Tuesday, August 15, 2006
CHINESE NEW YEAR ( An AIDS Tale Retold )
[[ This is actually a Tale about AIDS and Hope....it was orginally posted for Chinese New Year 1-29-06. I was an AIDS Nurse for many years in Seattle Washington. I am reposting it to Honor The International AIDS Conference in Toronto this week.]]
So tonight it is Chinese New Year. Some folks start celebrating it at Sundown and some at Midnight. It is the Year of the Dog, the Fire Dog. The Dog in the Chinese Horoscope represents Loyalty, Everlasting Friendship and Infinite Courage and Mighty Fortitude, and Hidden Strength. It also is true in Chinese History , especially in the years of the Fire Dog, represent Much Change and Upheaval. I say this with great optimism for Change in the year to come. On the West Coast some resturants have big parties and banquets and Celebrations. There is much wonderful food, music and Fireworks. Some resturants have one night for the public and one night for the resturante families. It can be festive and jubilant, and truly welcoming, or a more traditional quiet holiday. And for some it is a time to resolve rifts and wayward relations, and for others it is a time of Reunion, and even Thankfulness.
I originally started celebrating this many years ago, and for me it is a quiet reflective time. Some celebrate it with gusto and great enthusiasm. Some celebrate it and welcome it with huge gatherings of food and family and friends. It was never like that for me, a time to gather , take stock, review and honor the past and those that are gone. It is quiet and full of solitude.I clean like crazy for a week, I re-organize, tidy even the closets that are best left dark and dusty. I scrub the front door and make Red banners with Caligraphy ( Japanese or Chinese), that have warm thoughts of peace, prosperity, and inspiration ( Couplets). And my son loves that no one but us really knows WHAT they say. ( When he was little he used to call them the Secret Banners).
There are fresh flowers, lotus and irises, and sometimes Lillies. And since Rob was little I have fixed the traditional Long Egg Noodles symbolizing long life. And all kinds of tea. And Red Envelopes, with good wishes and trinkets, chocolates, and nuts. ( and of course the Neatly pressed Money and polished coins) ALL to bring good luck. And the Dim Sun ( Sweets) puchased from some little Chinese eatery as well as Fortune Cookies. I would wear Songbird Colors, and put lotus candles in the bath water. And even when many holidays were havoced in my life, this holiday I always loved and cherished, and it's simplest of rituals made me whole again.It was so heartwarming to believe that WE Create Our Luck. And at Midnight I would burn 9 sticks of incense with tenderness , remember those that have gone and honor Who and What they were. It was a simple holiday that held Hope. Always.
I worked as an AIDS nurse in Seattle in the late 1980's and one of my favorite patients Rick, became a friend. He was a talented artist, this friend that taught me about Buddhism and how to find my way with it. He was an artist and a poet that had worked and taught Art and English in Asia. I first took care of his partner Steve in 1988-1990, and as I taught him the finer graces of nursing to care for his partner, he taught me so much more. He taught me intricacies of Life even when dying. His partner was nauseous alot, so Rick would spend hours figuring out what SMELL made him feel better ( S'MORE's fresh in the microwave and vanilla mint icecream on the bedside table were some of the best Comfort results). He taught me how to make "Russian Tea" ( Which is Tang and Iced tea powder mixed and served steamy and hot, a heavenly concoction). He explained that a part of Buddhism is science and reading, and putting those into action and having faith that the Universe would help the Healing. I liked how he explained it and that it was not a matter of "Leaving it up to God". ( Who personally I felt had failed miserably).
Rick would sit by Steve's bed and read to him from the I Ching, and chinese poetry, and from Confuscious, and Teachings of Buddha. He had rituals where he would serve tea and tangerines. He put ginger in the tea.He consulted a Feng Shui expert and they reviewed the horoscopes and rearranged furniture and brought in different colors to help Steve's comfort , and amazingly it all helped. And Rick would smile and gently leave books out for me about the Feng Shui, Chinese Horoscopes, and "The Barefoot Doctor". He was the first to explain to me that I was a Rat, according to the horoscope.. ( After the initial whiff of Insult , I learned quickly that Rats are Special, trustworthy, resourceful, take good care of their community, and have courage. So I decided to embrace this little part of me, and cherish what I could strive for.)
I took care of AIDS patients in Seattle 1988-1998, and this was quite a feat, for a good part of those years I lived on Capital Hill near many of my patients and my neighbors. And yes, as many of my neighbors became my patients there are also were lessons to learn about boundaries that became blurry and soft. I did homecare and also worked at a lovely little hospice that was called Rosehedge. ( and still worked other shifts on the side , including ER and PEDS). ( I had this grand idea that if I could just work alot of different areas- I would never burn out as a nurse).
Steve died first in 1990 and in less than two years I got a call that Rick was very sick. And by then we were stll friends, but I took a job at a nursing agency that I knew would take good care of Rick. Rick was shocked to realize that he had AIDS and that he had CMV retinitis.( He had been HIV postive for almost 8 years when he went into AIDS, he took amazing care of himself, even while caring for Steve. ). He called me and said:
" I can't believe this, I am losing vision every day. It is so odd, it is like the colors are being washed from the sky. You think living in Seattle where it is so grey and rainey , that makes it worse?"
The saddest part was he was still grieving Steve when he got his own bad news, and it spiraled him into a huge depression. He gave up painting- totally. So I would go see him, and so would his friends, and we would all try to figure out what to do. I finally took the Phone number list off his frig and organized a Plan. I called Everyone, all his friends and neighbors, his "Care Chain". I set a a huge old Value Village Bowl on his front Hall table,called it the" Blessing bowl", and we all started leaving goodies in the bowl, to help him heal, to help him paint. Handmade playdough beads from my son,silvery gum wrappers, String, a birds nest, copper wire found in the Alley, cards and even tangerines and fig newtons and fortune cookies. And day by day he could not pass the bowl and not be tempted by what gifts were there. And slowly after many monthes, I arrived one day to find him painting with his head bent close and putting wire and beads on the canvas, and he said.
" I can't really see clearly, but I can feel the texture, and mostly I can FEEL Again" he lifted his head, and through the paint and glue and woven into his hair and face, I could see a wide infectious smile. And for the next few monthes I would always make him my last stop of the day. We would paint and weave, make paper with a dilapitated blender, and laugh and listen to music. And yes in many ways , I think that it was Grand Conspiracy that his friends and I pulled off. We were able to get Rick to paint again.
If you come to my apartment, I have many of Rick's greatest paintings.
I have packed them over and over on my precarious journey.
( and even ones we painted together, that I know in my heart are priceless)
I look at Them and they are not Just Art :
They are laughter at glue spilled on ugly old linoleum,
They are coconut shavings and melon seeds stuck on my clogs,
They are the the 1962 Hamilton Blender that vomited home-made paper on his kitchen ceiling,
They are homemade Minestrone Soup and Opera on Fridays,
They are the 16lb. bowling ball that "fell" out of the 3rd floor window.
They are courage against angst,
They are watching Willow 26 times,
They are Winter in Seattle, without the Grey.
They are Chili Cookoffs and "Friends& Sienfeld".
They are sandalwood Incense and tangerines,
They are Light in the Darkest of Darkest Shadows,
They are Chinese New Year...and Eternal Hope.