So many times a client would share with me that when he reached a certain point of deterioration, say when he began to lose his sight, he would end his life, but when that point came he would find the strength to continue; even want to continue. After an hour of talking with them, I tended to be exhausted; exhausted with the ups and downs of their physical conditions; downward always being the prevailing direction; exhausted with anticipatory grieving followed by recovery; exhasuted by the grieving that came with their final loss. Those were times of almost constant grieving for caregivers and for those who drew most of their friends from within the gay community. I want to describe accompanying one of those people living with AIDS who made a significant impact on my life and about whom I continue to think and feel with both sadness and admiration.
Aside from his mother, Ted had two loves in his life: Alain, whom he had met and lived with since their mid-twenties, and his dog, Leila, with whom he would go for long, solitary weekend walks on the mountain. Alain and he had contracted AIDS at about the same time, but Alain had more quickly become symptomatic and had recently been given only a few months to live. Ted was very focused on being there to care for Alain as his health deteriorated. He had three topics he wanted to talk about in our sessions: the first was dealing with issues surrounding the fact that he and his lover were living with AIDS, that he had become Alain's major caregiver and would soon be losing him; the second concerned sharing with his mother that he had AIDS and having her acknowledge him as an autonomous adult in a loving relationship before AIDS rendered him dependent; the third was to work at securing a closer, respectful relationship with his step-father. A relationship which he wanted to be independent of his own relationship with his mother; man to man; for the first time talking with his step-father about being gay and, also, disclosing that he and Alain had AIDS.
Ted's plan to establish a closer relationship with his step-father began with inviting him to go once a week to Joe's Steak House, his step-father's favourite restaurant; a meal which always included both men drinking several pints of beer. Since his father wasn’t the sort to talk about feelings, Ted centred their conversations on work and their mutual relationships with Ted’s mother. Ted shared with him his desire to be seen as an autonomous adult by his mother and the difficulties she had accepting that. His step-father understood that desire from his own relationship with her; acknowledging that her strong, demonstrative character made it difficult to accomplish. It emerged that he, himself, had always wanted a closer relationship with his step-son and felt he had been discouraged from being more involved in his life by his wife. He shared stories with Ted about his biological father; giving him an acquaintance of the man he had never known and about whom his mother had never spoken.
Their conversation led naturally to Ted feeling comfortable for the first time to talk with his step-father about being gay; as we had always expected, Ted's sexuality was not news to his step-father, nor was the fact that he and Alain were a couple. He was very accepting and very supportive of Ted's desire for a more autonomous relationship with his mother. Of course, the most difficult task lay ahead: to disclose that both he and Alain were living with AIDS and that was the reason for Alain being on disability. His step-father’s response was incredibly impressive. He got up from the table in the crowded restaurant and, crying, embraced Ted; a remarkable and impressive expression of love, especially for a man of his time and culture, toward a step-son with whom he’d always had a distant relationship. He felt sadness that he had to face losing his step-son at the same time as he had begun being closer to him. Subsequently, he dropped in every Sunday on Ted and Alain and accompanied Ted on his walks with Leila.
Working with people living with AIDS (somewhat of a euphemism, since they were nearly always people dying of AIDS), necessarily led to the realization that planning life more than two or three weeks into the future is a tenuous exercise. Ted's was just one of many situations in which I spoke with people setting long-term objectives and making life-changing decisions based on the expectation events would turn out in a way that emerged to be radically different; one client making a decision to leave his lover, so as not to burden him with looking after someone who was dying, only to end up being a survivor, still alive today; while the man he left, died not long after their separation. I don't think much of the injunction to live in the present, because having a future orientation is one of the ;distinguishing characteristics of being human; however, I do feel that the more removed from the present ones plans and anticipations become, the more exposed one becomes to disappointment and to losing touch with what is now; always the only reality.
The last time I saw Ted was in the hosptital. When we were meeting in my office, we often did a visualization together that involved his taking a long walk on the mountain with Leila. It gave Ted an experience of peacefulness, comfort and safety and allowed me to insert some hopeful suggestions that his rational mind would probably have rejected. From his hospital room at the Montreal General, you could see the mountain road along which they had walked. His abilities to communicate were severely limited, but he managed to ask me to lead him through that visualization. Afterwards, as he was drifting into sleep, he reached out and held my hand, while sharing with me that he very much wanted to go home and spend his last few days with Alain.
Understandably, Ted's mother wanted him to go home to be with her. She felt she could give him the care he needed in his remaining days, while Alain was not physically capable of doing so; no doubt, she also found it very difficult to not be with him at that time in his life. I was asked by his doctor and hospital social worker to meet with Ted’s mother, step-father and Alain to decide whether to put him into palliative care at the hospital, send him to be with his mother or permit him to go home to Alain. Ted felt it would be too stressful to attend and gave me permission to share our conversations at the meeting. Alain was too sick to come the day of the meeting, but both communicated to the social worker that they wanted Ted to be discharged to their own home. It was the first time I met Ted's mother and step-father, who were much as he had described them: his mother a still-glamouraous women of a certain age, articulate and forceful; his step-father a rather shy, distinguished-looking and quiet man.
At our very painful meeting I talked with Ted’s parents of the love and admiration he had for his mother and his happiness with the recent, close relationship with his step-father. I spoke of the importance he had placed on being seen by them as an autonomous adult, that wanting to go home to be with Alain was for him sign of his having made a life for himself and found love; far from being a rejection of them, it represented a strong desire to have them aknowledge and take comfort in the reality that he had grown up, come of age, found himself in the world. His step-father firmly supported Ted’s decision and his mother, with sadness and reluctance, agreed.
At Ted's wake one of his friends asked if I might know the password for a document in his computer: a diary he told his friends he was keeping and wanted to be shared with them after his death. Unfortunately, he had left the password with no one and they had been unable to decode it despite many attempts. It had never occurred to either me or Ted that the password should be left with someone; it was never recovered. When I was thinking of writing this, I wondered if the password could have been some version of "Ted's Words", a title only I knew; at the time of the wake I didn't think of that possibility; so as far as I know, "Ted’s Words" have been heard only by me and only in part. It was a privilege to have heard those words and to have had so many conversations with him; it was a privilege to have shared in his life.
After all of these years, his loss continues to move me and his life to have marked me. Ted is to me an illustration of an individual, who did nothing of world-historical importance, who you probably wouldn't have noticed had you passed him on the street; who gave meaning to his life through the accomplishment of rather "simple" objectives related to his closest relationships. In doing so he had a lasting impact on those who knew him; leaving us to know how wrong-headed, trivial and facile it would be to regard such a lived life as worthless or pointless. I suspect that those who are prone to make such judgments are led by the same need as religious believers: being only willing to accept as a meaning for life what would transcend the human dimension; a need that in my estimation blinds them to the reality of what is there before their eyes; leads them to be unwilling to acknowledge and to invest in any meaning; unable to appreciate the value and the significance that can be present in the simplest of lived lives.