Uncles, Brothers

I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see.

I sought my God, but my God eluded me.

I sought my brother, and I found all three.

-William Blake

I’ve lost two Uncles to two different pandemics. That’s not something I expected to be able to say in my lifetime. Pandemics were a thing of the past, something you studied as history, not something you lived through. I was just out of college when my first Uncle, Jude Flynn, succumbed to AIDS after two years of suffering. I lost my uncle George to Covid in 2020. 

George was a veteran of many serious childhood illnesses, but had survived to live a long and fruitful life. He contracted Covid sitting among his fellow retirees in a home for care of elderly Catholic clergy. Five other priests from his ward also died from Covid in that wave. It was very early in the pandemic, before they understood how vulnerable elder care facilities were, before vaccines had been developed. Like so many who die of Covid, he died without the comfort of his family near him. It’s not hard to imagine that the strength of his faith carried him through that disorienting, difficult death. Our family still feels the pain of how he passed. We didn’t expect him to live forever of course, but to die so seperate from family leaves a mark.

Jude and George died decades apart, brothers who spent much of their lives worlds apart. George, Joe, Pat, Mary, Jude, John, and Ann, that was the birth order. My father, John, died before George but after Jude. He died of a cardiac event brought on by a long struggle with blood cancer. It was not unusual to see large Irish Catholic families like theirs back then. Not all children were expected to make it to adulthood, they had their own diseases to contend with. It was better to have enough kids so that farmwork would get done and the family would continue. They didn’t farm but I expect the habit continued as a cultural tradition. Both George and Mary had scarlet fever. George emerged unscathed, Mary’s mental development was halted at a young age by the disease.

Jude survived the first wave of the AIDS crisis, before science even knew what was causing the illness that struck down so many gay men in their prime. He adopted safe sex, but not until after he’d slept his way through a battlefield that left at least fifty of his friends dead. At one point the deaths happened so often he would go months without a break from weekend funeral services. Yet Jude still tested negative.

When I was young the Castro was the place you had to go if you were in San Francisco. Not only to experience gay culture at its most liberated, but also to take in the shops, restraunts, clubs and of course the Castro Movie Theater. Where else could you listen to fantastic live organ music before a feature film? It was a safe place to go clubbing, have a great meal and wander through one of a kind shops. Of course for so many lesbian and gay Americans it was a miraculous oasis, a place to start a new life where they could be their most authentic selves. The vitality of that community was palpable at almost any time of day or night. Something was always happening, people were always connecting. Freedom was being tested and savored.

Jude managed to find the last home in San Francisco with an actual white picket fence. Nestled among the warehouses of South SF it was a short walk from some of the biker bars and bathhouses he frequented. That part of the City had been devastated by the fire ignited by the Great Quake of 1906. Someone had picked his house up from a neighborhood that had been untouched by fire and dropped it on what must have been a charred wasteland. Few homes were built there, it became a warehouse district. He filled his quaint home with the remains of his former life as an antiques dealer on the East Coast. After coming out in the ‘70s, and the painful divorce that followed, he left his family, and an antique store on Cape Code behind. Though he always missed his kids terribly, he told me he felt reborn there.

I always felt especially safe visiting Jude, and in the Castro in general. I’m not gay, but having grown up a in Utah and been involved in ballet and theater, I’d endured endless harassment. The straight world was regularly hostile to me, the queer community had always provided safe haven. Where other straight young men feared harassment, I found safety.

“You’re not afraid I’m going to turn you gay?” Jude would say coyly.

“No.” But I knew he’d be delighted if he had a gay nephew. He’d been estranged from his kids for many years and was yearning for any kind of family closeness he could find. He eventually reconciled with most of his family.

By the time I’d reconnected with him in the late ‘80s the Castro was almost unrecognizable. That celebration of liberation had become half its former self. There were younger gay men there, mostly in their twenties. I remember passing one man in his 40’s leaning against a store front looking stricken, almost like he had awoken to find himself in a foregin land. It’s hard for most of us to understand the level of devastation HIV/AIDS delivered to the Gay community. So far in the Covid epidemic less than %.25 of Americans have died of Covid. Imagine if %50 of the people in your surrounding community died of an unnamed disease, some passing quickly, some lingering over years. While HIV did not take that many men globally, places like the Castro were hit incredibly hard.

Jude knew exactly when he contracted HIV. He was visiting a friend in Colorado who was very ill with AIDS. “We just started having sex. I knew it was stupid but I just couldn’t stop.” I wondered then if he just wasn’t weary of the world, tired of watching so many men from his community die. So many of us Americans have so little experience with grief. To be buried beneath a tidal wave of deaths must have driven some essential part of survivors underground at least for a time. The hard won joy and freedom they’d achieved must have felt stricken from them, brutally.

His young roommate Jerry took care of him throughout his illness. I traveled up to the city from Santa Cruz on weekends when Jerry wanted a break or just for a visit. For the first year Jude maintained his strength but slowly his muscular 6ft frame began to winnow away. Back then the treatments were successful enough to prolong life for a short time, but not enough to maintain a real quality of life. The last year of Judes life was infused with suffering too brutal to write about here. It was a death of many horrors.

He finally passed over Thanksgiving weekend. I was visiting for dinner, I slipped leaf thin slices of turkey through his lips. He couldn’t digest anything then, but he wanted the taste. He couldn’t get up from his own bed, he weighed less than 90 lbs. That weekend he died peacefully in his sleep with Jerry holding his hand.

His life could not have been more different from his older brother George. When Jude was discovering his sexuality in the 70’s George was at his post as a Catholic priest in Lima Peru. Both men were warm uncles to me, but where Jude was wild George was articulate, thoughtful and well educated. He found his calling running a radio station for the Church that provided news and religious services for the many Catholics throughout Peru who lived in areas too remote for a church. He was sincere in his faith, but even more he was committed to the culture and community he felt his radio station was supporting. His life of service seemed to fill him with energy. There was a brightness in the way he spoke, a vitality that felt bottomless.

Visits from my Uncle George were rare, exciting treasures when I was young. At first I’d be confused.

“Father George is coming to visit.” Mom would say.

“He’s a Father? I thought he was my Uncle.”

“He’s a priest. So he’s your Uncle the priest. We just call him Father out of respect.”

By then we were not really observant Catholics. Mom and Dad had both given up on Catholicism years ago. I think they kept it around so we’d have some sort of religious identity surrounded by Mormons in Salt Lake City, Utah. That made visits from Father George a little weird. They had to arrange for him to say mass at a church we hadn’t shown up to for years. But we’d find a way to dress up and attend. Dad wore too much cologne those days, but we went out to brunch afterwards, so I was happy.

When church wasn’t on George turned out to be the biggest kid in the house. He was more interested in playing tag, or ambushing us with tickle attacks than watching the news with my Dad. It could also be that my Dad was constantly trying to get his big brother to laugh at bawdy humor on the TV that was clearly outside what a Catholic priest should be watching. He’d pop a VHS tape of bloopers from the show Laugh In, trying to see if he could get Father George to lose it. It never worked, not once.

I didn’t see George much after my college years. I moved away from home and never got a chance to visit him in Peru. The next time I spent serious time with him was at my Dad’s memorial service. George spoke at the University Law School about Dad’s early life and passions. That was when I got to feel their brotherhood most acutely. George was a consummate speaker and had presided over many funerals in his role as a priest. His delivery was effortless and warm, as was his manner then. He connected the room to Dad, brought his life into focus within the grand experience of life we’re all a part of, until we’re not. I understand his manner was affable as ever even as Covid began to take him. He was offering blessings and priestly advice to the staff at the Jewish hospital he spent his last few days in. The nurses accepted the blessings with the grace of those who have walked through death too many times.

In these places of life and death, we all find kinship.

Plagues challenge us in so many ways. They scatter us, writing new histories as we flee the cities or to other countries. My late wife’s grandmother fled her home after her husband died of cancer, that was back when they thought cancer was communicable. These plagues can break bonds easily and cement new ties with people we never expected to be so deeply connected to. They remind of us of who we really are, what is real in life. They invite us to walk in territories we thought we’d never have to see.

I remember early in the pandemic, Rachel Maddow talked about her previous experience of knowing Dr. Faucci. She was one of the many lesbians who protested along side their gay friends, pushing our goverment to ackhowledge and fund research into understanding HIV. She credits that time with beginning her career in politics. Back then Faucci was, for a time, a reviled person by the queer community. He was accused of putting medical research over practical medicine, focusing on a cure rather than saving lives. That relationship evolved over time, mostly because neither Faucci or the Act Up community gave up. They continued, doggedly pushing forward, never yielding their own position, but learning over time to listen to each other. Finally, they found a way to work together to bring life saving success. I wonder if in our future Facci will be criticized for focusing on saving lives, rather than searching for a cure.

We are so fragmented now, still occupying sides of this latest pandemic, latest political season. The more I think about it, the more it reminds me of Irish brothers. We are notorious for not getting along, and then fighting to the death for each other. I hope we all somehow still share that kind of deep bond. I hope we will still share a meal together, and celebrate that eventually, all things pass.

I have no doubt that my father, uncle George, Pat, Jude and their sister Mary are together in a better place. Everything that ever divided them is now unimportant. Perhaps they’re all sitting beside the swimming pool their father dug for them all one summer. He just lined it with concrete and filled it with water. Jude was a gifted gardener, Joe says he could grow a perfect tomato without a single blemish on it. That’s how they all spend their time together, eating vine fresh tomatoes, by the pool, together in joy.

That’s how we’re all connected, only we can’t remember it. We’re all in the sun together, enjoying the light.

Blessings to you and yours during this time of great change.