and has determinedly brought their plight into our consciousness at Beaconsfield United Church. Indigenous communities in far away places are easy communities for comfortable Canadians to ignore. But Reverend Fryday has demonstrated that to do so is merely to perpetuate the systems of inequality that plague our planet, destroy communities and, ultimately, our planet. And when injustices on this scale occur, we cannot be silent.”

Shaun’s c.v. concludes, “I have a number of leisure activities that I enjoy pursuing. Particularly, I am an avid reader, I enjoy writing, and I love to cook (and eat!)”

Shaun is a tall, and in other ways, large man – self-deprecating, too!

His hospitality figured prominently in the agonizing days that Craig lay dying in Montreal’s Neurological Institute. Craig’s partner, Claude, and sister Lynn kept constant vigil each day asking other would-be visitors (other than we siblings) to respect their privacy. With understanding and compassion illustrative of his pastoral care, Shaun prepared and delivered delicious home-cooked meals a considerable distance each day to the walk-up Craig and Claude shared in the “Le Plateau” district. I was privileged to partake in some of these meals, both in Montreal and Perth (those we took up there for Craig’s burial).

Craig’s family is proud to anticipate Shaun receiving this award!

AIDS is still here but so am I!


Submitted to Aless.ca today

I find the anticipation, whatever the outcome, of World AIDS Day quietly overwhelming.

“Not much,” I replied to a friend asking what plans I had last night.  I might as  well have had dental freezing in my brain, such was the unacknowledged numbness.

When I think of World AIDS Day I think of, as a blur, the forty or, I’m sure, more friends and fellow travelers who died of AIDS long before, and some since, the chance to survive with complex medications existed.

It is such a blur that I do not wish to single any one out.

Nearly six years ago, a blogger friend in California reminded me of something I do not mention much about my family, and then it’s usually “someone else in whose footsteps I was following”. I always respected my brother’s own, non-blog, ways of carrying himself in public.

Let’s just say there was this guy I write about more than anyone else (me) with an older brother who, like me, is gay and has been living with HIV/AIDS since the 1980s. Both are openly loved and accepted by family, close and extended, and many friends.

When I “came out” to my parents in 1981 it was not a complete surprise when they revealed that my older brother had also come out to them a few years earlier. One of the reasons I had not been in on that, however, was the fact that I – at that time – was test-driving ways of suppressing my homosexuality, to the point where I joined a right-of-Baptist, left-of-Pentecostal church for awhile. The test-drive, as evidenced in my subsequent writings, ended in a high-speed crash into a spiritual wall. My internal emotional injuries were very serious.

After I came out to our parents my brother wrote me a letter (in those days before email and long before Facebook), another letter I wish I had kept. In addition to lending support and understanding, I recall the note offering some wise advice about the difficulties inherent in living out one’s sexual orientation in a gay ‘community’ which, at times, can seem like a very cruel world. (Rufus Wainwright, a favourite, profoundly captures this in his song “Poses”.)

To say that Craig and I became closer, after I had withdrawn from my ‘doth-protest-too-much’ stance against homosexuality, would be an understatement. However, to this day, I regret any actions that separated us during those times. The relationship thankfully evolved to being much more comfortable over the years.

I learned in confidence, in the mid 1980s, that Craig had been infected with HIV – news which Craig later shared with other family members.

With all of that background, I vividly recall having a picnic lunch, a few years later, with my Mom and Dad during a brief vacation I had taken deliberately to disclose my HIV-positive status to them.

This being 1990, my medicine bag only had AZT in it and yet it seemed like the heaviest thing in my back-pack that day. Knowing that I would need to take that capsule before the picnic party had returned to Mom and Dad’s home I now only recall these key moments of the conversation.

 Kenn: “When Craig told you he was HIV-positive the best information he had, at that time, was that I was negative.”

Mom (sighing deeply): “Oh, don’t tell me…”

 

That was in the summer of 1990, a little more than a year after routine blood-work had first shown tell-all “counts” in reverse, certainly abnormal, proportions. (Those blood samples, from the spring of 1989, were later tested specifically for HIV and were found to be positive.)

That picnic seems like a lifetime ago. My parents and siblings gradually integrated this overwhelming information and were very accepting as I shared my story publicly, even via television and newspaper media. (One magazine article, originally meant as a simple tribute to my parents’ longstanding involvement in their community, included the traumatic events when my mother barely survived an attack of necrotising fasciitis – ‘flesh-eating disease’ – and how my father suffered a major heart attack as Mom was in the midst of her recuperation at home following more than two months of critical care hospitalization.)

In layer-upon-layer of irony Craig fell in April of 2007 and, tragically, hit his head, suffering irreversible brain damage.  He died a few weeks later just days before what would have been his fifty-second birthday.  Mourners shook our heads as we thought about Craig having survived twenty or more years of HIV/AIDS, quintuple bypass surgery just a year before, only to have a freak fall end his life so horribly.

I still carry Craig with me and, while we shared an AIDS diagnosis as well as our sexual orientation, he was definitely his own man and I miss him as much today as any other.

I’m sure that Craig would be proud of his United Church of Canada electing a gay man as Moderator


The criteria my brother Craig set out for the United Theological College award in his name reads in part:

To recognize the powerful and passionate ministries of gay and lesbian persons and to honour one whose life’s work has been particularly distinguished in its clear commitment to such central Gospel values as personal courage and integrity, life-affirming faith and spirituality, an unswerving commitment to social justice, a sustainable environment and solidarity with those who are poor or marginalized.

Now I’m not making an early pitch for next year’s award but I can imagine that Craig would be pleased and proud of the United Church General Council’s choice of openly gay Rev. Dr. Gary Paterson as Moderator for the next three years. In fact, he was one of three openly gay candidates in a record field of fifteen nominees.

Craig was not completely open with his sexuality right up until he took his early retirement, at which time, it turned out, his parishioners were far more concerned for his health and well-being than his sexual orientation. He had been able to come out to many people in his congregation over the years when he thought it would be helpful but I know he took something of an envious delight in me being as open as I have been for so long.

The United Church of Canada broke new ground, and cracked open parched, dusty ground, when in 1988 – twenty-four years ago – its General Council decided, by no means unanimously, that every Christian, regardless of sexual orientation, was not only welcome in the church but was “eligible to be considered for ordered ministry.”

Craig was at that assembly in 1988, speaking of sexual orientation in the third person, feeling the slings and arrows of the often acrimonious debate. In light of all the love which surrounded us when he died, and the wonderful memories of Craig his parishioners shared, it is still so painful to imagine what that meeting in Victoria must have been like for him and other lgbt colleagues.

That was then. This is now. Although my direct relationship with the United Church has never been the same since Craig’s death, I applaud the decision-makers who re-affirmed the church’s 1988 decision in such a big way.

Craig`s timing


When Craig died five years ago today he could not have ordained that his memory would loom large during this week each year as the award in his name is presented at today`s Convocation ceremonies of United Theological College.

He would not have chosen, for Mom`s sake at least, to die so close to his birthday, either, this Sunday – yes, Mother`s Day, just like it was in 2007.

But it is what it is.

Skies are considerably brighter in Montréal today.

While the sting of the first few years of grief has lessened considerably, this is one of those days when missing Craig is quite a bit more intense.

Two names to be added to Craig Chaplin Memorial Award


This spring’s presentation of the award in my brother’s memory will include a couple of firsts – two individuals are being cited and they’re from across the Canada-U.S. border in neighbouring Vermont.

To be more accurate, one-half of the couple of Dr. Delores Barbeau and Carol Olstad, R.N. will be honoured posthumously as Carol, who incidentally was a Canadian born in Alberta, unfortunately died last October in their adopted home of Weston, Vermont.

The two met in 1983 while working in strife-torn Bolivia, Delores as a Maryknoll nun-turned-physician and Carol a registered nurse working under the auspices of the Canadian Baptist Overseas Mission Board.

Delores had only lived and worked with Bolivians since 1969 and, given the political climate, knew how much safer it would be to avoid becoming attached to Carol.

Bolivian authorities were already suspicious, to say the least, of church aid workers in their midst (let alone white North Americans); not easily dissuaded from their presumptions of CIA connections. Imagine if they knew they were lesbians!

But the Bolivian Ministry of Health assigned the two to work together, within a year of their first meeting, in a remote tropical jungle.

Not more than a year later the government had put Delores on a hit list and the two fled Bolivia, travelling to Nicaragua to work for five years alongside the people defending their dignity and rights against American-backed rebel forces out to destroy the successful Sandinista government.  (This corrects my earlier history-fogged equating of the rebels as the more courageous side to be on!)

In 1991 Delores and Carol returned to the United States, first New York and Massachusetts and then Vermont, sharing their lives openly as a couple while continuing to live the “social gospel” lessons of their respective faiths, even if no longer so affiliated. (They have since enjoyed the community of the Monks of Western Priory in Vermont where Carol was solemnly and happily remembered following her death in October of last year.)

In a letter to loved ones about her experiences, Delores concludes:

So. That was Bolivia.

What was it like?
It changed my life forever.
I learned to love.
I learned to look at things in a new way and walked in many different shoes.
I learned other definitions for family.
I learned that there were priorities.
I learned to dance.
I stood before mass graves, and buried many friends.
I learned what fear really felt like.
…and in all of this I never knew a time when I did not know God.

The 2012 Convocation of United Theological College, during which the Craig Chaplin Memorial Award is presented (and Delores will deliver the Convocation Address), will be held at Summerlea United Church on Wednesday, May 9 – five years to the day since Craig’s death.

With such an early spring, maybe his favourite irises will be in bloom.

May’s contradictions


The month of May is one tinged with melancholy for members of my family.

On May 4, 2002 my father dropped dead in his garden which, for him, could not have been a more suitable place. Yet he was only seventy-five, a birthday celebration only a few weeks earlier for which the entire family had gathered in Perth, coming so soon after a non-debilitating stroke. He and Mom would have been fifty years married the next July. Instead we buried his remains on May 8.

My older brother Craig died on May 9, 2007 after a fall on April 24 of that year which resulted in critical brain trauma. He never regained consciousness nor the ability to breathe on his own. The accident occurred on the birthday of his partner, Claude. A memorial service was held at St. James United Church in Montreal on May 14, the day after his birthday (and Mother’s Day!), followed by a burial service at Scotch Line Cemetery in Perth the following evening.

So May 4, May 8, May 9, May 13, May 14 and May 15…and my mother has an unfortunate knack for being able to remember dates. What was Craig’s birthday on Mother’s Day the year that he died, is now Mother’s Day and Dad’s burial day in 2011. Twill be ever thus or a combination thereof.

And yet…and yet, May comforts us with its warmer air, its greener grass, its blossoms and blooms and beautiful fragrances. Even on the first of the month there was healthy foliage, if not blooms, where Claude had planted tulip bulbs at both Craig’s and Dad’s graves.

All things considered, I’ll take May over November, for example, to mark these grim milestones!

When Mother’s Day isn’t ‘Happy’


Mom insisted that I send no Mother’s Day flowers this year.  I can’t blame her if she can’t look at thday the same, not yet anyway.  The cruelty this year, in particular, stems from the fact that this second Sunday in May, May 9,  was the day in 2007 when Mom’s first-born, Craig, died of his injuries at the Montréal Neurological Institute, days before he would have turned fifty-two on May 13.  The cards-and-flowers day first lost its shimmer even earlier with the death, on May 4, 2002, of Mom’s best friend – my Dad – just a couple of  months shy of their fiftieth wedding anniversary.

It’s all just a little too much. 

It is of little consolation that Craig and I, when things were different, did not expect to live beyond the 1990s.  We were all getting gratefully accustomed to the change in health outlook for HIV/AIDS.  Craig had even survived several years of angina, stents and – not much more than a year before his fall – quadruple bypass surgery.  It was the suddenness of Craig’s freak accident, and the immediate rush to unconsciousness, that is so painful to reconcile.  Now we know, because he showed absolutely no agitation for two weeks, that he was not in pain. 

A consolation, yes.

Just like when Mom looked out in the garden and saw Dad, digging lightly one minute and sprawled dead on the ground shortly thereafter, he didn’t suffer. 

More consolation.

The very least one can say when words fail. 

But Mom’s history of being thought of as “strong” wears thin when it is equated with her being consistently okay, like some unfeeling rock which just buffets any and all lashes.  I can see and hear her weariness, as she fast approaches eighty, better than perhaps I wanted to in the past.

On the phone today, Mom told me about her drive out to the cemetery this afternoon.  Tulips which Claude – along with our niece and nephew, my sister and me – planted last Thanksgiving were blooming today.  They weren’t all white, as Claude had thought, but Mom says they show that both Dad’s and Craig’s graves are important to us – nothing artificial, no kitschy decorations.

To anyone whose mother has died, or to a mother who has also lost a child, you might be tempted to wish the day would just be over with – like my Mom this year.  I can understand this, through seeing her grief.  You might also use the day to celebrate your very best memories, as I’m sure we all can, whether this year or some other time.

Although I fear the day when she may pre-decease me – but we know not to assume that – Mom, in the meantime, remains a rock to me. 

A crystal, perhaps, like a rose quartz or amethyst.

My last two-day “visit” with Craig three years ago today


From Mourning diary: Craig’s last days – and a few more

April 28, 2007 – Update on Craig

My sister Janice and I came to Montréal today for a visit with Claude, our sister Lynn and Craig. Little could have prepared us for how we found Craig.

He is in very bad shape, from our point of view at first sight, and not even as responsive as he had apparently been yesterday. We`ll visit again tomorrow morning before reporting back to Mom. (We are so thankful she is not here as she holds wonderful memories of their Easter together.)

copy-of-pic_0299.jpg

Much more lies ahead, if he survives, and so I will be heading back to Mom`s tomorrow for at least a few more days. I am fortunate to have options to stay with her, or come back here to Montreal, return home to Toronto or a crazy combination of all three which is probably what my summer will look like should Craig`s life be spared – and that is still by no means certain.

The happy, and the dreadfully sad, of April 24


Does anyone in Toronto know where I could get French-language greeting cards?

Well, one more time, I had to mail an English birthday card to Craig’s partner, Claude.  Now he’s always up for anything that will improve his second-language skills but, as a gesture, I just think French-language cards for him would be nice.

April 24 is now so inextricably linked to both Claude and Craig.  My brother was carrying bags of stuff home to celebrate three years ago today when, right in front of their beautiful old walk-up in Montréal’s Le Plateau neighbourhood, he stumbled and fell to the pavement.  A shopkeeper across the street saw it happen and called 9-1-1.  Craig hit his head so hard, and was unresponsive, that it was to the Montréal Neurological Institute that paramedics took him (lower hat-pin), just a short walk from the United Theological College to which he made a bequest of a memorial gift.  Canadians might remember the Montréal Neuro for one of its famous founders Dr. Walter “I smell toast” Penfield.  Craig was in the best possible hands.  Unfortunately he never regained consciousness nor, for that matter, did he breathe on his own.  That’s not to say there weren’t many days and nights of hoping.

Map picture

In the whirlwind of that late afternoon Claude had called my sister in New Brunswick, second only to Craig in the family as far as proficiency in French. She immediately flew to Montréal, alerting my other sister what was going on who, in turn, called me that evening. We decided to take on the role of being with Mom in Perth while news from Montréal was still fluid.

Mom took our collective advice to stay at home. She didn’t fight us on that, having just recently spent Easter weekend with Craig and Claude. A few days later, with news not getting any better, my sister and I went to Montréal to see the lay of the land for ourselves. I must say one of the lasting impressions I have of that visit was how the respirator seemed to inflate his slim belly to the point of nearly breaking. I’m not sure any of his “thumbs up” responses were anything more than something involuntary pulled from his memory. The next day there was virtually no response and, as my sister and I returned to Mom, I was pretty sure – or in dread – that I had seen Craig for the last time.

But that was somewhere between April 24 and May 9. April 24 is still for Claude, whom we all love as a brother and son. I can’t imagine being in his head and heart on this date any more, but I know that a friend of he and Craig is making him dinner tonight.

Bonne fête, cher Claude!

A few pictures from Montréal and Perth in April and May of 2007:

   The iconic view from Mont-Royal

 Speaking of icons: Schwartz’s Deli on “The Main” in Montréal

  Beautiful blossoms at Perth’s old fire hall tower

  Coutts Coffee at Code’s Mill in Perth where I tried to blog my way throughout this period

Alyson Huntly receives this year’s Craig Chaplin Memorial Award



From left to right:  my sister Lynn, Alyson Huntly, and Claude on my left2472243872_3ce770b56c_b

Google Alyson Huntly’s name, as I did even before I knew with absolute certainty that I’d be writing this, and you’ll see what an accomplished author, educator, Diaconal Minister, grandmother (and on and on) she is!  Add Doctor, too, Alyson having received her Ph.D. in Education (Curriculum) from Queen’s University last fall.

So for these, and more particular, reasons for many of us it was never a question of if, only when, Alyson would receive the award my late brother Craig left for McGill University’s United Theological College.

I emailed her a few questions this week and she replied with warm and loving memories of a dear friendship.

My first point of contact with Alyson comes from her acclaimed 1998 book Daring To Be United: Including Lesbians and Gays in The United Church of Canada (United Church Publishing House) but her friendship with Craig went well beyond that.

My first question to Alyson was, given her understanding of Craig’s intent for the award, what her feelings are in being selected to receive it.

“I am of course very honoured to be recognized this way. It makes me feel quite humble, though, when I think of all those who are doing so much to work for justice for glbtq people in the church and in the wider community. Although many people think the issue is over, of course there is still so much prejudice and oppression – within the church and in Canadian society. Of particular concern for me is the way that young people experience such hatred and misunderstanding, including from their peers, as they are coming out.

“Craig and I talked about this award when he was first thinking of creating it. I know that his hope was to continue to raise up the issue of sexual orientation, as a way of continuing to place it in front of the church in a public way, through the UTC convocation. He saw this as a way of continuing to name the “issue” that no one wanted to talk about. I think it’s still somewhat the case. I work in a congregation and I am quite sure that there are many who would say that they are fine with me being lesbian, but let’s not be public about it – which is of course a way of silencing glbtq experience and stories.”

Published ten years following the denomination’s historic decision not to exclude qualified lesbians and gay men from ordained ministry, Daring to Be United weaves together the many stories as told by passionate church members on both sides of “The Issue”.

One of those stories was Craig’s and, re-reading it even now, the inner turmoil and fear of those days leaps off the page.  I asked Alyson to reflect on the interactions she had with Craig, particularly in the preparation of the book, and on Claude’s quoting – from the book – of Craig a few years ago that “living in the closet was worse than his personal experience of HIV”.  I remember that even at the worst moments of  “the issue” Craig, like so many, never lost hope completely nor the collective sense of humour.

“Craig was a good friend. We worked together on a few different projects, related to lay education, during the time I was working at UTC (1990-94) and often met for supper to chat about work or just to talk. We often met at his and Claude’s apartment and had long unhurried conversations about everything under the sun. Craig was always so easy to talk to and such a compassionate listener but he also talked about his own life, his struggles and hopes, and about this award.

“I know he was hoping to write a memoir and I have often wondered what happened to that project. He did write a bit, I know. When I interviewed him for Daring to Be United he was more out (that would have been in 1997) but he talked a lot about his experiences of being in the closet and how oppressive that had been. I think it was a great joy for him that later in his life he could be public about who he was. Though many people at the church knew, there was still that oppressive silence hanging over him. I think he was very relieved when that ended and he could be fully out. And, yes, he did have an incredible sense of humour – and a deep love of life. He was an introvert by nature and needed time apart but he also loved people – his friends, his family, and the people he ministered with.

“That is what I remember most about Craig – his loving presence. This award is a reminder of how much Craig gave of himself, and his love and care.  That’s also what is humbling about receiving this award. He touched so many people in such a significant way. And he continues to do so, through this bequest.”

Chaplin was ordained in 1980, in an era when “don’t ask, don’t tell” seemed the norm for gay and lesbian candidates. “I don’t even remember contemplating coming out as a serious option,” he recalls.  “With anyone I did tell in those early years, the response was always the same: don’t rock the boat and everything will be fine.”  He went to enormous lengths to hide his sexual orientation and his relationship from his first congregation.  His partner never answered the phone.  He could only enter the house through the back door.  If anyone came to the door he went upstairs immediately.  The pressure was horrendous.  “I needed to believe people didn’t know he was in the house,” Chaplin explains.  “We managed to eke out a life , but it was very stressful.”

In 1984, he moved to Union United Church in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, near Montreal.  In 1986, when the congregation studied the issue, they invited a “real gay person” to come and talk to them.  It was ironic.  They could have talked to their minister, if anyone had known.  By 1988, Chaplin had come out to a number of key people in the congregation, but most still were not aware of his sexual orientation.  A commissioner to the 1988 General Council, he sat in the auditorium, a closeted gay, HIV-positive man.  When he joined in the debate, he spoke carefully, in the third person.

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Chaplin’s deteriorating health finally forced him to go public.  In 1992, he stood in front of his  congregation and told them who he was.  He would have preferred to come out in different circumstances but knows that, but for AIDS, he might never have done so.  “I’m grateful that if I had to develop HIV, at least it became a catalyst for the kind of growth and change I needed to do,” he says.  It became a very life-affirming opportunity to claim his life back both from the closet and the disease.  He feels both were deadly.  “In many ways, the closet was killing me faster than the virus, spiritually if not physically, because of the enormous pressure I felt to conform outwardly to an image that wasn’t who I was.”

Chaplin recognizes the cost of all those years of speaking in the third person, answering evasively.  As closets go, it wasn’t too uncomfortable.  He had come out to a lot of people in the congregation, but that just meant they, too, were part of the web of silence. “I may be feeling more liberated but, really, all I’ve done is broadened the web of deceit.  I have brought them into my closet.  But they haven’t brought me out into the sunshine.  It was quite different the day I stood up in a public forum and said, ‘This is who I am.’  Because, at that point, I wasn’t inviting them into the closet, I was knocking the door down.”  Chaplin regrets that it had to be done under those kind of circumstances.  “In the best of all possible worlds, it’s not the  kind of script I would have written,” he says.  “But given the hand I was dealt, I did the best I could.”

Alyson has been very involved with Affirm United for many years.  (That’s a group within the Church for support of, and outreach from, lgbt members – ordained, laity and friends.)  I wondered how she sees the Affirming Ministries movement going in the United Church of Canada – ever-growing in some areas and yet, perhaps, a little complacent in others.

“I think the Affirming Ministry movement continues to be very important, even though there are many who would say this issue is just not that important anymore (because we have glbt ministers and gay marriage and so on). Even people who understand the importance of working on issues like anti-racism will say to me sometimes, ‘Why are you still going on about gay rights when there are so many more important things to be done in the world?’ I don’t think people realize how much hatred glbtq people experience just for being who we are, or how hard it is for young people especially. It’s still socially acceptable to be anti-gay even when it is no longer socially acceptable to promote racial hatred.”

Does Alyson not enthusiastically embody Craig’s vision for this memorial award?

I’ll editorialize with some extra emphasis but this is how United Theological College announced the establishment of the Fund at the time of Craig’s death:

The Rev. Craig Chaplin, friend, pastor, teacher and graduate of the United Theological College died on Wednesday, May 9, 2007.

Over a decade ago Craig made the decision to make a bequest to the United Theological College that would support an award recognizing the remarkable contributions of ministry offered by gay and lesbian people.  In initiating this fund Craig envisioned an award that would be given regularly, and publicly, to a gay or lesbian person, ministering within the formal, organized structures of the Christian Church or in other faith traditions.  This award is intended to be not only a symbol of affirmation, but also a means of fostering and encouraging positive role models within the GLBT community.

It was Craig who proposed that this award be announced at the time of his death and that others be encouraged to be Craig’s partners in contributing to it and the vision it promotes.

We are honoured that Rev. Chaplin has entrusted the United Theological College with the disbursement of this memorial fund.  His affirming vision of the ministry of gay and lesbian people within and beyond the life of the Church is one we seek to affirm in tangible ways through our ministry of theological education.  This memorial fund allows us to live more fully into this vision and mission.

During the time Craig was so selectively “out” he would tell me how proud he was of me, and envious, as my eventual coming out (preceded by a “Me thinks he doth protest too much” homophobia at a time when I could have been much more supportive) allowed me to be at lgbt rallies ‘in the trenches’.  In kind, I have absolute goose-bumps of pride reading over those terms of reference for Craig’s Memorial.

Alyson will be honoured as part of the Spring Convocation of the United Theological College to be held this year on Wednesday, May 12 at 2 pm at Union United Church of Montreal (not to be confused with Union in Ste. Anne de Bellevue) located at 3007 Delisle Street near the Lionel-Groulx Metro station (see map).

As this is an on-going memorial, donations to the Craig Chaplin Memorial are always greatly appreciated. A secure on-line link can be accessed from here or gifts to “United Theological College” (Chaplin Memorial in memo line) can be mailed to:

United Theological College,
3521 University St.,
Montréal, Québec H3A 2A9

Just one gift to go


Since my brother Craig’s death in 2007 the Christmas shopping for adults in the immediate family has become even easier than the draw for names that we used to do. We all donate at least $50 (the maximum we used to spend on one gift) to Craig’s memorial fund.

With a niece and nephew just seven and eight we continue to buy each of them a gift but I’m sure they’ll ask us to switch to Craig’s fund in due time as they’ve both already collected for the food bank on their birthdays.

I have Kailey’s gift bought and now I only have to buy something comparable for Brennan!

Sen. Kennedy, Facebook and looking back fondly


Ted Kennedy Tribute: 2008 DNC Convention in Denver

Over the din of commentators, warming their robotic hands against the barely dead Ted Kennedy, and please read this report on his pioneering political fights against AIDS, I have been trying to remember the 1980s with a little more precision than is usually called for.

See thanks to Facebook a friend of twenty or more years ago whom I had given up for dead, and the feeling was apparently mutual, sent me a note and got me caught up to speed very succinctly.

When we last spoke he was living in London, having split up there with the man he had met when we both lived in St. Catharines. He then had another loving relationship with a guy in London, who became very ill, and they moved out of London so he could be closer to his family in the country. He died there close to their tenth anniversary together.

Perry, my friend, moved back to St. Catharines where he could begin to recover from his terrible loss among friends and family members.

Fast forward a few years and, having almost resigned himself to being single, he met Joe. After a long courtship, which included Joe moving from out of town, Perry and Joe were married at a United Church in St. Catharines. Ah, the United Church, which brought me to the subject of my brother. (There’s so much to try and recall from twenty-odd years but, of course, I had the lowlights – my accident, Craig’s death, etc.)

I’ve even hinted at possibly participating in Perry’s local AIDS walk in September. I had not planned to do so here – not for any particular reason – and it would be a terrific way to get caught up in person.

Things I have avoided, not just while writing today but for several weeks, are my mood diaries (that’s an over-simplification) and thinking about and naming some of my deepest desires which, I am the first to admit, I have too long covered over with fear wrapped in bacon and rationalizations.

Well it is time to either get on with it or get some shut-eye before the first signs of sunrise appear.

Merde, il pleut!

It’s been twenty years


Because I do not know the exact date in May this seems as good a time as any to mark the twentieth anniversary of my HIV-positive diagnosis.

It was March of 1990 when I received definitive word at which time suspicious blood samples from the previous May were tested for HIV specifically and they were also positive. It seemed in hindsight, to my doctor, that I might have been sero-converting in May when I had unbearable shakes, chills, fever and other flu-like symptoms.

I remember spending most of the night in hospital where emergency room personnel hemmed and hawed over blood test results, double-checked to make sure I was practicing safer sex (so their suspicions were not lost on me entirely) and sent me on my way by daybreak. The day was particularly miserable because the apartment building I lived in at that time was being renovated when I might otherwise have been sleeping so I rather pitifully took blankets and a pillow and wrapped myself into a bundle on the lawn behind the 519 Church Street Community Centre. Ironic, isn’t it, given that about four years later the AIDS Memorial would open on those very grounds (pictured below in autumn).

When it came time for me to leave work in late 1990 my doctor at the time suggested that I look upon the forthcoming ten years, that was the figure he used, as my retirement, saying that many 65-year old retirees do well to survive ten years.  In other words I’d do well to see 40.

While there have been times when I thought I should have been, even wished I could have been, dead – before the ten years was up and since – it is amazing to look back and see all the things I would have missed had that happened. Sort of a reverse bucket list.  I’ll leave out the obvious bad news of the world and list, in no particular order lest it be seen as a ranking of favourites, the blessings I have enjoyed during these twenty – not ten – unanticipated retirement years:

There was the beautiful wedding of my youngest sister Janice to Randy, the marriage presided over by my brother, at the gorgeous botanical gardens in Montreal.

Their first child, Kailey, was born in August of 2001, the year making it easy to remember her age because on September 11, 2001 Craig was on the train from Montréal to see her for the first time and called me several times along the way to be kept abreast of the day’s tragic events.  I’ve seen Kailey grow up through those baby-cute years to be a wonderful young school girl and a terrific older sister.

Brennan is another blessing, whose birth in 2003 I remember for the reason that it was just a few days after holding him at McMaster Medical Centre that I was in hospital myself in Toronto, following a mishap with a taxi-cab.

Dad did not live to see Brennan but our last pictures of him have him holding Kailey on his lap for his seventy-fifth birthday in 2002.  It has been very moving to watch Mom adjust to a life together lasting fifty years, now without Dad.

We could not have foreseen Craig’s death just five years later; nor is it easy to find blessings in it other than the knowledge that he was never in any pain, based on him showing no agitation of any kind. I really didn’t want this in the wouldn’t-want-to-miss list but it doesn’t hurt to remind myself of how plans and assumptions have a way of changing, whether I like it or not.  (I was absolutely certain that I would be a goner by 1994 at the latest, and many are pleased to remind me of my certainty.)

I can’t mention Craig without acknowledging the blessing Claude has been to our whole family, for their sixteen years together, and continuing to this day.

The aforementioned collision between my femur, wrist and the front of a taxi afforded me the opportunity to travel in luxury for a tour of the Canadian maritime provinces in 2005.  Having only been as far east as New Brunswick previously this was a delightful excursion by train, bus and ferry.  It was the first year I had a digital camera, too, so the trip was very well documented!

Any list is certain to have omissions so I would ask you, my loyal reader, to add great things that I have missed – or not as is the case here – over the last ten to twenty years.

The return home from family, following Craig’s death, laid bare some stark choices I had to face in my life and so it was in June of 2007 that I rejoined my “recovery” family.  Old friendships have been renewed and new acquaintances made – a few would have to be called more than ‘acquaintances’.  These friends manage to keep my life within some kind of perspective, always in good cheer.

I’ve also been part of a rich family of seekers since early 1999 at Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church.  They, too, have seen me through much these past ten years – almost from the point of my forecasted demise!

What to me is, or has been, the mystery of my survival stems from the life and death of a friend named Jim Revell.  I met him in 1990 and we became fast, intimate friends, as Jim did with many people.  Although he, too, was HIV-positive he approached his health in many ways that I did not, and too often still do not.  He ate well.  He swam and worked out at the gym.  To me he was the model of surmounting illness.  His CD-4 count was such that he still was not on preventative therapies.  Then he started having severe pains in his stomach.  After a lot of checking and re-checking he was diagnosed with lymphoma.  We were all shocked but Jim doggedly took all treatments being offered and remained in high spirits, building and enjoying a new relationship, and it took a while before any of us could believe that he might not make it.  I could not believe that he was dying before me, so certain I had been that we’d be in reverse situations.  He died on January 14, 1994.  That brief time he spent in my life is a collection of very, very rich memories, even if some are desperately sad.

Jim was one of so many guys in my circle lost in the 1980s and 1990s.  Their names and faces come back to me often.

In 1996, the year the first of the drug combinations which have become known as the “cocktail” was available, I was a delegate to the International AIDS Conference in Vancouver.  What an experience – something else I’m so happy not to have missed – if for no other reason than it was my first visit to the west coast.  Of course it was much more than that.  Par example. I remember having breakfast with some women from Africa and they stared in wonder at the pills and capsules I was taking, telling me that they have to walk several miles to another village if and when they can afford to buy common aspirin.  That’s an awakening that is still going on here in rich countries.

I reiterate that is by no means a complete list.  You could help me by adding your picks of some of the highlights of the last ten, or even twenty, years; things that you would have not wanted to miss that have changed the world for the better.  Send me a reply in the comments section.

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A leading instigator of Toronto’s AIDS Memorial, Michael Lynch (who would himself die of AIDS-related illness) wrote this poem which greets visitors to the memorial:

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It was two years ago today


This was the notice published in The Gazette a couple of days later (minus the picture):

CHAPLIN, Rev. A. Craig – B.A., M. Div.

Peacefully in hospital on Wednesday, May 9, 2007 at the age of 51. Former Minister of Sutton (Que.) United Church and of Union United in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, Que., a graduate of Queen`s University and McGill`s United Theological College.

He is survived by his loving partner of sixteen years, Claude Lamontagne, and their extended families, Craig`s mother, Madeline Chaplin of Perth, Ontario (predeceased in 2002 by father Arnold Chaplin). Craig was the beloved brother of Kenn, Lynn (Joslyn and Allyson Howatt), Janice (Randy Shiga), and the proud uncle of Kailey and Brennan.

A memorial service to celebrate Craig`s life will be held at St. James United Church, 462 Ste. Catherine St. West, Montreal, on Monday, May 14, 2007 at 7pm. Interment will be held at Scotch Line Cemetery in Perth, Ontario on Tuesday, May 15 at 6pm.

In lieu of flowers, donations to the Craig Chaplin Memorial Fund at the United Theological College, 3521 University Ave., Montreal H3A 2A9 (or online at www.utc.ca) are requested.