On July 13, 2017, while on a solitary walking exploration with my camera through San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, I stumbled upon the AIDS Memorial Grove, which opened up my artist’s soul in unexpected but welcome ways. My reflections on the discoveries that day and in the weeks to come are shared here.
Musings: An Afternoon in the AIDS Memorial Grove
A concrete circle with a floral arrangement laid in the center.
I think: Who placed the flowers there?
Floral arrangement at the center of a concrete circle. Long, tall Bells of Ireland with purple allium balls and red I-don’t-know-whats, tied together and placed thoughtfully, gently (or so I imagine her doing so – yes, it’s a her, I’m so sure of that — does that make me sexist?) in the center of rows and rows of words and names carved in outwardly radiating circular lines that go round and round this concrete plaza edged with a cement bench for those inclined to sit and ponder.
Later, I think:
The Circle of Friends has a cast of thousands inscribed in the cement floor. Or is it hundreds? well, maybe thousands if you extend the count to include donor institutions’ employees and members: …..Dr. Peter H. Alpert * John A. Parmeter & Kenneth J. Miller & Sissy Spaceout * David Lynch ……
This Circle of Friends really has a cast of millions when you consider all those who succumbed to AIDS, going back to the early 20th century, before we gave it a name.
That day I think:
All in caps, each word a heading of sorts for a separate section of remembered and those doing the remembering:
I grow dizzy, then weary, trying to track the concentric circles of names of individuals and companies all wanting to remember ( Later I think: and be remembered for remembering) the names of those lost to AIDS.
The path reminds all who see it that these names represent
“donors to the grove,
those who died, and
those who loved them”
(Later I think: ) Notice who gets top billing.
That day I think:
Another path over to the left of the one I entered in. I feel the pull to continue further into the grove, but I can’t yet turn my back on the circle. I slowly back out, focusing my eyes, heart and spirit on the circle to sustain as long as I can the special connection with the space
(Later I think:)
It is this precise moment in the garden where I acknowledged to myself that I have entered a dimension of being that I can only now describe to you as a sacred state. As extension, this grove has become a sacred place for me. I imagine it has become so for many before me, and will do so for many others who have yet to visit. Despite my subsequent cynical editorial comments regarding the narcissistic practices that come into full bloom in major fundraising efforts like what brought this garden to fruition, I freely acknowledge that the artistic, compassionate and spiritual dimensions of planning that went into making this garden have created a sacred space for all who seek and/or need such a place.
Eventually, I turn and place the circle behind me, moving forward into a deeply shaded grove of tall trees, whose nearest branches are far above me. In the generous spaces between these tree trunks I spy an undulating river of rocks that stretches on beyond a crest in the distance. On its “banks” I see large boulders here and there, accenting a curve in the “flow” of the dry, stony river that is composed of thoughtfully placed stones, ranging in sizes from baseball to melon.
Before I reach this river of stone, the raucous magpie energy of a group of adolescent boys on bikes with boom box blaring bursts into the grove. They stop and form a circle at one of the benches there. They laugh and talk with the unheeding energy of boys racing toward manhood and I experience a sense of outrage and disbelief. Are they really unaware of where they are and what the space calls for? Did I glare at them? Or did I merely stare at them? Whatever I did, or didn’t do in that moment, one of the boys turns off the radio and one of them (the same one?) says “ hey, let’s go.” They ride off quickly, silently. Gradually I bring myself back to that internal place of stillness; of attention and focus, where all my sensors are receiving information and I feel myself becoming one again with the sacred space.
Moving closer to the river of rocks I see that some of the boulders contain carved remembrances:
Sweetness and Light
The Root of All Wisdom is to Love One Human Being
Michael Louis Steingraber
Loving Friends & Colleagues
The overwhelming amount of information in the Circle of Friends is now distilled here on these boulders to its purest, sweetest, simplest essence. I am grateful for the quiet encounter with one life, or two, and those whose lives were intertwined with them. In this way, throughout the afternoon, I will become more intimately acquainted with the ‘million stories in the naked city‘ in the the most human way possible: one name, one soul, one marker at a time. But it’s never just one soul, is it? Each soul touches other souls, leaving lasting impressions. In these garden encounters throughout the day, I recall, over and over again, that in the particular story of the one whom we name, we simultaneously give name and heart to a universal story that plays itself out with countless unique permutations. Each carrying the universal spark of essential truth threading all these stories like beads on a rosary.
And so, I recall now, in this place, my personal permutations of this story: the names and souls of those near to me who have died:
My mother, Joan.
My sister, Mary.
My brother, Sean.
My father, John.
There are other names, other souls, but these names, this day, in this garden, have particular resonance. They have heft and weight that I must pick up again and carry for whatever time is required.
Mary died from “complications resulting from AIDs” back in 1987 when she was 27. I had to call my sister Beth to be sure of these particulars. To understand my vagaries about the year and her age, (and to ask for cosmic forgiveness for this and so many other sins), I must give just a little background. I am the eldest of 12 children born to John and Joan. Mary was the 7th child, and the 3rd daughter born into the family. By the time I was 18 years old, with 5 other sibs between us, Mary was only 12 years old, and I was already out the door, college bound. In trying to come to grips with this guilty fact, I’ve learned that its often the case in families of this size that there are actually smaller sub-units of family. In these smaller family units it is in the proximity of age where we more easily share stories of the realities of the time and home(s) and the state of parenting at that particular time.
Though I shared my little bedroom on the first floor with each new baby as s/he entered the family for a time, once they were ensconced with their peers (the four big boys downstairs in the remodeled basement, the four middle girls upstairs and the three youngest boys in the other bedroom on the first floor) I had little to do with my much younger siblings outside of dinner time, diaper changing and baths, babysitting and holiday dinners at our grandparents home on the East Side of Chicago. Though these words suggest an idyllic “Cheaper by the Dozen” family existence, our family story grew darker as each year passed and our parents’ alcoholism worsened.
The little I recall of Mary is that even before I moved out, and certainly after I was gone from the house, Mary became a “problem.” This was a catch-all phrase used by my parents when they wanted to make clear to the world that they didn’t have any problems – it was this kid. Not their fault. Mary was placed in an institutional Catholic boarding school for troubled girls in Navou, Illinois. She frequently ran away from home and then from that school and finally she succeeded in staying out and on her own. She would reach out occasionally to her sisters near her in age, Beth and Colleen and Monica, but I was married and had started my own family by the time I saw her again.
The family had come together in 1986 because our mother had died of “complications due to alcoholism.” (seems our family will create a new world’s record in “deaths from complications due to…….”) This is another story for another time. I need to follow this thread before it becomes hopelessly snarled in the countless other threads of the McQuade family drama.
By then Mary was in and out of doctors’ care and psychiatric wards, having been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, as she blithely informed me. Though she seemed on edge, I was hard-pressed to see anything frightening or pathologic. And she showed the McQuade humor in her story about the anonymous phone call she once made to the house when she heard that Mom and Dad were distributing family belongings in preparation for selling the house. When Dad answered the phone, all she said was “Who gets the sword?” then hung up. Dad had been a member of the Knights of Columbus and said sword was forbidden to us all, but we each regularly snuck into the closet where it was stored to pick it up in wonder. She giggled when she told us, and we laughed along with her.
I remember her telling another story of a time when she’d been in St. James Hospital in Chicago Heights for treatment. She told me that when she left she walked by the Statue of Mary on the corner at the front of the building. She had a bottle of nail polish in her purse and wanted to paint Mary’s toes, but a security guard caught her and stopped her before she followed through on her impulse. I still want to paint that statue’s toes, even now, 30 years after hearing that story.
By then, while I listened to Mary’s stories, I was a mother of a three little girls. I was always looking to other woman to observe how they mothered their children and managed their homes, hoping to learn and make different choices in parenting my children. I knew that I wanted to avoid at all costs the choices our parents made, especially in the later years as their alcoholism short-circuited their tempers, derailed their mental capacities and ramped up the physical violence toward each other and upon the kids. Now a mother responsible for my own behavior and my children’s mental and physical well-being, I had come to see and understand just how awful was Mary’s early and consistent abusive treatment at my parents’ hands. She chronically wet the bed, and my parents’ shaming of Mary and the physical punishment heaped on her over the years was very likely the tragic root cause of her problems. Certainly her acting out and substance abuse were a direct result of our parents abuse. The unrelenting and unanswerable conundrum: Did Mary’s mental illness make her unable to survive the trauma of parental abuse and shame or did her mental illness arise because of it? Do these questions serve anyone, really? I don’t know, but they haunt me. As do these questions: Could I have done anything to save her? What more should I have done to save the others who were younger than me?
Once out of the house, Mary connected with a young man, Jason, who had a good family who held them both for a while. She gave birth to Jason Jr., but the relationship with his father foundered and so ultimately she lived as a single mom, with her son, a toddler at the time. As we pieced together later, Mary was hanging with a crowd of drug users and pushers, and she was having unprotected sex and probably sharing needles. Whether she contracted AIDS through shared needles or unprotected sex, we’ll never know. But by the time Mary’s sickness brought her to the hospital, there was no way to treat her. The days of the AIDS super-cocktails were yet come.
What I recall:
The family standing around in the hospital and hearing that Mary had AIDS. I didn’t know what it was. Jason’s family cried. They knew her far better than I and had cared for her far better than I. I was dry-eyed.
The shock of the first time seeing Mary in her isolated hospital room, fully intubated with tubes down her throat, IV’s in her arms, catheterized, arms strapped to the side rails with only a little movement possible because she kept trying to remove all the tubes. She was frail, frighteningly underweight. The sound of the electronic breathing pump filled the room, as did the rattling in her throat. A viscous yellow lava-like flow continuously bubbled up from her mouth around the tube. I would wipe it away with provided cloths and then wash my hands. Then more bubbled up, and I wiped and washed again, and again, and again.
She was provided with a ‘talking board’ on which were words and letters so that she could communicate her thoughts to us.
“Take it Out” she spelled.
“I can’t, honey.” I never called her honey before, but I did that day. It was instinctive. I spoke to her as I did to my baby girls, calling them “honey” to soften the hurt and let them know that I felt their pain with them. I needed to tell Mary I understood her pain and fear, even as I knew I had to speak truth, which would bring more fear. This may seem normal behavior to persons brought up in loving households, but for me to behave with my siblings in this way was not the norm.
“I can’t take it out because you won’t be able to breathe. If you can’t breathe, you will die.” I took a deep breath and looked at her face to see her reaction.
She grew still, her eyes on mine. She said nothing more with her talking board.
I remember going home, pulling in my driveway and garage by rote, my minds’ eye filled with Mary in the bed, struggling to breathe, body shivering with the effort. A nightmare to behold. Most certainly a far greater nightmare for her – and there was no waking up from this one.
I went back again to see her, and learned that the doctor had agreed to allow her to try to breath without the tubes down her throat. Moments after they were removed, Mary understood that she could not breathe without them, and they were put back in. This time I had brought a book, hoping that reading to her could occupy her mind even as it alleviated the pressure of trying to communicate through the board, which was more an exercise in efficiently communicating her needs, but not so efficient at communicating emotions. She was unconscious most of the time, but I read anyway, thinking that it might soothe her to hear a voice.
A few days later, in mid October my husband greeted me in the driveway as I got out of the car. The hospital had called to advise that Mary had just died. She was 27 years old.
I wish I could say that we all became much closer as a group for having lost our mother and then our sister in less than two years. I can not. A few of us reached out to one another over the distance of time and geography and age and began to speak more often in one-on-one conversations. We began to visit each other once in a great while. But the survival skills we had employed to keep separate and avoid the combat zones we inevitably constructed when in a large group of McQuade kids was still too difficult to overcome and so large gatherings never happened.
Our coming together to try and form a relatively cohesive whole didn’t begin until our brother Sean, #4 in the family, third son, was diagnosed with terminal throat cancer in 2011. This news helped to bring the matured, wiser, and softer-edged family members together into a place where we began to behave as a compassionate group of sisters and brothers in each other’s company. Sean died in April of 2012. As I said earlier, this is really a whole new thread in the family story that will have to be explored another time, but his memory was alive for me in the grove that day too. Mary and Sean both suffered from personal afflictions that brought out some of the worse parenting tactics and behaviors my parents were known for, but they weren’t the only victims. How and why they died so young, Mary at 27, Sean at 55, while others of us still live despite our post-tramautic legacies, some worse than others, is a question we are uncomfortably aware of, and unable to find answers that give us a lasting sense of closure or security in our circumstances.
These are the thoughts and memories that have arisen during and subsequent to my visit to the Aids Memorial Grove. There is no tidy “happily ever after” ending to this story. Somehow Mary’s life and her death from AIDs came alive that day and invited me, now in my 63rd year of life, to consider what more there is to learn, what more there is to feel. Though no new understanding comes, I understand better that, like my experience in the memorial grove, there is light and there is shadow in my life and in every life. There is serenity and there is sadness. There is remembrance and there is sacred possibility. There is the comfort of shared pain and grief and the love which is before, during, and after a life – if I look for it. If we each look for it. If we remain present and aware and open to receiving it. There can be healing when, in the company of other wounded travelers, we seek to share the walk and share the healing that awaits us.