I have watched the waves break against the side of the ship, sending up rainbows of colors. I have watched porpoises playing in the sea. I have seen young couples stroll hand and hand under the light of the full moon as the ship glides gently in the quiet night. I have seen gay couples steal looks of love from each other at the captain’s table.
I have seen all these things, and as I look at the older couple dozes in the tropical sun on their wooden deck chairs, gently holding hands, I wonder what has been their pain? What has buoyed them through the difficulties in their lives? What has been their solace?
My questions are answered for me when I celebrate the Holy Mass, the sublime mystery of God changing ordinary bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. I see the peace and happiness in the faces as they come forward to drink the Blood of the Lamb. The One who loved each of us so much that He was willing to die for each person whoever has lived, whoever will live.
This is my solace as I bear the unbearable pain of burying my brother who died of AIDS. Ours was the model dysfunctional family. Ralph Edward came into the world, an unhappy and unwanted child, on a cold winter on the Plains of North Dakota. Soon after his birth, our mother left the family. They bounced Ralph from one household to another, never really wanted, never really accepted. Even as a child he never really was a part of my life. Maybe it was because I was five years older then he. Today I turn thirty-seven, in two weeks he would have been thirty-two.
The ship continues to lurch forward in the Caribbean Sea, toward the desert island of Curacao and the safety of the harbor. Ralph entered the safety of his own psyche. “Why do you keep rocking back and forth like that?” “Why do you bang your head on the wall?” It is only now that the realization comes to me of mental illness.
We were an unsophisticated farm family, children isolated from the greater community because of our parents’ divorce. We had only three support systems as children: each other, Ralph’s Godmother, Annie, who cared for us, and the Church.
After a jillion rosaries I got to leave that physical, sexual, and emotionally abusive situation. Ralph was not so fortunate.
I see the young crew members sitting by the bar. One looks so much like my dead brother. I see the happiness in their faces as they joke and talk to each other, the wholesomeness and dreams that they share with each another.
Who cared to share Ralph’s dreams? Did he have dreams? Yes, he had the dreams of television and magazines. They were not the dreams of reality. “If I had these clothes . . .” “If I have that car . . .” “If . . .” “If only . . .” The dreams of the unhappy, the dreams of unreality.
The young steward tries to be affectionate to the one actress. She brushes him off.
If I cannot find love through whom I am, then I will find it another way. At least for a few minutes I will mean something to someone else.
First it is just with other boys in our little village. Nevertheless, once Ralph becomes a teenager, he discovers men from town who are interested in a little man to man action. They are willing to pay for it. This is his chance to make money to get the things he wanted. Between his customers and the money that Dad gave him, Ralph becomes one of the best dressed teenagers in the county.
Money and sex do not buy happiness nor friends.
As the ship enters a small squall, a young man, no more than twenty, and his sugar daddy slip under the canopy of the ship. How can one always tell? Is it the far away look in the young man’s eyes? Or is it the eagerness to please by the older man?
Trouble with the police brews. Stealing a car. Drinking and driving. Dropping out of school. Things become worse and worse. The more money Dad gives him the worse things become. What does he want? Why does he drive everyone away?
The sun comes out and most people move onto the deck.
Maybe, he thinks, if I go to trade school and become a hair stylist things would be all right. Dad, hopefully, finances school, anything to get things back under control.
It does not last.
Shadows lengthen. The sun is beginning to set. People are moving inside to dress for dinner.
The mosquitoes were horrible that summer evening. That evening the air was perfectly still, so still that dust hung in the air as Ralph and I walked along in our floor length capes to protect us from the hordes of mosquitoes. Down by the barn next to the chisel plow Ralph tells me he is gay. I, who just recently graduated from college with a degree in psychology, ask how he knows. Maybe it is a phase. At any rate it is something that should not be told in this little world.
Two couples remain by the pool. The heterosexual couple kisses, and the deck hand take their picture. The gay couple look at each other, and the question in their expression is: “When are we going to be free to live and love like everyone else?”
Ralph moved to the city and became deeply ingrained in the gay subculture. He was impossible to live with, impossible to deal with. He sold his share of the farm to the family corporation, taking a severe financial loss, but only wanting to get out and get away from the family. In the end, he changed his name to Blaine.
“Maybe if I go on a pleasant vacation my life will be better.” “Maybe what I really need is to see a psychiatrist.” Too late, doctors discover a chemical imbalance that is treatable.
Inheritance spent, no education, no prospect of ever having a decent job, Ralph is unable to afford the medication. One bad relationship leads to another.
Ralph turns again to prostitution and drinking and self-centeredness. His life is worse then ever. At twenty-one he is already an old man.
“Hold me, just a little while,” she says as they rest on a bench on the deck. He holds her as they watch the glorious sun sink into the depths of the sea. The gay couple look at each other with all the love that they can experience, as they stroll by the couple and go into the ship.
Finally Ralph meets someone who seems like the ideal to him. He gets his life in order and begins to live like a human being. During most of this time I rarely see my brother. He lives on the coast. I lived in Colorado.
It is only after he came to Colorado for a visit did our relationship take off as adults. His interests were shopping and finding out where the gay scene was. He had a book along which had most of these places listed. I went with him to gay bars, and even a gay movie theater with a special back room.
When Blaine went into the back room, it seemed as if the entire audience got up and went back also. It was an interesting visit, and it changed our lives.
One young man comes back on deck wearing his tuxedo, looking very dashing in the dusk. He places his hands on the guard rail as he looks toward the horizon. A few minutes later his friend retums to him on the deck. Furtherly he places his arms around his waist and kisses him on the side of his neck. As quickly as it happened it is over. They retreat inside as they see me sitting at my writing table.
Blaine was a very handsome young man. He tried some modeling along with many other endeavors. I have a picture from his portfolio on my coffee table.
Christmas 1984 was to be the high point of our lives together as brothers. He was living in a very beautiful home in the better part of the city, with a delightful upper management type fellow, but only as roommates. Blaine was still looking for Mr. Right. Finally, the oyster with the perfect pearl seems to have been discovered. The pearl that is so perfect, it does not exist.
However, that Christmas is my pearl of great price. I would sell everything to possess again. Thirty six Christmases have come and gone. This one lives in my heart forever. It is its ordinariness that makes it perfect.
It was the pounding of the surf . . . it was the full moon as we walked on the beach . . . it was the champagne breakfast on the rooftop restaurant . . . it was the beautiful Christmas tree . . . it was the wonderful Christmas Eve supper . . . it was dressing for dinner . . . it was Midnight Mass at the monastery. It was ordinary, but we were sublimely happy as brothers for the first time in our lives. And it was that Christmas as I was leaving for the airport that I told him I loved him, and he kissed me on the mouth.
The beautiful couple come strolling down the deck. They were an ordinary couple really, but tonight they were a radiant, beautiful, and stunning couple. She was dressed in a sequined evening gown. He was in his trim fitting tuxedo. Will this trip affect them, I wonder, as that Christmas had on me?
My brother and I are so different that we really are the same.
I have lived the life he always wanted to live. He has done things I never had the nerve to do and was so handsome. We looked a great deal alike then, but they still relegated me to the cute category.
Another gay couple comes out for an early evening swim. The deck is quiet. Most people are dressing for dinner. They frolic in the pool as young people do. Disapproving glances from an older woman end their enjoyment and sends them back into the ship.
To constantly live under such a strain is unbearable. Blaine rejected the “ghetto” mentality. He lived openly and honestly as a homosexual man. At times, I admit, I was uncomfortable with it, but usually I admired him for it. He did not have to worry about what other people thought and knew he was going nowhere in the business world. His was a life of unfulfilled dreams and he accepted his lot in life.
A couple of years before this, I had begun to work as a volunteer at a hospice in suburban Denver. It so happened that this was the first place to take people with AIDS. The next Christmas, I knew AIDS had infected him. He had the lesions on his back.
The doctor could not figure it out. They did not know what it was. Months past. Then one day he called me during the middle of the afternoon. I was preparing dinner for a parish group during my internship as a transitional deacon. He told me he had the HIV virus.
The deck is quiet now. There is no one here but me and my thoughts. I am alone on a vessel carrying eighteen hundred people.
I said I knew. We talked. He became angry with me. He rejected God and everyone and everything.
Look how beautiful the stars are tonight. The only light comes from the full moon. My only solace comes from the Lord Jesus Christ and the Eucharist.
Christmas that year was not as fun. He was tired a lot and was moving to New York to begin his modeling career. It was too late for that now, but I did not tell him that.
That spring he came to visit me at the seminary. It was a wonderful three days together. I was notorious at school for my cocktail parties, and I lived up to my reputation while he was there.
A granddaughter guides her grandmother along the deck. The hopes and dreams of the older woman live in her granddaughter. She thinks, “She is so much like me sixty years ago. When I was twenty, I thought I could be the conqueror of the world. Yet I know I will only be remembered in her lifetime. Then I will join the countless millions they forget.” They disappear.
By the next spring life is almost over for Blaine. He is unable to work, and a severe depression sets in. It is time for my ordination to the priesthood, but he says that he cannot come. He is too ill. But in the end he changes his mind. He knows that it will be the last time he will see all the members of the family in this life.
For my ordination the Bishop turned his huge house over to me for my friends and family. Sister, his cook, made a beautiful meal and served it elegantly under the bishop’s Waterford chandelier. Blaine said to me, “I have finally made it to respectability.”
His very presence was very disturbing for some members of my family who did not want to have anything to do with him. Some did not even speak to him. He left the same day as the ordination. He came to my suite before he left the Bishop’s house. We had no words to express our hearts. He kissed me and left.
“Father, can you remember to pray for my daughter, she is going through a hard time?” “Of course, I will,” and she continues to scurry down the deck.
I saw him in July, but we did not spend much time together. Blaine was dashing here and there. It seemed as if AIDS did not infect him that they had cured him. That was the last time he hugged me, the last time he kissed me, the last time I saw him alive.
That August I was assigned to a large, urban parish. Unwanted by the pastor and staff because they perceived me as a conservative, I was a threat to the status quo. I was also unwanted by some parishioners because of my work with people with AIDS and their families.
By October Blaine is not functioning at all. My two sisters take care of him in a home hospice. I am in daily contact with his doctor, who thinks there is still time.
I want to go to the Coast, but I cannot. The pastor is sick and gone, and I am responsible for 4,300 souls. Finally the doctor calls and said, “If you are going to come while he is still alive, you better come now. I do not think that he has more then seventy-two hours left.”
Blaine died two hours after I left my rectory on November 10th, 1987 in the very early hours of the morning. When I arrived at my mother’s home, my stepfather answered the door. After about half an hour he said, “Ralphy is dead.” Just like that. “Ralphy is dead.”
I have never felt so alone in my whole life. The only person in my family that I truly, honestly loved, and he is dead.
My cabin boy reminds me that it is time to dress for dinner. Life moves along, just as the waves move across the sea, but my brother is dead . . . and I loved my brother.
Almost eight years have passed, and I still miss him.
Father Damien Schill is the Parochial Vicar at Church of the Holy Spirit in Fargo, N.D.