Saturday, June 02, 2012

The Story of Val

In the summer of 1987 I worked in a Hospice home with people who were dying of Aids. The requirement for living there was that they needed to have a diagnosis of 3 months or less. I would work 48 hours on and then have 48 hours off. It was a pretty difficult job, with lots of important tasks that needed to be done meticulously. The environment was kept sterile at all times.

Talk about a diverse group of people! There was a 30ish guy named Bruce (I believe) who was both bi-sexual and a junky. No one really knew how he contracted the virus. There was a 40ish woman named Pam, who got the virus from her husband, who was seeing prostitutes on a regular basis. One guy, (I can't remember his name) who only came out of his room to smoke cigarettes several times a day, and was severely depressed. And Val.

Val became my friend over the course of a few weeks. He was a black, gay man, who had spent most of his life in the South. He was older; in his 50's. He'd tell me stories of how he was treated as an "out" black man in the South. He'd served in the military in his 20's until he was caught having sex with an officer, and was given an Honorable Discharge. This really hurt him, as he was proud of his military service. Once out of the military, he decided to be out with his sexuality.

He boasted about living an extremely flamboyant lifestyle, and that wasn't hard to believe. He was warm, funny, loud, and smart. Not "book smart", but "world smart". He spoke of his adventures which eventually led him to Portland, where he discovered he was sick. He didn't know people here, and I became his only real friend in the area. He took to me quickly, and I could see the joy on his face when I would show up after my days off. 

After hearing his stories one day, I carelessly mentioned that he should write a book. He looked sadly at me, and reminded me that he wouldn't have time to write a book. That's when an idea popped into my head. I asked him if he'd like to get his stories on tape, and that I would write the book in honor of, and for him. He lit up like a Christmas tree over the idea!

That same day, I took hin to a dentist appointment to have some infected teeth pulled. Val was deathly afraid of the dentist, and only agreed to go if I went with him. On our way there I managed to keep him distracted of his fear by talking about our plan to get his adventures on tape. I would bring a tape recorder to work after my 2 days off, and interview him, as I now had a good idea what his stories were about. I sat with him in the room where the dentist pulled 2 teeth. It was a lot on his already compromised body, and by the time we left, I needed to help him back to the van.

Once we were back at the house, we got word that Bruce had left with a drug "friend", which everyone knew was a bad move. I left that day, with a sadness over Bruce's decision, but feeling good about getting to interview Val when I came back. My time off was anything but relaxing. I'd call the house every few hours to ask about Bruce and Val. The evening of my second day off, I received a call that Bruce had come back, but then died as a result of shooting heroin when he was gone. Val was doing only slightly better, due to the dental work.

The next morning I went back to the house early; ready to record whatever I could with Val. When I went inside I found that he had passed during the night. It was too late. I honestly can't remember what happened after that. I was so upset, and distraught, I  could only look at the empty beds and cry. I couldn't work there any more. After a long talk with the house manager, we agreed that it would be best for me to hang it up; which I did.


Parfil said...

I really admire you. You gave it your best. How heartbreaking death is for us who are left behind. I really admire those who can care for those are nearing the end. They are truly special people, who do not earn enough.

MaryAnne Stevens Humphreys Hildage, helped both my parents, and I will be forever in her debt. Her compassion was a lesson for me. She is part of my family.

David McDonald said...

Thanks Parfil. I think I'm an old soul in search of new experiences in this life. I knew going in that this would be one of those new spiritual experiences.