Treatment by Retreat
In June, I had the opportunity to attend the eighth annual Episcopal HIV/AIDS Healing Retreat at Kanuga Retreat Center in Hendersonville, N.C. There gathered were some 250 people living with HIV disease -- either infected or affected. I was struck at how the faces there were representative of the pandemic. There was a large number of African-Americans and women as well as gay white men.
Kanuga is a beautiful spot with cottages, a lodge and a great lake to walk around. I didn't realize how much this city boy needed to get back to nature. The absence of sirens, smog and snarling traffic was a welcome respite. I relaxed in a way that I hadn't in some time. I also had the opportunity to share this with my mother who began working with HIV positive folks at Common Ground some twelve years ago. For her, this was the first time she had been able to get away after moving into a personal care home some two years ago.
On Saturday, there was a Healing Eucharist (or Communion Service) during which I had one of the readings from the Old Testament from the Book of Kings. This is the story of the traveling man of God, Elisha who healed a dead boy. The story goes something like this: There was this traveling man of God who went around healing the sick and doing miracles. Well, this man needed places to stay and he often lodged with one particular family from time to time. He was such an important man of God that this family set aside a room for him. As the story goes, their young son born late in life was stricken with a seizure disorder and died. Everyone around him, including his father had given up hope and was ready to bury the boy. Everyone that is, except for his mother. She instead, ordered the boy's body be put on Elisha's bed and then told the servants to saddle up the donkey and make haste to go get the man of God, Elisha. After some protest, he returned with her to do that which important men of God do, heal the boy. What was interesting was that he lay upon the boy with his eyes upon the dead boys eyes, his hands upon the dead boy's hands and his mouth upon the dead boy's mouth. After a time, he felt warmth come back into the boy's body and he heard him sneeze seven times (ah, that magic biblical seven). The boy then got up and went to his mother. The story ends there. The bible is strange that way sometimes.
The reason I share this brief and perhaps theologically confusing reading is that it paralleled the story of a mother and her son that I encountered while at the retreat. The son was twenty-five and he had been diagnosed with full-blown AIDS some two years earlier. As he lay dying on the hospital bed, the doctor said to the mother (not unlike the father in the biblical reading) that there was no hope for recovery and he should not be put on a respirator. This boy's mother, likewise protested. So the doctor summoned the hospital administrator, a psychiatrist, the head of Infectious Disease and finally a chaplain to try to convince this stubborn mother to give up and bury her son. Her resolve was like that of the mother in the story.
Instead of ordering a donkey, she threatened the involvement of an attorney (some readers might draw unkind parallels here) the hospital wavered and put this young man on a respirator and began treating him aggressively with the latest HIV drugs and for the encephalitis that had stricken him. He is in a wheelchair now but he is a very handsome, bright and witty twenty-seven year old. His contribution to the retreat and to those around him was moving. I don't know if he really saw this gift in himself. I know I never heard him complain about being in the chair or really about being positive. It was difficult for me to read this biblical story and look at the mother and son without wondering what the lesson was for all of us at Kanuga.
There was also a very talented musician there by the name of Kate Wallace who has the voice of an angel. During the service she sang a yet unpublished song entitled, I Will Carry You. One line in this powerful piece of music says, When you are too weak to go on, I will carry you. My arms are open wide and my heart is strong. The line from that song seemed to tie things together for me. I saw both mothers in these stories as having their arms open wide and their hearts strong enough to carry their sons to the place of the living again.
I see this happened here at ASP all the time. I see one volunteer after another everyday carrying the load for someone unable to do so. Whether it be a peer counselor listening to someone just diagnosed or a tech team person schlepping the trash out after the close of another Operation: Survive! , it is the same. I see arms open wide and hearts too strong not to care -- even when they are tired and want to give up. This work of carrying another is a work that we do not just because we care about others but because we must. If we don't, who will?
There are a number of retreats throughout the year, some religious and some secular. These are great opportunities to regroup, re-treat and come away with a new perspective. Check them out.
This article was provided by AIDS Survival Project. It is a part of the publication Survival News.
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