One of the first things Mother Teresa ever told me was, “Tony, if you’ll just listen, you’ll find that there is something beautiful about each of these men.” And, before long, I could see it.
I loved them all.
And I lost them all.
But through the years I learnt my lessons as I went along—both by watching the nuns and other volunteers and by following my own instincts. Each situation (and there were dozens every day) was as different and unique as the men were.
At first all I tried to do was gain the men’s trust by showing them that I was sincere about my work. This meant mopping floors, washing stairs on my hands and knees, cooking (not my greatest talent), answering the phone or the door, changing diapers on grown men, taking our patients to the clinics and waiting for hours in emergency rooms for doctors who were helpless to do much, if anything, for people with AIDS. In essence, it meant proving to one and all that I was happy to do the most menial of tasks with a smile and a willingness at any time to drop my work and just listen to a young man who was anxious to unburden himself to a friend.
From my first day at Gift of Love I found the men anxious to share their varied and often tragic stories with me, and as the years went by, I thought that nothing could shock or surprise me anymore. But every time I started to feel that I had heard or seen it all, someone would come along and knock me off my pedestal of complacency and teach me one more lesson about the complexity of the human condition and the importance of honoring each of my friends’ unique stories.
One of these men was Abraham, one of the sweetest human beings who ever walked into Gift of Love. He soon managed to open my eyes to a possibility in the range of suffering that I had not yet contemplated.
Abraham had come to us in the last stages of AIDS, with a prognosis of days or a few weeks at most to live. The doctors had been preparing for an operation to attempt to save his sight, but now they told us that it was too late to even try. Shortly after he received the news, one of the Sisters asked me to go up to his room and talk with him.
The moment I walked into his room, he brought me up to date on the discouraging prognosis. When I asked him how he felt about it, he said, “I’m at peace. I’m not afraid of dying but I don’t want to suffer.” I told him that the greatest fear we all had was of suffering.
Then I noticed that the beautiful long black hair that I had seen before had now been cut short. As soon as I mentioned that he had cut his hair, his peaceful demeanor began to crumble and he started to cry.
“Oh, Tony, you don’t know. You just don’t know. Please don’t tell anyone—nobody knows—but when I became sick I was in the last stages of gender reassignment. My dream was to become a woman. Now that dream can never be. It’s too late. I’ve become too sick and know I won’t even be able to die the way I wanted—as a woman.”
Every day after that I went into his room and every day he always had the sweetest smile on his face. Sometimes we would just sit silently together. Words were no longer necessary. We had created a bond of love and understanding.
And the only thing that had made him cry was when he knew that he would not die as a woman. What I believe helped make it bearable was that he could safely share it with another human being who would never judge him.
I always considered it a gift when a terminally ill man felt comfortable enough to open his heart and his life to me, a virtual stranger, and allow me to share in the preparation for his final journey. What I didn’t realize at first was that in confiding their deepest human secrets they were releasing many layers of confusion and hurt, which then allowed them to find a peace that had eluded them for a lifetime.
And all I did was listen.