Double Sorrow: a meditation on grief
I should not have been surprised when Alejandro told me that Alex had died. Alex had been sick for a long time. He had lived with HIV for over twenty years and survived a number of serious illnesses. He survived a traumatic childhood, life on the margins as a more or less openly gay man in Venezuela. He survived being infected with HIV and nearly dying from it before he began antiretroviral therapy. He survived depression and suspicion, his own mind turning against him. He was still only in his mid-fifties. I discovered after he died that I had been unable to imagine him as anything other than a survivor. News of his death stunned me. He was so strong he seemed invincible.
When I learned of Adel’s death five days later I should not have been surprised. Adel lived in Baghdad. Bombings were a constant in his life. He often posted pictures on Facebook of places where bombs had killed friends or relatives. In some of the photographs he was lighting a candle for the dead. Many of our conversations had to do with his safety. Adel has achieved renown after his death. His face and his story have been widely disseminated by the Western media. He was one of the few Iraqi’s who had friends in the West. Almost 200 people died in the same blast that killed him. Outside of Iraq and the Iraqi Diaspora none of their names are notable.
Five days have passed since I learned of Adel’s death and ten since I heard of Alex’s. My schedule has been lighter than usual because of the holiday. I have been able to focus on work for only a few hours every day. I have taken the kind of naps that you take when you are sick. I have been unable to do much else. Merciful rains have watered my garden. Loving friends have expressed concern and given me solitude. Even my normally aloof cat has been sleeping close with me. I fall asleep and he is purring and he is purring when I wake up. Little mistakes like leaving my wallet on the table at a restaurant after dinner (it was kept safe for my retrieval) have clued me in to my need to give myself rest in safety and solitude. It has not been a time of unrelenting sorrow. Little joys insinuate themselves: a ruby throated hummingbird feeding outside my porch, the sound of rain on the roof, my own cooking — soup and cornbread like my mother makes. At my age, 65, I am both more vulnerable to the stress of loss and more able than ever to hold it side by side with joy and gratitude. This has not always been the case.
When I was in my early thirties I was witness to the terrible devastation of a plague. The AIDS epidemic quickly decimated the ranks of those near and dear to me. Half my friends got sick and almost all of them died terrible deaths. I was spared but had a ringside seat. I would escape death and dying several times a year by getting on a plane in Atlanta and flying to Caracas, Venezuela. Alejandro and Alex would meet me at the airport and drive me the hour and a half distance back to their home in the city of Maracay. I had a lovely bedroom and bath with a big fan to keep me cool. We would sit for hours on the patio behind the house under a giant mamones tree and visit with each other and with a close coterie of friends, their gay family. Alejandro who made part of his living giving English lessons would translate when he was there. My resolutions to learn Spanish never came to fruition and so much of what was said flew right over my head. Alex’s English was on par with my Spanish but we learned to understand each other. After awhile we spoke to each other in our respective languages knowing that the other didn’t understand everything but understood enough. How else can I say it, we got each other’s jokes.
Adel’s English was far from fluent but he communicated charismatically. We talked often via the miracle of Skype. He would be in his living room in Baghdad and I in my study in Atlanta. It would be the middle of his night and the beginning of my evening. His family would often pass through and that is how I met his father and his brothers and his incredibly vibrant mother. She would speak to me in Arabic and Adel would translate. She was home so her head was uncovered and she was free to be herself. She promised she would cook for me. She was often cooking for Adel. Their schedule seemed topsy-turvy. But so was their world.
Adel had one theme. He wanted to be a dancer. I told him he was a dancer. He was that and more. He made short films that included dance but had an element of comedy that was unusually sophisticated. He loved Charlie Chaplin and had the physical charisma or Rudolf Nureyev. His broken English was never a barrier in our communication. I knew exactly what he meant and he had me figured out completely. He was only 23 but wise beyond his years.
Whenever I arrived in Venezuela Alex assessed my energy. The next day I got a bath. On my first visit to Venezuela I caught some bug that laid me low and both Alejandro and Alex held me up in the shower and bathed me. The fed me soup from their kitchen spoonful by spoonful until I was back to myself. The kind of bath Alex would give me was very different. He would disappear in the morning to collect all the necessary ingredients. He would prepare pots of herbal teas and buckets full of liquids that smelled like vinegar and ammonia. I would be taken into a spot in the back of the garden where he would bathe me with various potions. Sometimes I would have to sit for an hour or so smelling of god knows what before that solution was rinsed off with the next. At the end of the ritual Alex would painstakingly draw a diagram around me in gunpowder. He would light it and zip, zap my aura would be cleansed, all the cooties dispersed; I would be fresh and pure. This may have saved my life or my sanity. Both were at risk. He knew and I knew and this was his way to make things better.
Adel and I talked about lots of things. He was frustrated by not being able to pursue dance in his own country. When he danced outside for his films he ran the risk of being confronted by religious zealots who could have spelled his doom. He couldn’t date without promising a young woman marriage. I told him if he got married it would be much more difficult to leave and pursue his studies as a dancer. He was curious about me. Did I have a wife? No. Was I ever married? No. Did I have a girlfriend . . . Sexual orientation is not something that is safe to discuss in Iraq. Being a dancer was dangerous because it created a perception of gayness. Adel could not be gay. Being a dancer stretched him beyond anything that was socially acceptable. Being gay was a death sentence in Iraq. Would he be gay in the West? That question will never be answered. Did he know I was? Of course he did. I didn’t have to tell him.
Alex grew up in rural coastal Colombia and when I knew him was estranged from his family. He was the youngest child and only son to a macho father who tried to beat the sissy out of him. In the culture of his origin the women could not stop the father’s violence and the father could not stop their affection for their gay son, grandson and brother. One of my favorite novels is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. I was completely taken in by the “magical realism.” Magical realism was extolled as a literary device. The magical and the logical existed side by side without contradiction. In Venezuela with Alex as my guide, I learned that magical realism is a way to see the world. Alex was a self-professed brujo. A brujo is more than a witch or a fortune teller and not quite a shaman. A brujo or bruja lives in this world and is in tune with the invisible ways of fate and fortune. These things are malleable by both daily rituals and esoteric interventions. Alex would instruct me (constantly and sometimes to the point of annoyance) in all kinds of little things that made life work better. For instance, when you take your shoes off at night you place them side by side as they were when you wore them, otherwise they might become confused and you could get lost the next day. Whenever you gave anyone money you folded it face up in half so it would come back to you twice. Multiply that times a hundred and you see how my spiritual instruction could become overwhelming at times.
Adel grew up in a war zone. He never knew peace. His family were Kurds in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The dictator gassed them into submission. The Kurds are a people without a country and treated with hostility in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran where they live in large numbers. Unlike the Arabs that surround them, the Kurds are less infected with Islamic fundamentalism. They are less afraid of music and dance. Adel’s family supported him. He could practice at home. They could acknowledge his exceptional gifts. He was part of the BBoy underground in Baghdad. These are disaffected young men who gravitate towards break dancing and rap music. Adel was acknowledged to be one of the best break dancers and rappers. It was one of the BBoys that messaged me about his death. I became friends with several of them even though none of them spoke English on Adel’s level. His friend Nameer, also 23, a nurse anesthetist and closet BBoy messaged me about Adel’s death in the bombing. He is devastated. Adel was his hero. Among the BBoys of Baghdad Adel was the leader of the pack.
I knew Alex and I would come to cross purposes at some point. It happened with everyone with Alex. He had alienated almost all of the gay friends I met when I first visited. Part of what drove them away was his incessant propehisizing. Alex had a number of ways of divining the future. He read the ash of a burning cigar. He would read the entrails of a chicken he had killed for the stew pot and there was a stucco wall in the garden he would read. The wall would give up many secrets. When I called Alejandro and Alex from the states between visits Alex would “read the wall” in Spanish of course and Alejandro would translate. Alex was very controlling about who you could go out with. He trusted almost no one. AIDS was his major objection. He would warn against certain men. It was only a matter of time before I liked the wrong man and Alex put his foot down. Maybe the man in question was infected and Alex knew best. It didn’t feel like it at the time. I felt like I was a prisoner to his will. I was even locked in the house when he and Alejandro were gone. For my own good. It didn’t feel that way at the time.
Adel found an ally in Jonathan Hollander whose dance company performs on the world stage. Jonathan became his mentor and has given his eulogy to the world. The Battery Dance Company directed by Jonathan in New York performs at dance festivals all over the world. Last year they performed at a festival in Amman, Jordan. Jonathan was able to bring Adel to Amman where he performed in public for the first and last time. Jonathan also arranged for Adel to have dance lessons via Skype with one of his principals, Sean Scantlebury, to prepare him. Adel, of course, was the delight of the festival. He returned to Baghdad to finish his law degree. He graduated two weeks before his death. He was planning with Jonathan to come to the US for study and a career.
Alex was cherished by his partner Alejandro. Only someone like Alejandro could handle the high voltage of Alex’s energy. Alejandro was born in Venezuela of a Colombian mother and a Ukrainian father. When he visited me two years ago I took him to the archives at Georgia State University and recorded his extraordinary oral history. Like Alex, Alejandro is larger than life. If you can imagine an unending Shakespeare play, that is what their life was like. Each of them characters in a sometime comedy sometime tragedy, one soliloquy following another. Alejandro lived for a time with his family in Philadelphia. They returned to Venezuela when he was in his early teens. His English is a hybrid of what he learned as a boy and how things translate. One of my favorite words invented by Alejandro is “believance.” He says, “we have a believance,” which of course is both a belief and an observance. Alex’s favorite words were absolutamente! and exactamente! With Alex everything was an exhortation!
Of course I never met Adel in person. Our person in common is John Ferguson. John would blush and guffaw if I said this in his presence, but he is truly one of the most remarkable people I know. John, who is a gifted concert pianist that I know from my radical faerie community, founded an organization that takes American music to places on the planet that no one else has ever heard of or wants to visit. Not only that but he organizes arts camps for young people who would never be able to take music lessons or play in an orchestra or dance on stage in places like Iraq and South Sudan. Adel met John in one such music camp and through John I met Adel. John often assigns me the role of fairy godfather to some of his gifted young protégés. He is only one person and his big heart is often strained to its outer limits. I am happy to take up some of the slack. More than happy, honored. Adel was given to me and I to him as a gift by John. Our hearts could not have met otherwise.
Alejandro and I became pen pals in the days before the Internet. There was a newsletter called Paz y Liberacion that came out of Houston that published gay pen pal requests from around the world. I answered many requests and received many letters from my request. I remember Alejandro writing me first though it may be the other way around. I had never really thought about visiting Venezuela. It is not high on the list of places American tourists want to go. Lucky me, I went. Alejandro and Alex were amazing (and I use that word intentionally) hosts. Not only did they make me feel right at home, Alejandro and I drove all over the country visiting, again, amazing places. Alex was a homebody. He stayed back with the chickens and the ladies who would come for his advice. He showed me a geography that was just above our heads. In the giant mamones tree in the back garden not only were there seasonal fruits that would drop to the ground but in the top branches most nights was a convocations of disembodied brujos and brujas swapping stories and trade secrets. Some of these people I met in person and some I knew of in the stories told about them. They knew things they shouldn’t know and offered protection when another witch was sending out bad vibes. Alex was one of their colleagues. He looked human but could fly like a bird.
Communicating with a friend in Iraq can be challenging. There is a difference in time zones and also the question there of whether or not their electricity is on or the Internet is working. Adel would message me often, “I miss you.” This always tugged at my heart strings. I missed him too. How could it be to miss someone I never met in person? I would message him, “How are you?” His answer was never predictable although he always answered. The last time we tried to talk our timing was off. He was late in calling and I was booked for a number of hours with clients. By the time I was finished it would be too late for us to connect. He was frustrated by this more than usual and called several times when I could not answer. I was going out of town the following morning and I messaged him that we could talk when I got home a couple of days later.
Alex and I had not talked in several years. He and Alejandro separated for awhile as couples sometimes do. His father had been dead long enough for him to reunite with his family in Columbia and he spent lots of time there. And he was sick. The disease he alienated friends over in order to keep us safe from was destroying him from the inside out. When Alejandro visited me in Atlanta for the first time two years ago he brought a present from Alex, a tiny pouch woven by his mother in the red, yellow and blue colors of Venezuela. This was his last message to me, one that I treasure. For Alex there was no barrier between the visible and invisible worlds. So I could I not sense him outside of time and space, my magical friend, my personal brujo, my forever Alex?
The last thing I wrote to Adel on Messenger on Facebook was because of the intensity of his frustration in not being able to talk with me and the couple of days it would be before I could get back with him, “you know I love you.” I had never told him that so directly before. He messaged back, “I know.” When I could finally summoned forth the courage to look at our dialogue, Facebook asked me if I wanted to see the older messages. Facebook told me there were 881 one of them.
The questions I hold heavy in my heart confuse everything I have been taught about what is real. How can two people communicate if they don’t speak the same language? How can two people love each other if they have never met in person? I struggle for answers feeling like I am just making things up.
No one who knows me agrees with my doubts. My friends accept my grief as genuine and necessary. I hear the echo of my own words in counseling sessions with my clients, “for every great love there is a great grief.” I have held hands with many whose grief was palpable and many have held my hands and offered tender mercies when my grief overwhelmed me. Not only have I felt tangible reassurance but have been held “in the arms of the angels.” Surely if they could Alex and Adel are holding me and each other and all of us in this ever expanding circle of love.
How can we endure? How can we continue and move on and be of service? I’m not sure I can answer in more words than these. We may die but love doesn’t. It passes from heart to heart, from mine to yours and yours on to others. Sorrow informs us not only of love past but love ongoing. I may have lost my friends but they have not lost me.
8 July 2016