I have a ‘love-hate’ relationship with that old hymn Amazing Grace. It seemed like it was the music, by default, at so many funerals I attended at the peak of the AIDS deaths here. Yet, several years later, it was played on the bag-pipes at my dear old grandmother’s burial and it seemed just right. The Glengarry (Ontario) Scottish Presbyterian had been born in 1904 – the year of the first Model ‘T’ Ford – and had lived to see the year 2000. Standing at her grave, in the shadow of a school-house where she had taught decades earlier, the piper’s drone seemed completely appropriate.
But what is ‘grace’ if not a spiritualized version of ‘luck’, albeit God-given? And how does either word apply to me?
Recently, as I watched the celebrations of the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day, I heard an old veteran talking to a reporter about the friends who were buried there in Normandy.
“He was a bright boy”, the man said of one, “a little quiet, but articulate”, describing the ship-mate who had not survived the invasion. “One minute we were together, clamouring on to the beach, and the next he was gone. How I survived I’ll never know. It was just a matter of luck.”
“Well at least he didn’t call it ‘grace'”, I thought, as I reflected on the many friends I have lost to AIDS-related illness – several of whom were infected after me.
I have never quite embraced the war analogy to describe HIV, although many who ‘fought’ still died. I was in active combat, seriously ill even, yet I survived.
It’s in the similarities of our surviving where I most closely identify with war veterans. I think I know a little bit about ‘shell shock’ or, at least, its modern-day name ‘post-traumatic stress’. How else could those days of mourning, grieving, helping, mourning, grieving, helping have been managed? And, years ago, suppressing the sexual abuse by that stranger along the canal?
There have been times when I have felt quite insane and acted my way through it and others when I acted insane but felt fine. I remember that ‘out of body’ phase’, too, when I was so ill with AIDS-defining cryptosporidiosis. The doctor charted (I know because I looked) ‘dissociation‘ and ‘aseptic meningitis?’ when I described how – through an unforgettable migraine – I was “watching myself from somewhere in the corner of the room like Mary Poppins’ Uncle Albert”. A lumbar puncture was inconclusive.
Owen was there. He’s dead now. We were visiting Jim in the hospital. He’s dead now, too. Joe as well. And Michael. And others. I was treated with kit gloves in my condition.
Yet here I am.
That seems to be a stretch but if the word works for that D-Day survivor I guess it can work for me.