“Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying” Stephen King

I have been pulling the pictures from my “past life” and looking at them with a fresh eye and discovering how they have made me who I am today and also how they have been instrumental in helping me at times to heal and other to get rid of common obstacles that will hold us back from living.

I struggled with the fear of death a lot as a young kid. Many people are afraid of death, for many different reasons. I remember watching a documentary on Nostradamus when I was 10. He predicted that the world would end in 1995. I was terrified. After all the man was right about Hitler…..and I had so much i wanted to do.

Now, I’m not comfortable with it, though I don’t think it’s human to be totally at peace, but I don’t lay in bed dreading my day of death. I owe this balance to my continuous exposure to people with AIDS, one of the main reasons I no longer fear death as I did.

The first time I ever met someone with AIDS I was about 10, maybe 11. I was spending the night at a friend’s house and her parents had company. At that point it was the early 90’s and AIDS was still very much a whisper, the only thing that seemed to be communicated about it was the fear and many times that fear was ignorant. So as my friend and I did dishes, she told me that the man who ate dinner with us that night had AIDS. I remember being fearful, knowing that is was a deadly disease.

When I was 13 we moved to New Orleans. After our move there, AIDS played a prominent part in my youth. From our neighbors to people I met through volunteer work, I met so many people who opened my eyes to life and to the tragedy of death.

My mother and I began volunteering at a place called The Lazarus House. It was hospice care set in a huge, old New Orleans Victorian  home, complete with courtyard. It was meant to be a sanctuary for people with AIDS and HIV. Some of the men and women came there to die and others came to get healthier. Some were teachers, some were regular joes and all were someone’s son or daughter.

During my two-year time there I did a number of things ranging from helping clean to sitting bedside with someone until they passed. Mostly however, we spent time visiting and talking with the residents there. I learned that one man named Daryl, was being proactive with AIDS by going around schools and speaking to the youth but also by volunteering there for after school programs. Then there were people like Lionel whose family had shut him out and treated him as badly as a dog with rabies. His mother had everything covered in plastic, she was so terrified she might contract the disease. Lionel was quiet, a bit socially awkward and a peaceful sort. He was very kind to me.

There were many others, Lynn a fried chicken fiend ( he loved that chicken from Popeye’s!)whose mind had been most affected. He became more and more like a child every week, which had its comical moments but when I think about the first day I met him to the last time I saw him, he had gone from speaking as an adult with life long experiences to relating much like my three-year old does. He was surrounded by people who loved him and supported him until he died. When I think of him, I don’t see him grey and morose but rather smiling and laughing with Popeye’s fried chicken near by.

And then, quite to the contrary, a woman my mother and I sat vigil with as she slowly passed, was utterly alone. She had pictures in her room of family but she was dying by herself. I don’t know why or what her story was but it was so sad that here she was at the end of all things and she had no one to help her. A couple of strangers were her only companions.

Lastly, I met a man named David, whom I ended up working with at a small postal emporium in the French Quarter. We worked together for two years and in that period, he was at death’s door many times but he always managed to bounce back. My husband and I moved and for the last 10 years David continued to pop in and out of my life, by little run ins and short hellos. He died a year and a half ago. And with him, a chapter of my life also.  He was the final tie to my life at The Lazarus House.

Living in New Orleans and volunteering at the hospice there, made me face one of my greatest fears. Death was tangible. Something I could reach out and grab. It lived in the people I met there, biding its time, waiting and slowly destroying the person’s body but I am glad that it didn’t destroy the spirit.

But then, death is in all of us, waiting with his pocket watch and cycle, taking liberties with our body by way of age and inherited health problems and sometimes by our own hand.

When I was 17 I traveled to Thailand. I was doing some more volunteer work at an orphanage in Bangkok for children born of HIV positive prostitutes or the homeless. The kids were also all positive for the deadly disease. They ranged in age from a few years old to a few days old.

I held a newborn. She was very thin and boney and her breathing was raspy and shallow. Meanwhile the other children, mostly toddlers, played at my feet and around the room. They all had big smiles and ran around like any other normal child. Some were obviously more sick than others but they were happy. Some after a few weeks of being in the care of the orphange, miraculously, no longer tested HIV positive. That’s one I can’t explain and I don’t care to try, the people who ran the orphanage said that the positive touch and love from others is what they believed had cured them. There was no scientific explanation.

It remains one of my top 5 experiences of my life. And so does Lazarus House and the people i met there. I find it a bit funny that 2 of my top 5 experiences, revolve around the most feared AIDS and HIV. It is this disease though, that showed me how strong we can be when the odds are so played against us, we can’t move. It showed me the human spirit and how resilient it can be.

Death is just a beggar at the door. He will take us all somehow, someway. Watching how people like David and Daryl and the children in Thailand dealt in grace with the dark subject, convinced me that I have far better things to do than worry about Deaths calendar.

We forget we are even living. Bills, arguments, petty grievances, tv,, all of these things can distract us from living. Life has shown me, it is possible to be living yet dead and as I observed at The Lazarus House, it is also possible to be physically dying but have more life than most of the people sitting at your side while riding the bus.

I would rather walk this world actively alive than to get to the end of it and realize I was actually half dead for most of it.

I don’t have this mastery down yet and perhaps I won’t get it perfected but I will sure as hell try.

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