AIDS: Volunteer Work in the '80s
For those who have not read Pieces of My Heart Part I, I would suggest you do in order for Part II to make sense. Blaine, the first man I served as a buddy to in my time working with people with AIDS was a kind and gentle soul, a man who had made peace with his life and with death. I was fortunate to know him and would like to think I made his path a bit easier.
And then there was Ritchie. Of the five men I was assigned to, Ritchie was always the challenge, the one who made his presence known, the one who wanted so much from a life that was running out at a frightening speed.
Ritchie was staying in the home that the Archdiocese provided for people with AIDS. I do not want to use the names of organizations or of the home because I don't want to be perceived as using them for my own gain. I had never been there and didn't know what to expect. When I arrived, I rang the bell and waited. Back then, everyone was much more cautious as there was more bigotry and fear attached to AIDS. I told the man who answered who I was and that I was there to see Ritchie. He had a shocked look on his face when I said Ritchie's name, which gave me a moment's pause, but then he said, "He's waiting for you in the living area."
He took me to a large spacious area, beautifully kept up and tastefully decorated. On one of the couches sat a thin African-American man who looked to be in his late 20s. Paul, the man who let me in, walked over and shook Ritchie a bit and he jerked awake. Paul introduced us, then left. As soon as he left, Ritchie closed his eyes and dozed off again. I sat there patiently waiting. After ten minutes, he jumped and woke up. He laughed and said, "I guess I did too much of that sh**t." I was past naive in those days and it took me a moment to realize that Ritchie was not sleeping from some effect of AIDS, but was high -- loaded. He later told me he had gone out the night before with friends from happier times. I'm sure they supplied him what whatever drug he wanted.
I introduced myself and he got up and walked over to shake my hand. I never liked the cliche "painfully thin," but those are the words that come to me. He said, "I'm Ritchie. I've been trying to get someone to take me to Cafe du Monde. I been wanting some of those beignets. Will you take me down there?"
Ritchie was never shy about saying what he wanted and had no problem asking a favor of someone he just met. Now it was time for let's make a deal. "I will take you, I promise, but you have to promise me that when I'm coming to visit you, you won't be high. I'm not going to sit here and watch you sleep off whatever you've taken." Well, I could tell he didn't like this a bit and had to think about it, but he was lonely and wanted to get those beignets and he agreed, not too happy about it, but he agreed.
I talked to my coordinator with the group I was assigned to and he said to proceed on, that the way I handled it was fine. The next week when I went down to see Ritchie, he was again in the living area but was wide awake and ready to talk. He talked to me about everything in the world, about being "on the street," as he called it, about his "peeps," as he called them, which I find very interesting as the word was not used commonly then. Maybe Ritchie started something. We watched the sun slowly go down and we talked on and on. I asked Ritchie about his family and he talked a bit about his youngest sister, then changed the subject. I never brought them up again. He seemed to want to hear about my life, my children, my husband, etc.
I often massaged Ritchie's feet. Many people with AIDS suffered with neuropathy on the bottom of their feet. Ritchie asked me to massage his feet after I had been coming a couple of weeks and we were more familiar with each other. It was a strange sensation for me, massaging black skin, not a bad one, just strange. Ritchie was not an eloquent person, but one day when I was massaging his feet, he looked at me with something close to affection and said, "You're a pretty cool chick to be doing that." That was high praise coming from Ritchie. At that moment, I knew he had finally come to accept me.
For the longest time, when he would talk about things on the street or things he'd experienced, he'd say, "You don't know anything about that, though; you're white." I heard "you're white" more times than I can count. Finally one day I told him to stop saying it. "I don't say you're black all the time and I don't appreciate you saying that." He was very quiet, thinking about it, mulling it over to see if he could start a fight about it. After a minute or so, he just said okay and went on telling me a long tale about some chick he picked up who had skeletons tattooed on her earlobes and how he caught her going through his wallet at 4:00 in the morning, and on and on and on and on. He had endless, endless stories and he kept me laughing every time I visited him.
He asked me to go to his room and watch a movie with him. I watched Lethal Weapon II for the first time. I would eventually watch it or some part of it at least 15 times. Ritchie was obsessed with it. When certain parts would approach, he would become very still and say, "Now, listen to this, listen to this," and then clap his hands and hoot as Danny Glover or Mel Gibson would say something he liked. I realized at some point that the movie comforted him because it was the same, because even though he knew he was dying, he was there and alive one more day, watching the same thing. He grew thinner and more unsteady on his feet every day.
Beignets at Last
The next week, Ritchie and I set out for the French Quarter and Cafe du Monde. By this time, he was little more than a thin reed, swaying on his feet and stumbling a lot. As we walked into Cafe du Monde, several people stared at him. I suppose they thought he was drunk because of the stumbling. During that time, no one thought about an African-American man with AIDS .I ordered two orders of beignets for him and one for myself. Although he seemed to have lost his appetite for most things, he ate every single bite and picked up the leftover powered sugar with his fingers. By the time we left, he had powdered sugar everywhere, even in his hair, but he was as happy as I'd ever seen him. "That was some cool sh**t," he said, as we got back in my car and headed back to his home. He went to sleep as soon as I started the car and slept all the way home. I now believe Cafe du Monde was some sort of rite of passage for him.
They called me in the early afternoon from the facility the next day to say that Ritchie had taken a turn for the worse. My boss was very supportive of my work and gave me the rest of the day off. When I got there, Ritchie had already slipped into a coma. His breathing was slow and steady and he seemed to be in no pain. The staff brought me fresh coffee throughout the afternoon, which I very much appreciated. I asked them if I should go home that night and they said no, that he would not live through the night.
That afternoon I began to understand that in times like this when there is human need, no common ground is needed except the fact that we are fellow human beings and one of us is suffering alone. We give our support and love even though a gulf divides us. Our differences cease to matter. I sat with Ritchie that afternoon, wondering where his mother was, where anyone was who could give him comfort by their presence.
I was in a sort of semi awake stage when the door I had partially closed opened and an attractive young African-American woman stepped in. She walked over the to bed and her eyes filled with tears as she looked down at Ritchie. "Is he dying?" And, of course, I said yes.
She put out a hand to shake mine and said that she was Ritchie's sister. She told me he had talked to her about me and laughingly said he told her I was a "cool chick." She said she didn't come much because she lived in Baton Rouge but had been to see him two or three times since he moved to the house. We sat there as Ritchie's breathing became more and more labored. She told me about him as a child, how he was always in trouble, always acting up. I loved hearing about all his antics and was not at all surprised. She mentioned her mom when talking about his childhood but nothing about why she wasn't with us and I didn't ask.
She pulled an envelope out of her purse and showed me several photos of Ritchie, looking very handsome, with a beautiful former girlfriend standing in front of Cafe du Monde, Ritchie as a child, Ritchie as a teen with a huge Afro. We laughed and talked until almost 6:00 o'clock. Then I noticed that Ritchie was no longer breathing. His eyes had opened and I reached over and closed them and told her he was gone. She began to scream and ran down the hall, crying and cursing God for taking her brother. She acted out for a long time, causing the aides to come running. I asked them to just let her be and closed the door, telling them they could tend to Ritchie shortly. We cried together, she and I, and talked more about her brother and her love for him. I admire the fact that she expressed her grief and didn't try to remain stoic and hold it in like I always have. We eventually said good-bye and left Ritchie's body to the aides.
I was unable to attend Ritchie's funeral. I had the flu the day it was held. I received a card from his sister about a week later with a sweet poem she had written to thank me and the picture of Ritchie as a teen with the huge Afro. I still take it out sometimes and remember my friend. A spiritual teacher who taught me many things told me that when people are dying, they draw strength from those around them to make their journey. I've always hoped I was able to give Ritchie some of my strength to make his. Every now and then, when I look in the mirror and see an aging older woman, I can hear Ritche say: "You're a cool chick." And it's okay.