By Richard Heatley, BCC
St. Anthony’s House in Baton Rouge is a home for people with AIDS who have neither family nor friends able or willing to look after them. Sometimes there are wonderful miracles at St. Anthony’s. Residents go into remission. Their “T” cell count climbs consistently over a period of months. Their step becomes lighter; they laugh more, and put on weight. They become much less self-absorbed and begin to think about the future. If they are able to leave St. Anthony’s and live on their own in an apartment, the staff tries to make the transition as smooth as possible. The following story is about my journey with an African-American man who resided for a while at St. Anthony’s House.
When Gregory came to the residence, I noticed his gaunt appearance. He seemed reclusive and hardly spoke to anyone. Whenever I tried to open a conversation with him, a wounded look appeared on his face. He would quickly avert his eyes and move away like a walking shadow. I observed that this anti-social demeanor was not only with me but also with the other residents and staff. I was not put off by Gregory’s behavior. I have been working continuously with people with HIV and AIDs since 1994. His reclusive manifestations were not new to me. I had encountered them many times before. Sometimes I thought he was perhaps more paranoid than withdrawn. I wondered how HIV and AIDS were daily ravaging his thought processes. Or how many times in the past he had been brutally hurt from the direct results of prolonged isolation, broken relationships, and negative manipulations that had left him unable to trust or to make friends easily.
Over a period of months I learned from the staff that Gregory was suffering from colon cancer, a pernicious phenomenon pertinent to people with HIV/AIDS. He was getting frequent doses of chemotherapy, coupled with prescribed heavy-duty medications in an attempt to control his pain. One characteristic soon caught my attention about Gregory. There was a polished neatness about him. Despite his thinness, he always appeared tidily attired when he was in the residence’s common areas. It was obvious he took pride in presenting himself to the public.
It took perhaps about three months before Gregory felt comfortable dialoguing with me. My regularity coming to St. Anthony’s and my interactions with his peers and the staff gave him the needed opportunity to verify my authenticity. It was about this time that Gregory’s health took a decided upbeat direction. He appeared happier and was interacting more with the daily running of the residence. There was definite weight gain. And there was talk about him leaving St. Anthony’s and living in his own apartment. More importantly, his tough chemotherapy regimen had been stopped for the time being.
Gregory’s Indian summer, however, was short lived. I began hearing from the staff that his cancer was back again worse than ever. His chemotherapy resumed. He quickly lost his recent weight gain, and his hair fell out in handfuls. Whenever he could come into the common areas, it was with great physical effort. He would stay for short periods and leave exhausted, barely able to walk unassisted back to the privacy of his room.
Toward the end of his stay at St. Anthony’s, Gregory was frequently hospitalized. During his hospitalization, I visited him one late evening. When I entered his room, he looked peaceful. He had the contented look of an old Egyptian pharaoh who at the end of his life knew that he had ruled long and well. For about 20 minutes we chatted back and forth. He clearly was at ease with me as I was with him. At one point I noticed a beautiful painting on the wall opposite his bed. It was of a chateau’s small secluded back garden. The house and garden were set in a lazy August afternoon when it was siesta time. The French doors were half opened. The picture, painted in subtle pinks and turquoise, exuded a spiritual tranquility. I asked Gregory if he liked the painting. He responded that it was how he would like heaven to be for him. He said he envisioned “meeting Jesus for the first time as mutual friends in such a picturesque and sacred place.”
When Gregory returned to St. Anthony’s for the last time, he was immediately placed on home hospice. It took about five days for him to die. He could only whisper and communicated more with his sunken eyes than with his voice. Daily he became more emaciated. While he lay dying, I could visualize how the prisoners in the German concentration camps must have looked to the stunned liberating Allied troops at the end of World War II. In each one of these prisoners and in Gregory, there was still a human being calling forth our respect and compassion.
Even when he was dying Gregory maintained his private space. Marjorie Ryerson, in her book titled “Companions for the Passage (2008),” emphasizes that the dying often choose those who will be at their bedside on the final days and moments before death. “As people die or go into the final death process, they might choose you as the friend they want to be there. They might not want their cousin, someone who might want to be too close, in the circle. For a dying person, the circle of acceptable people gets smaller and smaller. Dying people don’t suffer fools gladly. They pick premium people.”
I was not at St. Anthony’s House when Gregory died. When I did arrive, his remains had already been removed by the undertakers. His few belongings were in two large clear plastic bags. In respectful silence, I thanked God her letting me know this good, sensitive, and reserved man.
In the late 1960s, the British actress Maggie Smith starred in her first Academy Award movie, “The Prime of Miss Gene Brodie.” The heroine was a free-spirited teacher in a girls’ boarding school set in Edinburgh, Scotland. At the movie’s end, after Miss Brodie has left the school in disgrace, one of her more challenging students remembers with a new appreciation and understanding Miss Brodie’s observation: “If you can catch a young student and help form her impressionable mind, you have changed her for life.” I am not sure if I was Gregory’s student or his teacher. I felt, however, that I became an honored guest. I acknowledge that in his own firm, quiet way, he molded me into becoming a better chaplain.’
Chaplain Richard Heatley ministers at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, LA. St. Anthony’s House is owned and operated by the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady, Baton Rouge.